I, the Villain

Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe and Claire Trevor as Mrs. Helen Grayle (Velma Valento) in “Murder, My Sweet” (1944)

I never liked Halloween. I think it’s because my childhood was one long Halloween night. However, I did love being a witch. When playing games of pretend I was glad to play the part of the “bad” person. The villain. I instinctively knew where the power lay.

This was made clear to me last week when a newscaster, trolling in a costume store, was interviewing children about what they wanted to be for Halloween. They all gave the usual answers from princess to Spiderman. But one little boy said, “ A monster!” And he meant it. The newscaster, taken aback by his vehemence, asked in that cloying adult voice of a woman who has never raised a child, “Why do you want to be a monster?” The little boy said, “Because it’s my turn to scare the adults.” “Why do want to scare the adults?” “Because they get to scare me all year long.”

To not be scared is to be in control, to not be dominated. So one night of the year this little boy will feel what that is like. Only a child can turn a scary monster into a positive, at least for one night. So can the mystery writer.

We depend on monsters. They propel our stories. We’d be out of business without them. If not for the villains, our protagonist would have nothing to fight, to fear, to triumph over. Like all evil doers they come in various shapes, sizes, and sex. And we have an ambivalent admiration for many of them.

I would rather watch Richard the Third connive, deceive, and kill than wait for Hamlet to make up his mind while he bumbles around the castle creating havoc. When Richard screams, “My kingdom for a horse!”, I’ve always longed for a stray steed to lope by so he could leap on it, and ride away to deceive for another day.

Greta Garbo was in the selected audience for the screening of Jean Cocteau’s film, The Beauty and The Beast. After the beast turned into the prince and the movie ended, it is said that Garbo’s low sultry voice could be heard in the still dark room moaning, “I vant my beast back.” The raging dangerous beast was more seductive than the perfect prince.

Richard had a hump and the prince was imprisoned in his furry animal body. But these qualities, some might say infirmities, makes them more human and more threatening. I think Richard M. Nixon had an invisible hump.

One of my favorite villains is Veda Pierce in the novel, Mildred Pierce. I must apologize because I read it many years ago and I’m afraid the movie (a must see) and the book have merged in my mind. Mildred has two daughters. The good one dies, the evil one lives. Veda is as conniving as Richard the Third. In the movie she kills, in the book she doesn’t. Her ruthlessness is captivating; a young woman without a conscience. In the novel she goes on to live her cruel life, in the movie she is arrested. Veda is completely free of principle and shame. She’s the monster we might want to be for one Halloween night.

Another villain is Waldo Lydecker in Vera Caspary’s novel, Laura. Again the book and movie blur. I remember him as a fat obsessive lurking antique dealer in the book. It is the villain acted by Clifton Webb in the film that I think is the best. He is urbane, loathingly honest, and brilliant in his brutal wit. A man who prides himself on the best and the perfect, except he makes one very human mistake and falls in love. Wanting to obliterate his love object, and with her all his human emotions, he kills the wrong woman. Another controlling monster disguised as a seductive charmer.

As villains go I find Gutman more interesting than “Miss Wonderly” in The Maltese Falcon. She’s clever in an instinctive ruthless way, but he is sophisticated and knowledgeable. I’m a pushover for a villain who is philosophical about what he has to do to get what he wants.

Hannibal Lecter is one of the best villains ever. He has all the characteristics I’ve already mentioned and more. He is King Richard The Third on steroids. It is also his relationship with the protagonist Clarice Starling that gives him a human dimension. Without these two beautifully drawn characters The Silence of the Lambs would just be another good serial killer novel. And I never would have read it.

The villains in Chandler’s work don’t stand out to me in any grand way, except for Moose and Velma in Farewell, My Lovely. Moose is the exact opposite of the brilliant witty villains. He is an animal. He only knows how to get what he wants by being a brute; yet in that enormous frame is a heart and it yearns for Velma. He has to find her. Again, love for a woman is his downfall. Moose is a poignant thug. Velma is the epitome of the villainous woman of Chandler’s time. “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”

Velma is running from her past and is struggling to keep her position as a wealthy man’s wife. Even in Los Angeles you can’t change who you are completely. There is always somebody to search you out. Together Velma and Moose make one fascinating villain.

There are so many good evil characters I could on and on, and I’m sure you all have your favorites.

If you’re a new struggling writer having trouble with your plot take a good hard look at your villain. See what he wants (villains are very goal- directed), figure out why he wants it, and how he can get it. Your plot will begin to gel. Remember, the villain moves the story.

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