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They Led, Others Followed: Movie Characters Who Are Master Manipulators
People who can convince you to do their bidding are the stuff of nightmares — and the movies.
This article was updated to reflect the 2022 season of "Mastermind Of Murder."
Some people have a scary knack for getting other people to do their dirty work — even homicide.
Season 2 of “Mastermind of Murder” is premiering Sunday, July 17 at 7/6c on Oxygen True Crime. The series exposes an array of such plotting puppeteers who molded, as one talking head in the show says, “decent people into cold-blooded killers.”
They’re men and women you might meet in nightmares — or, actually, the movies. Here are film characters (spoilers ahead) who are such master manipulators you’ll be relieved to remember they’re fictional.
Made to Manipulate: Matty Walker in “Body Heat”
Pulling the Strings: Matty (Kathleen Turner) seduces not-so-bright and less-than-upright Florida lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt) in this 1981 film noir inspired by the 1944 movie “Double Indemnity.” With Ned under her thrall, Matty cons him into helping her murder her wealthy husband, Edmund (Richard Crenna).
Ned gets a reality check that crime doesn’t pay — for him, anyway. Meanwhile, Matty, whose machinations include identity theft, realizes her teenage dream “to be rich and live in an exotic land.”
Made to Manipulate: The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont in “Dangerous Liaisons”
Pulling the Strings: In 18th century France, these two bored aristocrats use sexual seduction as a weapon as they plot the corruption and destruction of innocent people. That includes Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose fate is doomed after encountering these scheming creeps in this 1988 film.
“Valmont,” a 1989 movie starring Annette Bening, Colin Firth, and Meg Tilly, and “Cruel Intentions,” which came out a decade later with Sarah Michelle Geller, Ryan Phillippe, and Reese Witherspoon, cover the same manipulations.
Made to Manipulate: Suzanne Stone in “To Die For”
Pulling the Strings: Obsessed with being a famous broadcast journalist, Suzanne (Nicole Kidman) will do anything to realize her dream in this 1995 film. That includes knocking off her husband (Matt Dillon), Larry, who stands in the way of stardom. Suzanne deviously drives some hapless teens, including Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), to help get rid of Larry. Suzanne gets what she craves — the national spotlight — and then she gets payback from a teen’s parent.
The movie was inspired by the story of Pamela Smart, who “was 23 when she was given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole after a jury convicted her of her of using her sexuality to manipulate her former teenage lover to murder her husband,” reported the Washington Post in a 2019 interview. The article refers to her onscreen alter ego in “To Die For” as a “chilling character.” That fits.
Made to Manipulate: Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs”
Pulling the Strings: In this 1991 Oscar-winning movie, the implication is that Dr. Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) is always the smartest, most manipulative person in the room. Or the cell. After fellow inmate Miggs insults Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), Lecter appears to have convinced him to swallow his own tongue and choke to death. Hannibal the Cannibal spends the rest of the film manipulating his way to freedom.
Made to Manipulate: John Doe in “Seven”
Pulling the Strings: In this 1995 nail-biter, serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) stays one step ahead of two cops, Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman), as he claims victims based on the seven deadly sins. The killer eventually manipulates Mills into a deadly act of wrath.