What do you call a sympathetic character in a classic noir film? The patsy, most of the time. But not every character lurking through those cinematic shadows is hardboiled to the core, and even the worst villains sometimes offer hints that they’re more than bloodthirsty psychopaths. Here are five such nuanced offenders.
Max Cady in Cape Fear
The original “Cape Fear” (released in 1962) focuses on the homicidal grudge-match between Sam Bowden, an ostensibly upstanding lawyer, and Max Cady, the violent felon he helped put away eight years before. Cady isn’t just angry; he’s also smart enough to thwart all of Bowden’s increasingly desperate (and illegal) attempts to stop him.
As portrayed by Robert Mitchum, Cady is crass and cunning in equal measure. He also plays the role with such total certitude that you start to become convinced, against your better judgment, that he’s the aggrieved party in this dispute. This is an especially hard trick to pull off when Bowden is played by Gregory Peck, America’s Dad at the time. Indeed, according to Lee Server’s excellent biography, “Baby, I Don’t Care,” Mitchum, when first offered the project, assumed that, “until things got out of hand at the end, the way he read the script was that Peck was the bad guy.”
That’s not to say that Cady is a good human being—far from it. Even before the film’s watery climax, he does terrible things. But Mitchum sells him as human, and that’s an impressive (and arguably, unequaled) feat in the noir-stalker genre.
Arthur “Cody” Jarrett in White Heat
At first glance, Arthur “Cody” Jarrett isn’t anyone’s idea of a sympathetic character. As played by James Cagney in “White Heat” (1949), he’s a walking stick of dynamite, more than happy to pump a few bullets into a man trapped in a car trunk while munching a piece of fried chicken. By that point in his career, Cagney had tried to give up the gangster pictures that made him famous, opting instead for dramas and war pictures that met with mixed success at the box office; when he returned to crime films, he evidently felt he had to show off his old, aggressive energy—because Jarrett, in addition to being a murderous lunatic, has mother issues on a scale that would make even Norman Bates pause and say, “Hey, maybe you should get a little bit of therapy.”
Granted, it’s not entirely Jarrett’s fault, since his criminally-minded Ma (played with chilly aplomb by Margaret De Wolfe Mycherly) has clearly hoisted a world-class Oedipal complex upon him. It’s hard to really sympathize with Jarret while he’s shredding his way through everyone in sight—but then he ends up in prison, where he hears that his dear Ma has shuffled off her mortal coil.
What happens next is a ferocious bit of acting, arguably one of Cagney’s finest moments:
Sure, Jarrett is a psychopath’s psychopath, but Cagney renders his pain in such mind-melting terms that it’s difficult not to feel a little sympathy for him at that moment. From that point forward, broken, Jarrett isn’t so much a gangster as a wounded animal, with death the only possible solace.
Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity
At first glance, Phyllis Dietrichson is nobody’s idea of a relatable villain. First, she manipulates insurance salesman Walter Neff into killing her husband; then she tries to set up Neff to be killed. She already has what many would consider an enviable life, at least from a materialistic point of view—a big house, sleek clothes, a spouse who earns lots of cash—and yet she still wants more.
From another perspective, though, Phyllis is someone who knows that society will never let her be anything other than a housewife; that fancy house is a straitjacket. Even if you don’t believe her sob story about a cruel husband (“He’s so mean to me,” she tells Walter. “Every time I buy a dress or a pair of shoes, he yells his head off. He never lets me go anywhere. He keeps me shut up. He’s always been mean to me.”), you can understand why she’d be frustrated by her position in life. What is a femme fatale, after all, but someone pushing back against the capitalist patriarchy?
She knows she’s bad (“I’m rotten to the heart,” she confesses in her final moments), but like many a character in classic noir, her goals aren’t entirely misplaced—just her methods.
Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil
Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) is the epitome of the corrupt small-town police official. Corpulent, unshaven, slovenly, he plants evidence, arranges kidnappings, and kills people. In any other noir film, he might have been rendered utterly one-dimensional, the cliché of law enforcement gone totally wrong. But as written and directed by Welles, Touch of Evil has the gritty grace to make Quinlan a bit of a tragic figure, someone who was once clearly a much better human being.
Of course, Welles had a vested interest in shaping Quinlan that way—after all, he always wanted an audience to root for him, at least a little. The net result is, when Quinlan meets his inevitable (and filthy) end, you’re likely to feel a bit of pity for him.
Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard
Imagine being rich and famous, only to have the world forget you. That’s the problem confronting Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent-film star who’s isolated in a decaying mansion with the butler as her only company—until Joe Gillis (William Holden) shows up. Norma is petulant, depressed, magnificently delusional, and, eventually, murderous. But hey, if you underwent such a spectacular rise and fall, followed by decades of seclusion, you’d probably end up a little insane, too. Go ahead and hurl the first stone.