Sitting across from the table, sharing stories, drinks and cigarettes. Scenes like this in most films are shared between friends or lovers. Rarely are the two people in situations like these actually enemies. This is what makes the mystery of noir so compelling, the villains. While most have their own little preferences, noir villains do have a great deal in common.
One of the first similarities that many noir villains share is the fact that most are wealthy, socially powerful individuals. Where as with most action or horror films the villains are poor, lower class, or societal outcasts, in noir films it is rather commonplace to have villains in three piece suits and fur coats, dining in the finest of establishments, and serving a glass of premiere scotch and a fancy cigar to someone just before they either conduct some business or have their guest killed. Take Kasper Gutman, one of the antagonists of the film, The Maltese Falcon, for example, also referred to as the “Fat Man” for obvious reasons. A wealthy, round aristocrat who is searching for the valuable artifact is a pristine picture of the noir villain. He is well mannered and generous, offering Spade, the private eye, a drink and cigar on their first meeting. Seemingly calm, rational and very business minded, Gutman is not the typical murderous villain many are used to seeing. Even so, while the pair’s second meeting starts very much the same way, with drinks, cigars, and energetic talk, it becomes apparent Gutman has laced Spade’s drink with a drug causing him to pass out. So the entire time the two men are discussing business, Gutman knows that soon Spade will be unconscious and he will be one step closer to what he believes is the Maltese Falcon. Later, once all of the major players are in Spade’s room discussing the terms of the deal for the black bird, the condition of who will be the fall guy for the murders is brought up. While Spade pushes for Wilmer to take all of the blame, Gutman puts up a slight fight for his henchman, telling the private eye he thinks of the gunman as a son of sorts. Not too soon after though, Gutman sees that someone has to take the heat and gives up Wilmer, stating that sons are replaceable but the falcon is not. This shows that behind his flair and grandeur lies really nothing more than a greedy, evil man out to own a physical object and he is more than willing to use others to get what he wants. But what about the antagonist that cares for something more than monetary gain?
In the 1944 film Laura, Waldo Lydecker, a wealthy and rather trendy writer is shown to be completely obsessed with the young woman who lends her name to the movie’s title. After a rough first encounter, he takes her under his wing and molds her into a social powerhouse, creating her into a powerful public figure. Always needing to be in control, Lydecker deals with deterring Laura’s would be suitors, disapproving of each one. After the mystery of Laura’s “death” and her surprising return, Lydecker is shown to be in a very fragile state. While at first this would be thought to be because of his close relationship to Laura it comes to realization that the murder weapon was hidden in a place only known by Lydecker. This leads to him sneaking back to finish what he started. With his original attempt a failure since he killed a woman who looked similar to Laura inside her house, this time Lydecker confronted her beforehand. He told her that he would not see what he created soiled by unworthy men. Lucky for Laura, Lydecker is shot by the police, who realize it was him just in time, before he can harm her. With his last breath he tells Laura he loves her and dies. Lydecker was a different kind of monster. While he no doubt used his money and fame to get what he wanted, he was willing to kill this woman just to protect his name prestigious. He did not want to be so closely associated with someone like the person she was becoming and yet he could not like those dirty common men get their hands all over his precious Laura.
This is a very interesting to think that while many noir films deal with a vast cast of gritty characters, from thieves and mobsters to barflies and cab drivers, the starched suited upper class is often the eventual enemy. While the more rough characters may commit acts that seem unlawful, other characters often see it as them looking out for themselves. It’s an idea of the middle class doing what it must to get by, the workingman trying to make a living. When the rich make a move it seems to be not only taken as a means to further themselves but there seems to be an idea that collateral damage is perfectly acceptable. Lydecker’s plan incriminated Laura’s fiancé and since he disapproved of the man’s rural upbringing and sensibilities that was practically killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. With Gutman, he was willing to let Spade take the full blunt of the murder charges until it became clear that he could not get closer to the black bird without Spade. He then simply gave up Wilmer. Had Spade not had the upper hand on Gutman, the bird would have been found a fake and the group would have left town leaving Spade to deal with the murder charges he had nothing to do with. With all of the grit and grime of noir, it becomes clear that the audience is supposed to cheer for the everyman and be wary of those with too much money. These are stories for the middle class with heroes right off the streets and villains from high rises and VIP sections.
By David Cody Allen