Uncommon criminal

Tom is also no fool, as he is not completely unaware of the questionable moral area which his livelihood inhabits. When Tom is criticized by his older brother, a war veteran who took the ‘honorable’ path of a soldier, he notes that while he might be earning his money through blood and beer, Mike’s medal-lined glory was earned through killing. Morality notwithstanding, it is this lack of self-delusion and the above mentioned providential responsibility that makes Tom ultimately sympathetic by sublimating some of his more malevolent character traits.

Other films attempt to present the central criminal as possessing an internal ethical compass that makes it difficult to reproach them for their behavior. In effect, the actions of the criminal are presented as being beyond the concept of morality. This is the case for Daniel Craig’s character in Matthew Vaughn’s elaborate crime thriller, the 2004 film known as Layer Cake. The nameless cocaine dealer referred to only in credits as XXXX is depicted as being a rather uncommon criminal.

Although he deals in the rather high level business of buying, cutting, and selling cocaine – a far cry from petty theft and grand theft auto – XXXX manages his dealings in a rather pragmatic fashion. XXXX conducts his business in such a manner as to minimize the excesses or risks that characterize most other criminal operations, and as such, he is depicted as a smooth entrepreneur who merely wants to make money quickly before retiring to spend the rest of his life far from the treachery and peril of the London crime scene.

Audiences are endeared to XXXX simply because he is such an uncommon portrayal of the criminal. Incarnations both treacherous and avaricious have been presented so often over decades of film that XXXX is a refreshing respite from the cautionary ‘crime does not pay’ narratives of Old Hollywood and the aspiration-inducing glamorization present in crime films of the late 20th century. XXXX’s abjection of common gang behavior is not a matter of morality, and audiences are not asked to see him as above and beyond moral reproach.

Rather, XXXX is depicted as abstaining from largesses and other such things simply because he is a principled man who acknowledges that any external obligations or unsettled matters could merely get in the way of his personal ambition to retire wealthy and unburdened by the stresses of the culture. XXXX is therefore an amoral individual insofar as morality does not guide his business decisions, but rather the role they play towards the fulfillment of personal goals.

Finally, in some cases, audience sympathy for a film criminal is derived from admiration. The criminal is not softened by emotional circumstance, is not depicted as an ethicist, but rather as an individual of great skill and admirable cunning. Perhaps the best example of such a character is the elusive character of Harry Lime from Carol Reed’s 1949 classic The Third Man. Although he evades any screen time for more than the first half of the film, Harry Lime is the central focus of The Third Man.

The audience’s window into its world is a naive pulp fiction writer named Holly Martins, who has come to Vienna in the hopes of meeting Lime, a boyhood friend who had recently extended an offer of a job to the income starved writer. But when Martins is told by the military police that not only is Lime dead, but that he was a disreputable crook, he stands by his friend’s honor and flies into a combative rage, and it is only when these accusations prove true, that his loyalty becomes unstable.

Thus the core narrative of the film is Martins’ journey to reconcile the Lime he knew with the crooked racketeer so despised by the authorities. Lime is depicted by the accounts of those who knew him as a resourceful man possessed of many creative talents. Also, his charisma is such that he is able to inspire the kind of loyalty necessary to orchestrate a faked death with the participation of numerous players. Both Holly Martins and Anna Schmidt, Lime’s mistress, speak not only admiringly of these talents – “He never grew up. The world grew up round him, that’s all…” – but remain in awe of him in spite of his reputation.