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When the Wicked Prosper: Unmasking Cinematic Evil from The Maltese Falcon to Chinatown

filmnoirOne of Hollywood’s most enduring nicknames is “the Dream Factory,” a sobriquet that is indicative of both the business-side of the movie industry and its propensity for churning out lightweight, escapist fantasies. Certainly for the first quarter-century or so of its history (depending on who is counting), terms like this are perfectly accurate descriptions of the output of major Hollywood studios, which delighted audiences with everything from the comic antics of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character to the lavish and fantastical spectacles of Busby Berkeley musicals. This detachment from the harsh reality of life only grew more pronounced after the Hays Production Code began regulating the standards of film decency during the early 1930s. To Hollywood in its infancy, the meaning of fiction largely resembled the vision espoused by a character of Oscar Wilde’s: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.”

Then, as Europe descended into the long darkness of the Second World War and ominous clouds gathered on the American horizon, a completely new style of filmmaking began to appear. Its subjects were grim, its settings gritty, and its dialogue cynical. Its practitioners began to exploit the natural advantages of black-and-white film to highlight the contrast between light and shadow and drew on the foundations of German expressionism to create a somber, unsettling mood using striking camera angles and carefully-framed shots. The characters that emerged to populate these films were of a new and different breed, as well. While the bad still ended unhappily, the good (if any of these flawed, ambiguous characters could be called “good”) only rarely managed anything better than to end slightly less unhappily.

filmnoir2The term which was eventually coined to describe these dystopian visions of humanity’s depraved underbelly is “film noir,” or black film. The “classic” period of film noir-generally said to have begun in the early 1940s and lasted until the late 1950s-includes some of the greatest films ever made, with the involvement of some of the best artists and storytellers of the twentieth century. Since the end of that classic period, film noir has continued to evolve and to produce films hailed as classics.

However, one of the defining features of film noirs continues to be their unflinching willingness to stare directly into the face of human wickedness, evil, and sin. In this exploration of six films from the classic noir period plus the acclaimed neo-noir Chinatown, I will examine cinematic portraits of evil across three decades of film production and discover what we can learn about evil from the diverse group of talented writers and directors who brought them to the screen.

maltesefalconposterThe journey begins with the film that many point to as the first identifiable noir classic: John Huston’s 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. By the time Huston, then a novice director in search of a first project, penned his screenplay, Dashiell Hammett’s novel had already been made into two movies (once with the same title in 1931, and again as Satan Met a Lady in 1935). Huston, however, felt that he could bring a fresh approach to the material by remaining faithful to it.

The Huston film follows private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) as his investigation into the murder of his partner, Miles Archer, involves him with a group of amoral treasure hunters in hot pursuit of a priceless artifact. Spade himself, although he is the hero of the tale, is certainly no paragon of virtue. Shortly after Archer’s death, we learn that Spade was having an affair with the man’s wife. However, although she still has feelings for him, he seems to have tired of her, and spends much of the film attempting to avoid contact.

His new love interest is Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), but their relationship is complicated by the fact that she is a manipulative liar who is at least indirectly responsible for Archer’s death. Her sometime allies are Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre)-an effete, sniveling coward-and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet)-an enormously fat man whose size is indicative of his all-consuming hunger to possess. The eponymous Maltese falcon is a heavy, dull-black statue that ensnares everyone who encounters it in a web of avarice and deception. The figure itself suggests the cruel, blind nature of human greed with its blank stare and sharp beak and talons.

maltesecharactersEveryone who falls under its spell becomes an avatar of this callous greed, and this is what drives the relationships between the characters, motivating their every move. In pursuit of their common obsession, these characters double- and triple-cross one another with dizzying ease, and repeatedly prove themselves ready and willing to destroy anyone that gets in their way. As the film unfolds, Spade uncovers a wide swath of destruction that has followed in the wake of the “black bird” that everyone wants.

Near the end, when Gutman, Cairo, and Brigid finally get their hands on the falcon, their expressions of naked desire reveal how thoroughly they have become possessed by the idea it represents. However, it is discovered to be a fake. Having poured seventeen years of his life into the quest, Gutman takes the setback (and the pointless crime spree of murder and arson this latest chapter has inspired) in stride, and he and Cairo prepare to depart for Istanbul to begin the cycle again.

evilfalconSpade alone seems immune to the alluring call of limitless wealth, though certainly not because he is especially virtuous (after all, he receives a sizeable cash payment from Gutman for his efforts in retrieving the fake). Rather, Spade is simply too smart to chase after what he knows the others can never hope to possess. When Spade’s friend from the police force, who has arrived to scoop up the villains, asks him what the falcon is, all he gets is the cryptic reply, “The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.”

In The Maltese Falcon, which (like so many of these films) could be viewed as a cautionary tale, the villains are ordinary people who have completely lost their way. Blinded by unchecked desire, they descend to unimaginable depths of crime and iniquity without a second thought. This is a suprapersonal evil which can overtake any who are unwary, consuming their lives with the same insatiable hunger that drives them onward. By the end of the film, Spade has not defeated evil, he has merely survived it. The falcon carries the weight of hundreds of years of violence and bloodshed, and although Spade succeeds in capturing Brigid, Cairo, and Gutman, the falcon itself remains free to possess, devour, and destroy every life that it touches.

lauraposterA somewhat different picture of obsession and desire is presented in Laura, directed by Otto Preminger and released in 1944. The film begins by announcing the death of its title character, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), who has been murdered by a shotgun blast to the face. This time the investigating detective, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), is a member of the police force assigned to the case. As he looks into the circumstances of the gruesome killing, McPherson discovers that all of Laura’s closest friends are in some ways as flawed and disreputable as Laura herself seems to have been innocent and virtuous.

At the top of the list are Laura’s two suitors, who are as different from each other as they are from Laura. One is Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a laid-back southern blue-blood who has fallen on hard times. Shelby is a gambler, a freeloading womanizer, and possibly a thief and blackmailer, but his effortless charm seems able to render him blameless in the eyes of any woman he encounters, and allows him to survive with no discernible income. Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) is a flamboyantly arrogant but highly successful columnist; a misanthropic, self-centered narcissist who uses his razor-sharp wit and public forum to devastate anyone who annoys him. “In my case,” he says,” self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.”

Further inquiries reveal that Shelby has a great deal to hide, but is an incompetent liar, while Lydecker does everything in his power to point McPherson’s attentions toward his romantic rival. Neither man seems to be a likely suspect, but then, why anyone would want to murder a woman as universally adored as Laura is a mystery unto itself. Her unsullied beauty, depicted in a large portrait that hangs in her apartment, even captivates the otherwise stone-faced McPherson. As his investigation continues, he develops an oddly creepy attachment to the image of the dead woman which borders on obsessive.

lauraportraitThis fixation appears to have reached a fever-pitch about halfway through the film, as McPherson fixes himself a drink in her apartment late at night, alternately gazing at the portrait and rifling through her private things. At this point, much to his astonishment, Laura herself walks through the door, alive, unharmed, and completely unaware that she is supposed to be dead. It is an incredibly surreal moment, for the audience and for McPherson, as Laura seems almost to have been conjured up by the sheer force of his longing. As it turns out, the dead woman is a model from the agency where Laura works, rendered unidentifiable by the destruction of her face. Laura herself was spending a long weekend in the country while she considered a marriage proposal from Shelby.

Eventually McPherson discovers that Lydecker is the murderer, although the killer is as shocked as anyone at having killed the wrong woman, and before he is caught he nearly succeeds in finishing the job. His motive is one of extreme jealousy; sensing that he has lost Laura’s affections, he is determined that no one else will have them. In light of his earlier demonstrations of possessive, devouring love, the revelation comes as no great surprise. Lydecker has justified all of his reprehensible actions, from humiliating previous suitors to destroying reputations, as being “for you, Laura.” Perhaps he even believes this himself, but it is clear to the viewer that he has lost sight of any love he may have once felt for her, its feeble light eclipsed by the blinding rays of his own self-love.

lauralauraIn Laura, evil is present in the corruption of that most important of Christian virtues, love. By Lydecker’s own account, Laura had made him a better person, awakening in him for the first time the idea that someone in the world might be as worthy of adoration as himself. However, his ability to exercise that love has been stunted. It is a shrunken, twisted thing, and eventually his love for Laura becomes just another way of loving himself. Lydecker lives in a world where other people do not matter, and Laura’s selfless innocence has had such a negligible impact on his disregard for human life that the best he can muster is a reprehensible “I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbor’s children devoured by wolves.”

doubleindemnityposterSelfish, misdirected love is one of the subjects of Double Indemnity, also released in 1944. Based on the novella by James M. Cain and adapted for the screen by director Billy Wilder and novelist Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity is the story of an affable insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who is brought low by his dalliance with the wife of a client. Neff tells the story in his own words, via voice-over, confessing to a murder as he dies of a gunshot wound. The tale is long and involved, but Neff sums it up in just a few words at the beginning: “I killed him for money, and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”

Neff’s trouble begins when his attraction to Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) prevents him from running the other way after she asks him about getting her husband accident insurance without his knowledge, and it becomes clear that she wants to murder him. Neff tries to resist at first, but as he later explains, “The hook was too strong […] I fought it, only, I guess I didn’t fight it hard enough.” Neff loosens his grip on morality by slow, gradual degrees and suddenly finds himself neck-deep almost before he knows it. What began as a perfect murder turns into a nightmare as Neff’s friend and co-worker, a brilliant claims investigator named Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), begins to unravel his best-laid plans.

doubleindemnity1Before long, Neff is contemplating the murder of the woman he thought he loved just a few days before, hoping that her death will allow him to walk away from the whole business unscathed. Not surprisingly, when he visits Phyllis with a second murder on his mind, he finds that she is one step ahead of him. He might have loved her, but she didn’t care for him at all. He was merely a useful tool who has outlived that usefulness. She wounds him fatally before he kills her, but in a final, semi-redemptive gesture, Neff warns off Nino Zachetti, Phyllis’s latest victim and the man he had planned to use as a fall-guy. He then returns to the office to deliver his confession to Keyes via Dictaphone, but looks up as the story ends to find that Keyes has been listening long enough to grasp the situation. Neff explains that he just wanted to set the record straight, to let Keyes know that the reason he had failed to solve the case was “because the guy you were looking for was too close; right across the desk from you.” “Closer than that, Walter,” Keyes sadly replies.

doubleindemnity2Evil in Double Indemnity is attractive and tempting on the surface, but it leads only to destruction as seemingly minor sins give way to more serious ones. Worse yet, the destruction it brings will inevitably extend further than expected. In this case, Neff’s sins claim not only the life of his victim, but his own life and Phyllis’s as well. In addition, he very nearly sacrifices Zachetti to keep himself out of trouble. Most troubling of all is the damage to the innocent daughter, Lola-whose mother was already murdered by Phyllis and who is now an orphan thanks to Neff’s selfishness-and to the virtuous, upstanding Keyes, who has lost his closest friend. Here, evil can beget only more evil, as the ripple effect travels outward in an ever-widening circle to touch the lives of total strangers and distant acquaintances.

bigsleepposterThis vision of evil spreading outwards, chaotic and unchecked, is a major element of the 1946 film The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks and adapted by William Faulkner from the novel by Raymond Chandler. The film’s plot defies summarization almost as completely as it defies understanding. It begins when private detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart again) is called in by the aging patriarch of a wealthy family to investigate the possible blackmailing of his promiscuous younger daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers). Before he has even begun, Marlowe encounters the elder daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), who wishes to pump him for information for reasons of her own. Family complications notwithstanding, Marlowe follows his usual procedure, tailing the potential blackmailer to a small, isolated house and staking it out until late at night.

bigsleep2However, when shots are fired and a woman screams, Marlowe dashes inside and is immediately caught in a baffling web of murder and pornography that is never fully explained. As the story goes, while the film was in production, Bogart asked the director to explain one of these obscure plot points. Unable to do so, Hawks turned to Faulkner, who was also stumped. Finally, they called Chandler, who tersely informed them that he didn’t know the answer anymore than they did. Whether fact or fiction, the story has the ring of truth in light of this strange and compelling film, which consistently refuses to make concessions to its audience. Ultimately, several twists and countless complications later, the villain (we think) becomes the last to die in a hail of gunfire. And, unlike Neff, Marlowe (who is something of a lady-killer) gets the woman.

Evil in The Big Sleep is much larger than any of the individual men caught up in it, and its reach extends further than the grasp of any of the men trying to understand it. Throughout the film, evil men go about their business and good men step in to fight them when they can. However, there is no sense by the end that evil itself has been defeated, or even that it can be defeated by the human forces of good, limited and flawed as they are.

thirdmanposterIn The Third Man, released in 1949 and directed by Carol Reed from a screenplay by Graham Greene, this sort of malevolent force is much more concentrated, at least on the surface. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a broke American author of cheap westerns, arrives in the internationally-controlled urban wasteland of post-war Vienna expecting to find employment offered by his best friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who he hasn’t seen in several years. Instead, he is just in time for Lime’s funeral. The more Martins hears about the circumstances surrounding Lime’s death, the more suspicious he becomes, but the authorities seem strangely unconcerned with anything but harassing Lime’s hapless girlfriend, Anna (Alida Valli).

Finally, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), the British official who has both helped and hindered Martins, explains that Lime was a notorious racketeer whose trade in diluted penicillin was responsible for untold amounts of suffering, including an entire mental ward full of children. Still reeling from this revelation, Martins is even more shocked when he sees Lime himself, alive and well, standing in a darkened doorway.

harrylimeAppalled by his friend’s actions, Martins goes straight to Calloway, who discovers that another body has been buried in Lime’s place. In one of the film’s most important scenes, Martins meets with Lime the following day and accompanies him on a Ferris wheel while they talk. Martins wants Lime to give himself up, but he pooh-poohs the idea: “Oh, Holly, you and I aren’t heroes. The world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories.” Changing tactics, Martins appeals to Lime’s conscience. Lime replies:

Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax […] Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Faced with his own crisis of conscience, Martins cannot decide whether or not to betray his friend to the police in light of what he now knows about him. At first he decides that he will cooperate with the authorities, but after a conversation with Anna he changes his mind. Major Calloway responds by taking him to visit the young victims of Lime’s criminal activities, and he decides he will help after all. However, when the time comes, Anna warns Lime about the trap and Martins and the British soldiers are forced to give chase through the Vienna sewers.

sewerchaseBeneath the streets, Lime manages to kill one of the pursuers, but is wounded himself. As he crawls up a stairway and reaches up through the street grating, Martins takes a gun and advances, finishing off his friend himself. The next day he attends the funeral, the real one this time. On his way out of town, he passes Anna walking in the road and abandons his ride to wait for her. However, she walks past him without as much as a glance in his direction, apparently unwilling to forgive the betrayal or acknowledge Lime’s wickedness.

The disturbing reality of evil in The Third Man is that its true face may not belong to your enemies, but to your closest friend. Although evil seems at first to reside in the callous indifference of the authorities, this is simply a factor of Martins’ misinterpretation of the situation. Lime is a man who had always seemed to Martins to be benevolent, cheerful, and intelligent, and we empathize with his seemingly noble efforts to find out how his friend died in the face of official apathy.

Suddenly, he is forced to face the unpleasant fact that his friend is a sociopath who is all too willing to exploit everyone around him for personal gain, and he is left to wonder what, if anything, he still owes their relationship before finally realizing that he owes it to himself to face Lime and stop him if he can. In the end, Lime is defeated, but the evil of racketeering is not. Meanwhile, Martins has not escaped unscathed because he has been forced to face evil in the form of a dear friend.

touchofevilposterCorrupt authority is a much more pressing concern in the 1958 release Touch of Evil, written and directed by Orson Welles. As the film begins, the fragile peace of a spot somewhere along the Mexican/American border is shattered when an American car is blown up by a bomb shortly after leaving Mexico. The blast interrupts the honeymoon of Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston, in brownface), a respected Mexican cop who has just married Susie (Janet Leigh), an American. Although he is due back in Mexico City shortly to present evidence at the trial of a major drug lord, the head of the Grandi family, Vargas feels obliged to assist in the investigation of the bombing, much to the chagrin of both his new wife and the racist American police captain, Hank Quinlan (Welles).

While Susie retreats to an isolated motel to get some sleep, Vargas accompanies Quinlan, and is soon horrified when he catches the crooked cop planting dynamite in a suspect’s room in order to make an arrest. “Who’s the boss,” Vargas demands heatedly, “the cop or the law?” We later learn that Quinlan’s wife was strangled, and that he never caught the killer, prompting him to go to extreme, even illegal and unethical, lengths to ensure that no other criminals escape his brand of justice.

vargasQuinlan is incensed by Vargas’s interference, and concerned that other officials may believe the accusations, so he is quite receptive when he is approached by “Uncle” Joe, one of the Grandi brothers, with a proposition that could ruin Vargas’s reputation. As part of the plot, members of the Grandi gang assault the motel where Susie is staying and torture her psychologically before abducting her. They set her up to look like she has been involved in a wild drug party, and Quinlan puts the finishing touches on the frame job when he strangles Uncle Joe and leaves the body in the room with Susie before anonymously tipping off the police.

Meanwhile, Vargas, who has discovered that Quinlan has been guilty of planting evidence many times in the past, is outraged when he discovers that his virtue and integrity have been attacked through his wife. He doesn’t believe for a second that she had anything to do with drugs, or with the murder, and he manages to enlist Quinlan’s right-hand man, an honest cop who is disillusioned with his hero, to wear a hidden microphone in an attempt to get Quinlan to incriminate himself. The plan works, but when Quinlan discovers the deception, he and the honest cop kill each other. Vargas is happily reunited with his wife, but a final ironic twist reveals that Quinlan’s suspect has confessed; Quinlan’s intuition was correct, as usual, and the man was guilty of the bombing after all.

quinlanThe evil in this film is like a dark ink that can stain whatever it touches. Even the innocent are vulnerable to the appearance of evil, and a spotless reputation can be destroyed in a flash by those in power. Quinlan uses his power to bring justice to criminals who might otherwise go free, but his chronic abuse of authority ultimately leads him to lose sight of true justice and prompts him to act in a way that serves his own interests rather than those of his community.

Touch of Evil introduces an unsettling level of ambiguity into his character, inviting us to feel sympathy for the loss of his wife, respect his thirty years of dedicated police work, and question whether in fact he is not more virtuous to operate outside the law in order to uphold the spirit of it. Questions like this make it easy to imagine the beginnings of the slippery slope that ends with Quinlan’s bullet-riddled body floating in a filthy water-hole. Just the “touch” of evil can pollute even the best of intentions.

chinatownposterReleased sixteen years after Touch of Evil, in 1974, Chinatown (directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne) pays homage to classic film noir with a story built around the investigations of a private detective in sunny southern California in the 1930s. However, it also departs from the earlier style in a number of important ways. The detective is Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a former policeman whose agency largely handles surveillance for adultery cases. So it is not unusual when a woman asks Jake to spy on her husband, Hollis Mulwray.

But when the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) appears, demanding an explanation after photos of Hollis and another woman have been published in the newspaper, Gittes is caught off-guard. Matters are further complicated when Hollis, the water commissioner for Los Angeles, turns up dead, drowned in a reservoir in the middle of a severe drought. Wheels appear within wheels as it becomes clear that someone is engineering a stranglehold on the city’s water supply. And somewhere at the back of it all stands the menacing figure of Noah Cross (John Huston), Evelyn’s father and Hollis’s former business partner.

gittescrossThe shocking truth that Gittes eventually stumbles upon (almost by accident) is that, not only is Cross plotting to steal the city’s water for enormous profit (which he doesn’t need), but he is also desperately seeking the “other woman” from Gittes’s pictures of Hollis, who is both his daughter and his granddaughter via an incestuous encounter with the then-fifteen year-old Evelyn. In the final devastating scene, Gittes brings all of the threads of the case together in L.A.’s Chinatown district, and we are geared to expect a showdown where the hero will triumph (at least in some sense) over the villain. Instead, Gittes is forced to stand by and watch in impotent horror as Evelyn is gunned down and her daughter/sister is claimed by the wicked Cross.

Chinatown is a place where nothing is as it seems, nothing means what you think it means, and even actions motivated by good intentions can hurt the innocent. It is an island of that which is foreign and strange in the midst of the familiar. It stands for everything we (and particularly Jake Gittes) think we understand, but don’t. Evil that can be identified can be opposed, but Chinatown is where Jake gets blindsided by the evil he never saw coming. As everything comes crashing down in the film’s closing scene, Gittes’s partner counsels him to simply walk away: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown!” The nature of evil in Chinatown makes fighting it not only futile, but detrimental.

chinatownendThe evil that appears in Chinatown is not new to film noir (with the possible exception of the specter of incest). There is greed, murder, adultery, blackmail, exploitation of innocents, and political corruption. There is also love of self masquerading as love of others, an expansive evil force that is difficult to understand, betrayal, and insidious evil that compromises and stains even the best efforts of the good. The terrifying power of Chinatown lies in its evocation of a world where evil can win, a world where evil has the final word.

This is a striking anomaly in American film, even in light of the dark tradition of film noir. However, even this perception of evil is not as radical a departure from classic noir as it may appear to be. The important value that all of these films share is a willingness to take evil seriously as a force to be reckoned with. While the characters in the world of film noir fall prey to evil as often as not, their struggles can remind audiences of the very real evils present in their own lives. Until the existence of evil is recognized, it cannot really be resisted. This potent awareness of the many different forms that evil can take is one of film noirs’ most lasting contributions, both to American cinema and to those in the audience who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

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~ by Jared on April 28, 2009.

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