Recommended Re-Viewing: Feathers McGraw Is Cinema's Greatest Villain

We've misunderstood Wallace and Gromit's sinister lodger in 'The Wrong Trousers' for too long

The Wrong Trousers online 
Aardman Animations

Recommended Re-Viewing is a series in which we make the case for re-watching an old film or TV series which you can stream without leaving your house. It might be a plot that's so bad it's good, a scene which deserves more interrogation or a director's underrated gem.

This time, Esquire writer Tom Nicholson explains why plasticine penguin Feathers McGraw deserves to rank alongside the flesh-and-blood greats.


I don't say this lightly, but Nick Park's second Wallace and Gromit short, The Wrong Trousersim电竞官网-, is probably the crowning achievement of the last 40 years of Western filmmaking. No, 50. The last 50 years. It's a masterpiece.

It's so dense with beautiful stuff that you could spend and afternoon staring at pretty much any frame. I mean, look at this. Look!

The Wrong Trousers
Aardman

Hang that in the Tate. But one aspect of it really needs to be addressed. Feathers McGraw is the greatest villain in cinema history. I don't think enough people have said this out loud yet, but it's true.

im电竞官网-You know the Feathers McGraw story. It's part of the fabric of modern British folklore, alongside the Great Train Robbery and the Hatton Garden job. He speaks to that deep part of our national psyche that romanticises Dick Turpin and his outlaw brethren, and while he references the great cinema villains of the past, he also transcends them.

McGraw blows into West Wallaby Street from nowhere, and with nothing to his name except a suitcase – indeed, he doesn't even have a name beyond 'Penguin' – and sets about ingratiating himself. He's like Robert Mitchum's creepily solicitous black widower Reverend Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter. He flatters, he im电竞官网-connives, he inveigles. He patters up behind Gromit just as he's about to pick up the newspaper for Wallace and snatches it.

He has the silent, blank-eyed menace of Michael Myers or the shark from Jaws, allied with the relentless streak Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh showed in No Country For Old Men. But McGraw doesn't need a cattle gun to instil terror. His methods are more subtle. He's a penguin, yes – but he's also a cuckoo in the nest. And a very convincing chicken.

The Wrong Trousers
Aardman

Before long, he's hounded Gromit out onto the streets. Most chillingly, though, up to this point he doesn't seem to have an agenda. What does he want? He gives nothing away. He sees all, and says nothing. He knows where gravity's rainbow will land. The techno-trousers – ex-Nasa – are his.

While Wallace boings around Wigan and consequently falls asleep, Gromit and McGraw become engaged in an intellectual tussle with shades of the cat-and-mouse game between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat. They are Yin and Yang. Gromit is stone-coloured, McGraw's feathers are black. Where Gromit flails, McGraw is calm. But their silence binds them together, as does their status as animals trying make it in a mankind's, mankind's, mankind's world. They need each other.

The Wrong Trousers
Aardman

im电竞官网-It turns out that McGraw's goal is deceptively simple. He wants the world's biggest diamond. He commandeers Wallace's body and pilots him into the city museum, snatching the diamond with a teddy picker in a motorcycle crash helmet. It's inspired evil-doing.

im电竞官网-And yet it's foiled by a twist of fate. A roof tile tears away under Wallace's robot-foot, the alarm's triggered, and everything comes crashing down. It's like something Sophocles would have written, if he'd been better at writing. McGraw gets away, just. Confronted by Gromit, McGraw gets desperate.

The Wrong Trousers
Aardman

The first time you see The Wrong Trousers, this is the moment that McGraw goes too far. But such a cine-literate director as Nick Park – see the lighting of the sequence where McGraw cases the museum ahead of his raid, which nods at Double Indemnity and other noir thrillers as well as the poster for The Exorcist, or the Hammer Horror styling of the bit where McGraw rubs his palms together as Gromit leaves in the rain, and sets about rewiring the techno-trousers – might be thinking of cinema's other great Smith and Wesson-slinger 'Dirty' Harry Callahan, or Clint Eastwood's other morally ambiguous Western anti-heroes.

It all begs the question: who's really wearing the wrong trousers here? Is it Wallace, trapped in the techno-trousers, betrayed by his own technocratic dream, his body a metaphor for the dehumanising forces of capitalism which leave him, as he puts it, "down to [his] last few coppers" and having to let a room to McGraw in the first place? Or is it Feathers, unfairly cast as the villain by a society that prefers to turn him into an attraction at the zoo instead of trying to understand him?

We had McGraw wrong all these years. His real crime isn't armed robbery, or being rude to Gromit, or smashing up a nearly new pine wardrobe, no. It's that he dreamed too big, and The Man couldn't handle it. He is a penguin; he is a chicken; but he is human. He's the hero Wigan deserves, but not the one it needs right now.

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