Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Universal Criminal

Hi, I'm Kelli. I'm here to talk about my favorite Criminal Mind ... so come on down! :)
First, let's loosely define a criminal mind as a villain, someone who commits illegal, immoral or amoral (and sometimes downright evil) acts for reasons sometimes understandable and most times not.  Fair enough? Now, let's move a little closer ... not too close! Criminals aren't known for their grooming habits. OK, safe? Let's break this down further. Y' see, in order to figure out if I can even have a "favorite" criminal mind, I want to take a look at some broad categories of criminal.

They are ...

1. The Godfather. We all know (and some of us secretly love) this CM. He's the Don, he's Marlon Brando, he's DeNiro and Pacino. He's Tony Soprano! The Godfather is a CM who commits crimes for reasons that can seem somewhat reasonable. It's the business! You gotta protect the family! If I don't sell it, the neighbors will! That kind of thing. We understand their motives, understand greed, tradition, and family squabbles. They're criminals who make sense, because they're professional, they've got codes, they want to be rich, and we've seen them in a lot of movies.

A subset of this category, though, is The Dictator. The same kind of ruthless, power-hungry, sociopathic ego that drives The Godfather can also drive a politician to crime (think Nixon). The chief difference is that the politicians are never as charismatic, and they do what they do for power more than money. They're much more dangerous than la famiglia. Khan, the greatest Star Trek villain of all time, fits in this category.

2. The Bad Seed. OK, confession time. I played a sort of Bad Seed type character when I was acting in community theater as a teenager. (It was Mary Tilford in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, in case you're a theater buff). Later on, I played the tortured mother who gives birth to the Bad Seed in an actual Bad Seed production. So I've looked at Bad Seeds from both sides now ...

This is the CM that can't be rehabilitated. Whether you go for Maxwell Anderson's Bad Seed pseudo-science--it's all genetic, I tell you, genetic!!--or you opt for nurture over nature, this villain is the pyscho,
the Norman Bates, the all-too-real serial killer we're terrified of. They are mysteries to the hardened Godfathers of the crime world, because their reasons for killing--and other Hannibal Lecter-esque atrocities--are beyond the human ken. In the old days, they'd just be called evil, and that was that.

Brrr ... I don't even like thinking about them.

3. The Damaged. Here's another popular group. Kinda Bad Seed-like, but not so over the borders of behavior that brave (or foolhardy) psychiatrists think they're beyond redemption. Actually, even at 13, I didn't want to play a true Bad Seed, so I used a line in The Children's Hour about Mary's father killing himself to kind of build in the idea that she had been very damaged by the loss.  Unlike Rhoda Penmark (will the real Bad Seed stand up?), Mary didn't kill anybody ... though, to her CM street credit, she drove a teacher to suicide.

These tend to be vigilantes, imposters, kidnappers, etc., who are reenacting the bad stuff that was done to them on the world. Poor world! Best example might be a little known TV movie starring a young Martin Sheen and Linda Blair, called Sweet Hostage. Yeah, I grew up in the '70s, and it scarred me.

4. Last but not least, and (ta da!) my favorite CM: The Universal Criminal. OK, have I gone off the deep end? Wait--don't answer that! You know the universal criminal, because she--or he--is inside all of us.

Ever watch The Postman Always Rings Twice? Ever see or read Double Indemnity? You noir fans know what I'm talking about. The UC is the average Joe or Jane who makes the wrong--make that very, very wrong--decision at a turning point.

Gee, should I call the cops and tell them I wasn't part of that robbery where the cop was killed--that hoodlums stole my truck and threatened my wife? No, I think I'll run away with my pregnant wife in tow, hitchhike across the country, steal a car and crash at her Uncle and Aunt's Czech farm house. (I didn't make that up--it's basically the plot of Desperate (1947).  Gee, should I tell the cops that the man who picked me up hitchhiking just keeled over with a heart attack, or should I steal his identity? (Detour, 1945). Gee, should I cuddle up next to [Lana Turner, Barbara Stanwyck, Ava Gardner, etc. etc.] even though she's married/wants me to kill her husband/sent me to prison and ditched me? (try Postman, and Double Indemnity and The Killers, respectively).

Yup, my favorite Criminal Minds are those every day schmoes who get suckered by a femme or homme fatale and make a really stupid decision that usually involves NOT calling the police. Their crime was in succumbing to the temptation we all feel--for money, for love, for desire, for something we're not getting and desperately want. And, to give Hollywood credit, the temptations of both genders were usually very hard to resist. The Universal Criminal ... the Noir Hero/ine ... who, but for the grace of actually dialing the cops--is us.

So, can you think of a criminal mind that doesn't fit in one of these categories? Let me know ... I'd love to hear about it! :) And don't forget ... we're giving away signed books and a $50 Barnes and Noble gift certificate this month!

P.S. Playing Mary Tilford was a lot of fun ... particularly because she gets to slap people. Villainy has its pleasures ...


Bill Cameron said...

I, too, am no known for my grooming habits!

I am definitely in the UC camp myself. Not that I can't enjoy some of the others, assuming they are painted plausibly (we've already heard my thoughts on the absurd and unbelievable Hannibal Lector). But give me the ordinary schmoe in over his head any day.

Bill Cameron said... NOT known. NOT known...

I should not type and drink.

Julie Godfrey Miller said...

For me, the most interesting criminals are those who have (or think they have) an extraordinary level of intelligence and who hatch truly devious plots.

This is a complete contrast to what the local police have told me. The average criminal is a complete idiot, the kind who leaves his (or her)name and address at the crime scene.

Kelli Stanley said...

Bill-Bill, any of us (well, maybe not Tim and Shane) would cuddle up to you any day! ;) But you know, typing and drinking is another one of those decisions--like not calling the cops--that leads to Universal Criminaldom. ;)

Thanks for being here, sweetie!!


Kelli Stanley said...

Julie, that's a great comment, and so true ... you always hear about criminals that write ransom notes on a credit card bill, or ask directions on the get-away drive, or something. :) Luckily for us!! It's the smart ones that are scary ...


CJ Lyons said...

Kelli, I love this break down of the spectrum of CM's!!! How awesome!

And I would have pegged your fav CM to be Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemity, lol!

Jen Forbus said...

Earlier this week I mentioned my affinity for characters like Harlan Coben's Win or Robert Crais's Joe Pike. We don't tend to catagorize them with the "criminals" because they are working on the side of the protagonist. But most of the time they are involved in something very criminal.

Today I couldn't help but think of Michael Sullivan from ROAD TO PURDITION or Frank Temple, Jr. (Frank's father) from Michael Koryta's ENVY THE NIGHT. They aren't necessarily damaged by anything life has done to them...and they are average people who make a bad choice, but they choose it over and over and over. Like Win and Pike they are characters you like and root for because of their good qualities - good family men, good fathers, etc.

The purely evil or bad criminal minds aren't usually fun for me because they tend to be flat characters. I prefer the characters that challenge my thoughts on "good" and "bad."

Unknown said...

Ah, you've stumbled across my theory for what makes a film noir protagonist: a perfectly understandable but socially unacceptable desire. Which is why it gets harder and harder to write noir stories as our culture goes from repressive to permissive, socially (not including a few down years here and there).

Thanks for the trip through criminaldom :)

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks, CJ! :) And you're right--Barbara is one of my favorite CMs ... so deliciously manipulative, plus she wears an anklet!! ;)


Kelli Stanley said...

Jen, thanks for that thoughtful comment--I totally agree, and love those examples!! ENVY THE NIGHT is an incredible read.

I'm so glad you mentioned the repetitive aspect of criminality ... it's not enough to make that one stupid decision, but they compound it with bad choice upon bad choice until they're cornered, trapped, with nowhere to go but six feet under. Check out Criss Cross with Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo (she was a lot more than Lily Munster!) for another perfect paradigm ...

Kelli Stanley said...

Ah, Mysti, my noir sister! :) Thanks for stopping by!!

And you're right ... when what was once considered unacceptable (Lindsey Lohan and lack of underwear springs to mind) becomes commonplace, when private and public merge as never before into one desperate bid for attention after another ... how do define noir? How do you cross boundaries when there are so few left?

Fortunately, desperation and obsession are still around to help us out! ;)


Vivian Zabel said...

I remember the The Postman Rings Twice, although I was a child when it came out (stop laughing, those of you who know me, I was just a young child). My mother took me to the movie and then worried that it might warp me. Nah, just gave me the desire to write about such characters.

Right now, I'm preparing a paper about the differences between sociopaths and psychopaths so I can create believable evil villains.

Kelli Stanley said...

Vivian, thanks for the comment, and I hope you come back and tell us your approach about these oft-misused terms! I just read an interesting article in the Sisters in Crime newsletter about the same subject--it's just so fascinating!

And then there are the unfortunates whose addiction to meth actually changes their brain physically ... definitely in the damaged criminal category!

I love Postman ... John Garfield was one of the sexiest men of noir! ;)

Shane Gericke said...

Who knew Fred MacMurray could act? Never saw that on My Three Sons :-) Kelli, Double Indemnity is my wife and my's favorite crime movie of all times. Thanks for bringing it up!

Kelli Stanley said...

Come now, Shane ... haven't you seen Flubber? ;)

The design of the original Captain Marvel (rebranded as "Shazam!" due to the loss of copyright on the name) was actually modeled on Fred MacMurray.

Sigh ... he was much more than Chip's dad, as we Double Indemnity fans know. ;)


Bobby Mangahas said...

I would say that I, too am in the UC camp. And yes I have read and seen both Postman and Double Indemnity. James Cain is one of my all time favorite noir authors. But I would also like to bring up Patricia Highsmith's UC Charles Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Kelli, I would give a bundle to have seen your performance as Mary Hanes. Clearly it scarred you... ;)

But forgive me while I now go on to say -


Lecter - that's Lecter, with an e, Lecter -

is not SUPPOSED to be a pedestrian, explicable serial killer like Bundy. It's a HORROR story. He is a mythic MONSTER. Harris deals in ARCHETYPES.

It is not realism.

You are missing out on one of the most chilling villains of all time.

Six fingers. Think about it.

Sorry for the hijack, CMs, but some things need to be said.

Kelli Stanley said...

LOL!! I love it, Alex, thanks for dropping by and setting Bill and the rest of us straight, because if anyone knows what a good horror story is, girlfriend, it's YOU (poetic novelist of dark, exquisite fright!!) :)

And you know, I'm not sure what scarred me more ... playing a 13 year-old lying, manipulative and scheming bully, or watching Martin Sheen romance Linda Blair in Sweet Hostage ...


Kelli Stanley said...

Wonderful point, RJ!! Though I'd put Bruno more in the damaged or Bad Seed category, myself ... at least the way Robert Walker played him.

You know, his son, Robert Walker, Jr., gave a great performance as another kind of alien damaged criminal in "Charlie X" (original Star Trek--yes, it all comes back to the Enterprise) ... ;)


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

K, I LOVED that movie when I was a kid. I'm sure I would be appalled by the message if I saw it today, but at the time it was so grown-up and sexy (was that really Martin Sheen???? Yike).

Kelli Stanley said...

I know, it's kind of gross when you think about it, but I loved it too!!! He was (sigh) so dreamy, reciting Kublai Khan ... yes, world, it was Martin Sheen! And when I was ten, he was a hottie!

Whew, glad to get that off my chest ... thanks, Alex sweets, for sharing it with me!! :)


Bobby Mangahas said...

Fair enough, Kelli. So, what category would you place Tony Wendice from Dial M in?

And of course you realize that now I'll be trying to categorize the different CMs in most of the stuff I watch and read now (much how I try to do act breakdowns ever since I've started reading Alex's blog on story structure).

I may never be able to just simply enjoy a book or movie now because of you two (not that I'm complaining). ;-]

Kelli Stanley said...

LOL ... thanks, RJ!! :) And Alex is incredible, isn't she? I love reading her blogs!!

I'd probably put Tony in the Bad Seed/sociopathic category because even though his wife cheated on him (which unfortunately still justifies homicide in some cultures), his wife was GRACE KELLY. And here's the clincher: he married Grace for her ... MONEY. He had to be insane! ;)


Vivian Zabel said...

Does anyone know the main difference between a psychopath and a sociopath? A sociopath may feel remorse or guilt; a psychopath does not.

Hmm ... I know a few people like that.

Bobby Mangahas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bobby Mangahas said...


I once took a criminology course and one thing I do remember is that neither the sociopath or psychopath feel remorse.

For other differences I found this list to check out. Hope this helps :)

Kelli Stanley said...

Vivian, isn't that fascinating? Apparently, a sociopath can feel feelings of regret as they apply to those selected member of his or her group identification ... like gang members, or members of "da family".

Whereas a psycho has no feelings of regret at all.

I've always read that sociopaths can be adept at "playing human", though they eventually make a mistake ... and then that inhuman callousness comes out at the trial (i.e. Scott Peterson).

Thanks for commenting!!

Bobby Mangahas said...

Didn't mean to hijack that question or any thing, my criminology class just popped into my mind when I saw that.

Kelli ---

I have to say that I'm glad that this blog finally came to fruition. I had been anxiously awaiting it since you mentioned it at B'Con. I look forward to more of these virtual panels.

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks a million, RJ, and thanks for sharing the link!! :) We're very happy to get CM off the ground, and look forward to many stimulating discussions!!

Katherine Ramsland has an excellent article about sociopaths/psychopaths in the latest Sisters in Crime newsletter ... I highly recommend it! :)


Vivian Zabel said...

I'm sorry; I shared what I've learned. I was asked to share what my research turned up about the two, sociopath and psychopath, and according to all the newest "experts," that's the difference.

According to what I've read and studied during the past month, the guidelines have been narrowed to show the differences between the two for mental health and diagnosis reasons.

Kelli Stanley said...

Vivian, never be sorry for sharing!! :) Love your comments!!

And the latest thing I read--which was Katherine's article I mentioned earlier--follows what you suggested. It was news to me, as well, because years ago it was "sociopaths=no feelings". Shows you how science and the labels we tend to take for granted can change ...

Thanks again for contributing!! :)

Wendy Tokunaga said...

Oooh! Loved, loved, loved Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed. She was so evil that they had to not only kill her off at the end of the movie, they had to tag on a scene at the very end to let the audience know, "It was just a movie!" Nancy Kelly, who played her mother, put Patty over her lap and gave her a good spanking.

Kelli Stanley said...

Wendy, thanks so much for the comment and for stopping by!! :)

Patty was chilling, wasn't she? Interestingly enough, the original stage play doesn't have the '50s Hays Office ending of the movie. In other words ... [spoiler alert!] :

Rhoda gets away with it, and Christine dies.

When I played Mary in The Children's Hour, the actresses who played the school teachers tried to spank me during a curtain call ... very humiliating when you're 13! ;)

Thanks again for stopping by!!

Wendy Tokunaga said...

Yes! I read the original play and it's chilling. Several of the people who were in the play were in the film.

Kelli Stanley said...

You're so right, Wendy--chilling is the perfect word. I believe Nancy Kelly and the wonderful Eileen Heckart were in the original production.

Have you ever read the novel by William March? I personally found it to be more frightening than the play ... Anderson tended to be a bit hyberbolic (as did the acting style of the period), and I thought the novel was much more naturalistic.

To my chagrin, I never saw the TV movie remake with Lynn Redgrave-one of these days! :)

Acting in the play was a very draining experience for me. Every night, I had to work myself up to believe my own child was a murderer, blame myself for that fact since I was the one with the "bad gene", and then make the decision to kill my daughter and shoot myself.

Gee ... I wonder if all that has anything to do with me writing noir? ;)

Thanks again--it's great to meet another Bad Seed fan!! :)


Shane Gericke said...

Dr. Ramsland is undoubtedly correct in that there may be a clinical difference between psychopath and sociopath. But practically speaking, they're the same type of person--they don't give a shit, for the most part, about anything but themselves, and will whack just about anything that gets in their way. The difference between them and, say, a bank CEO is the CEO probably won't clop off somebody's head and leave it in a freezer. I prefer psychopath in my serial killer thrillers cause I get to use the word "psycho," which is one of those great spinetingler words thanks to Alfred Hitchcock.

Alexandra's observation about Hannibal Lecter being a horror-film star, not a stand-in for Average Serial Killer Dude, was spot-on. I hated "No Country for Old Men" because I assumed it was a straight crime movie, and therefore should have stuck to realistic action and dialogue. (An air compressor? I mean, come on.)It didn't, and I was pissed. Then someone told me it was a horror film, and the bad guy was the Bringer of Evil ... and I liked it a lot better. It's all in your expectations, I guess.

Kelli, how do you know so much about this stuff, particularly plays and movies? Your mind is amazing, no kidding. Some days I can barely remember my name.

Hope Clark said...

OH yes, the everyday criminal - the plain Joe who trips into crime. Those are the most unpredictable and the most fun plots to weave. Allows room for humor, as well.

Kelli Stanley said...

Shane, darlin', you're much more optimistic about bank CEOs than I am. ;)

As for the whole theater thing, well, I was an actress and a theater major in my undergrad years for a while, and I've always wanted to direct films (and have a few screenplays under the bed). ;) Thanks for the kind words, sweets--I'm glad to find some use for the trivia that clutters up my brain cells! ;)


Kelli Stanley said...

Hope, thanks for commenting, and that's an *excellent* point--humor! :) Reminds me of a great noir called The Big Clock--lots of comedic moments as Ray Milland is forced try to track himself down (he's wanted for a murder he didn't commit). And of course, he didn't call the cops ...