Silent But Deadly
For being probably one of the most hated movie villains ever, Warden Norton isn't your typical baddie. He's small (vertically, anyway), kinda dorky looking (sorry, but the horn-rimmed glasses are a definite tip-off), he's always dressed in a suit and tie and is forever quoting passages from the Bible. Not usually the traits and mannerisms that make us movie-goers quiver and quake in our seats. His deadpan demeanor makes him even scarier. He's in absolute control and lets the prisoners know that they are absolutely powerless. He'll stop at nothing to protect his corrupt interests, even if it means murdering a young inmate who could have helped exonerate Andy. That's what makes the movie's ending so sweet.
The warden's careful and exacting, and knows just the right buttons to push in order to exert maximum mental and physical anguish. He can turn the screws as well as anyone. Casually sentencing Andy to yet another month in The Hole when he doesn't immediately agree to keep helping him with his nefarious schemes? Nasty.
While most probably wouldn't consider Warden Norton in the pantheon of movie villain greats, you have to give him credit for making the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up whenever he gets screen time.
You Will Respect His Authoritah
If Frank Darabont set out to craft a two-hour career-planning tool encouraging kids to become prison wardens, he failed miserably.
Norton is pretty much the worst. He abuses his authority in every way imaginable, using the inmates in his prison to do the bulk of his dirty work, even going so far as to con his own friends (like that gentleman with the pie). He's just the rare bad egg, right? Certainly this sort of behavior doesn't come with the territory in his line of work?
It could be that Norton was merely a bad guy who happened to be a prison warden. More likely, the writers of the book and screenplay (King and Darabont, respectively) were trying to say something here about people in positions of authority, in general, and about the higher-ups within the U.S. prison system specifically. Oh, great. It's about to get all political up in here.
"Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." That was said by a guy named Lord Acton, and he was a Lord, so we assume he knew what he was talking about. It does seem to be the case. We look at politicians, CEO bigwigs, etc., and it seems that every time one of them climbs the ranks and arrives at the peak of their profession, moral responsibility tends to go out the window. Not across the board—there are some awfully rich philanthropists out there—but by and large, there aren't a ton of Mother Teresa types in places like the U.S. Senate.
Add to that the idea of being surrounded, day in and day out, by convicted felons who have committed all sorts of atrocities, and a person's superiority-o-meter could go through the roof. There have been a lot of stories over the years about corrupt prison officials taking advantage of the system, becoming no better than the criminals under their charge, and Norton fits the mold. Maybe that's why he's so dang scary. Because we know he's actually out there. What's more, he seems to be accountable to nobody within the system, which is why Andy sends his evidence to the newspapers and not the DOJ after his escape.