The Very Bad Men Of Noir

Whereas bad men are usually depicted as being brash, charismatic and just downright evil, Larry is uncharacteristically meek, indecisive, even apologetic.

 Brazen Boys

In my post, Deceitful Dames

I talked about bad women, and now I’m going to talk about bad men.  I’m not sure why there has been so much written and spoken about femme fatales, but almost nothing has been mentioned about bad men, so called homme fatale. 

Whatever the reason, I hope this post might redress the balance, just a little bit.

In Born to Kill, Lawrence Tierney plays perhaps the most violent, heartless and monomaniacal bad guy in all of Noir.  I’ll leave him for a special blog on its own.  I’ve already covered Helen Brent’s struggle to maintain a precarious balance between two opposite poles, in that movie, one good and one evil, in Bad Girls of Film Noir.

Bad Men
Susan Hayward, Robert Young – They Won’t Believe Me

Let’s look at one example (for now) of the type of controlling, overbearing, narcissistic male we’ll find in Noir.  I’ve chosen They Won’t Believe Me because it represents an unusual departure in story-telling.

 

They Won’t Believe Me

In this interesting, gender-reversed story, Larry Ballantine (played by Robert Young) is the main character.  He isn’t a murderer, he isn’t much of a thief, he’s not especially criminally-minded; he’s just a flirt.

Just A Flirt

Married to an apparently giving and reasonable woman, Larry isn’t happy.   This marriage is a form of tyranny, because his only interest is engaging other women in his pursuit of pleasure.  The main character here is mild-mannered and indecisive.  Perhaps this is why women trust him.  His wife, Greta (played by Rita Johnson), moves the earth to accommodate him and keep him happy.  Janice Bell (played by Jane Greer), falls for his boyish charms.  Verna Carlson (Susan Hayward) jumps on him (figuratively), the moment she sets eyes on him.  He’s just a flirt, yet this “harmless” pursuit destroys three relationships (Greta, Janice, and Verna).  Out of those three, only one survives.

Young, with Jane Greer & Susan Hayward
Larry’s two loves, but no Greta

This boy is brazen, but he’s such a nice guy, who could ever think of him as a villain?  Skilled in manipulation, Larry has absolutely no pride, no self-respect, as witnessed in one scene at least, in which he flip-flops on whether to run away with Verna and leave his wife.  When she queries him on this, he finds it safer for the moment to cohabit with Greta, even if it means humiliation for him; he can’t live without her money.  Temporarily, Verna leaves him, only to return to their relationship later, leading to unforeseen and tragic consequences.

Greta

Larry’s wife is a long-suffering, stoically cheerful woman, who for some reason which we find inexplicable, molly-coddles Larry, always there for him like a dead weight.

Robert Young & Rita Johnson
One more, Greta’s persuasive powers bring Larry back to reality.

In this conventional world of finance, into which she pours him like a shapeless liquid, he is trapped.  His contempt for Greta is a theme that runs through the entire narrative; it’s the driver of the story, in fact.  Larry’s way of avoiding the responsibilities of marriage and family are to have affairs.

It is truly disheartening to see Greta at every point, able to withstand yet another emotional blow by turning the problem into an opportunity.  It’s disheartening, yet we marvel at her solid equanimity and her ingenuity in bringing about a reconciliation despite Larry’s protestations to the contrary.

Rita Johnson & Robert Young
Montreal-bound on a train

Without turning into an inverted stoic, she brings the fresh smile of a summer garden into every conversation with her husband.  Invariably, she is his foundation, his solace, though he but knew it.

 Larry

Whereas bad men are usually depicted as being brash, charismatic and just downright evil, Larry is uncharacteristically meek, indecisive, even apologetic.  This behavior is just a screen for his real character.  When he goes to trial and takes the stand to tell his story, attired in a gleaming white suit, he appears almost saint-like, especially when compared to his defense attorney who is wearing a crumpled one.

Larry Ballantine in a white suite
Larry stands trial for a murder that never happened

Larry is the image of a caring, empathic individual, but  his manipulative tactics, his lack of a conscience, is his true nature, underneath the glow of innocence.

Below is the poster for movie, showing Susan Hayward as Verna, Robert Young as Larry Ballantine, and in the background, almost as an afterthought, is a man carrying a body,

They Won't Believe Me
Robert Young & Susan Hayward, and Young carrying the body of Greta, in the background

which happens to be Larry with the corpse of his wife, Greta.  What’s interesting is that even in the poster, the character of Greta is left out of the picture; she is disposable.  She is the one truly tragic figure in this story.

In conclusion, Larry’s detachment from the reality of his situation is demonstrated in the hospital scene where he first discovers that his wife has been killed in the same car accident.  Although it turns out not to be his wife, Greta, Larry’s reaction to the death shows that he is extraordinarily unfazed.  His defense throughout the story gives the impression that he’s merely a pawn in a game played by other people, the three women in his life.

Please stay tuned for my next blog, in which I’ll be taking a look at the very bad men of The Sweet Smell of Success.

 

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Author: Mike Lipinski

Born in Tel Aviv, Israel (when it was still Palestine, a British protectorate. I was 1 year old when we moved to England, where I grew up. At age 12, we left for Canada and I've lived here ever since.

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