Noir Archetypes

Posted on 21st November 2003 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

In the films “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “Murder, My Sweet” the Hard-Boiled Detective protagonist encounters a menagerie of characters who are deceptive, dangerous, and powerful, all working either directly or indirectly to complicate his quest for the truth. The Floozy appears to help the Detective, while actually pursuing her own motives. The Mad Dog killer both complicates and assists the Detective with their psychotic actions. Meanwhile, the Wealthy Villain manipulates the characters from the shadows, appearing untouchable.

Early in the story, the hard-boiled detective, bereft of leads, must seek out the all-knowing Floozy. Like the old witch in the woods, who demands tribute for her fortune telling, the Floozy also requires payment. Mrs. Florian’s tongue loosens up when Philip provides her with liquor; Coretta James trades what she knows for sex with Easy. Appearing harmless on the surface, even weak for their vices, Floozies are actually quite cunning and deceptive. Coretta finds out what Easy knows about his job, and knows to hide what his contractor is looking for. Both Coretta and Mrs. Florian use their role as informant, not to help the detectives, but to throw them off the trail. Coretta gives Easy a bunk story about Daphne staying with a drug dealer, and Mrs. Florian provides Philip with a fake photograph.

Thrown into the carnival of characters, complicating things for the detective and adding tension to the action, the Mad Dog Killer runs loose within the story, the audience never knowing who they may kill next. The two films present radically different but equally disturbing and humorous versions of this character type. The towering muscle-man, Moose Malloy, who almost casually tosses men across a room and kills others with his bare hands, while intimidating, also presents comic relief with his oafish thinking and 500 pound gorilla penchant for getting his way. In contrast to Moose is Mouse, a small man with a hot temper and spastic trigger finger. In spite of the tension he evokes in the audience, we also find some dark humor in him as well, as when Easy finds Mouse has killed their captive, Mouse says, “If you didn’t want him killed why’d you leave him with me?”

Both versions of this character template assist and complicate the Detective’s mission. Moose kills Amthor before Phillip can question him, but helps Phillip get a taxi ride by intimidating the driver, possibly saving Phillip’s life. Mouse kills the bartender so that Easy has no one to give to the police, but also saves Easy’s life when he kills DeWitt Albright.

A character rarely scene but a name often mentioned in these films is that of the Wealthy Villain, the invisible hand manipulating characters to their means. Amthor resides in his penthouse, protected by a bodyguard and, through manipulation, Moose. Mayoral candidate Matthew Teran let’s his henchmen, led by Albright, do his bidding. The only time the audience meets him is in his shadowy limousine with an out of place child at his side. The Wealthy Villain is untouchable to the Detective, but apparently not invulnerable to their own corruption. Amthor dies by Moose’s hand, broken in half after the psychotic realized he was manipulated. Teran is exposed as a pederast in spite of his wealth and the trail of bodies his henchmen leave, forcing him to withdrawal from the mayoral race and probably sending him to prison as well.

The Hard-Boiled Detective navigates these three character types and more as he attempts to find the mystery’s reality. Like the deep shadows so prevalent in the noir genre, these characters hide the truth and provide a forbidding tension with their unpredictability. Their repeated use across different writers and directors illustrates their effectiveness in developing the plot and tone of Noir films.

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