Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Alpha Dogs - Agents and Rogues

Continuing the series on the currently popular character attributes - Wealth, Dominance and Jackassery. First Post Index of the Whole Series.  This week we're talking about Dominance, or Alpha Dog characters.

I think I've wound down to the last I want to say in this series about Characters and their relationship with Money and Power.  (I would use a different word for Money -- one that starts with W and rhymes with "health" -- but every time I use it, I get SLAMMED by get rich quick spammers.)

Just to review, we're talking right now about Dominance as a character trait -- inspired originally by another blogger's tongue-in-cheek ranking of her own characters on a scale inspired by the fad for BDSM billionaires as romantic heroes these days.

So when I talk about "power" or "dominance" I'm talking specifically about characters exerting control over other characters. And I suppose I am particularly talking about characters who do this professionally, or at least as a life calling.  And I've mostly covered the territory: talking about the guns for hire who take control for their clients, and public servants who lead a team and wield authority (or not).

I just have three (well, four) more famous characters I want to talk about, and they blend from one kind of character to another, so I might as well cover them in one long post.

The key element of these characters is that they mostly work alone.  In the case of the first two, they are public servants. They do have authority and somewhere in the background is a team to back them up -- but we mainly see them working alone against their foe.  In some sense, they are like "agents" rather than cops.

Columbo - The Hound, or The Fox?

The TV show Columbo first appeared as a TV movie in 1968.  But in 1971, NBC created a series they called The NBC Mystery Movie, which played a rotating set of shows every Sunday night, and Columbo was one of those (along with MacMillan And Wife and McCloud).  It was created by Levinson and Link -- who had created many great mystery shows -- from Mannix to Ellery Queen to Murder She Wrote.

Levinson and Link were particularly brilliant, though, at stand-alone mystery dramas: TV movies which played out like a stage drama.  Always a battle of wits between charaters - someone trying to get away with a crime, and someone determined to catch him.  But you never knew exactly what each of the characters were up to.  These were clever, literate, deadly games.  (Two of these are currently available on YouTube, though they can be hard to find on DVD: Rehearsal for Murder and Vanishing Act.)

That was how Columbo began, and how it continued to play once it became a series.  And that twisty, game-of-wits nature is why I bring a cute cuddly chracter like Columbo into a series about domination.  I mean, yes, I did talk about Margie Gunderson, but that was in reference to her leadership style.

Although you do see Columbo interacting with other cops, for the most part, they work separately from him.  They are the system, collecting and processing evidence.  He interrupts them to look at it, asks them to get info for him, but his job is separate from theirs.  Even in those episodes where they give him a young sidekick, it seems as though the kid is there to learn from him, not really to assist him.  Columbo doesn't need or want a personal team.

In terms of our subject of "dominance" then, the interesting part of Columbo is how he handles the killers.  He's the lion tamer, the crocodile wrestler.  The guy who goes in and, carefully, politely and without breaking a sweat, talks the monster into trapping himself.  Call him The Killer Whisperer, if you will.

Columbo's technique of dominating a killer (and make no mistake, that's what he's doing from the moment he first meets him/her) is what makes him so delightful to watch.  It isn't just that he seems to bumble around and get distracted and act harmless to get the killer to relax.  No no no NO.  That's the surface, but if that's what you think is going on, you are missing the beauty of the interaction.

These are inverted mysteries -- we see them from the killer's point of view.  So when Columbo bumbles in, he may seem to be harmless to the killer, but he also "accidentally" drives the killer up a wall from the moment he enters.  He sets his hook, and then proceeds to play the killer like a fish.  And not just for fun: he's carefully maneuvering the killer into trapping himself.

A typical scene has Columbo coming to the killer for help with the case.  Some stupid little loose end bothers him.  It's always something that is beneath the interest of the killer.  The killer should just dismiss it and ignore him.  But because the killer is a killer he's hyper alert.  He can't help but be at least a little bit interested.

So he listens, and Columbo immediately gets distracted; "Holy mackerel, look at that vase!  You know my wife would love a vase like that.  How much do you think something like that would cost?"
He does this to force the killer to pay closer attention -- to commit to listening and finally to ask "What do you want!?"

Then Columbo goes into the next phase of manipulation: he tells him about the odd little loose end, and lets the killer explain it away.  He totally accepts this explanation.  He is grateful.  The killer relaxes.  He thinks he's back in control, and then Columbo looks puzzled and says, "Oh, but that can't be true, because of this other evidence...." and totally blows the explanation out of the water.

From here on in, the killer will never be relaxed again.  Columbo has his complete attention, even if he doesn't have the guy's respect yet.  He continues to play the game, dropping tidbits, directing the killer's attention at will.  But never being an outright threat.  He is careful to let the killer believe that Columbo doesn't know the significance of these little clues.  Finally Columbo accepts that the killer's vague secondary explanation is probably right, and starts to go.  He may make it partway out the door, even.

The killer is relieved.  He needs to think about this.  But then Columbo comes back.  He's got his brow furrowed, his fingers pressed to his forehead.

"Oh, just one more thing...."

And then he drops a bombshell that is of critical importance to the killer.  And the killer is left with an urgent need to do something.

It's not just that Columbo is persistent or annoying or even generally unsettling.  It's that every single thing he does -- every bumble, every distraction -- is carefully timed and chosen to tie the killer in tighter and tighter knots. And often very specific knots.

Peter Falk, who played Columbo, always said that he didn't believe Columbo even had a wife.  He believed that the entire thing, from begining to end, was a con game.  I don't believe this myself, because even in the second season, we see Columbo talk about his wife to his vetrinarian.  Why would he con the vet who isn't even remotely connected to the case?

All the same, I think Falk nailed it that when Columbo talks to the killer, every detail is planned and calculated.  He's conning the guy even when he tells the truth.

If you have never seen Columbo, I recommend starting with the earlier seasons.  The show evolved, over the years, and got more cutesy, less sharp.  Even so, any Columbo is better than no Columbo.

Bud White - Budding Vigilante

The movie L. A. Confidential, like the book it was adapted from, is a classic of hot, 1950's West Coast Noir.  It's a larger story, about various scandals and corruption among the cops, gangsters, celebrities and scandal mongers in Hollywood of 1950's L.A.  Like other books by James Ellroy, it is inspired by real events that happened in that fair city.

This is not the functional LAPD of Columbo, or the precise correctness of Samuel Gerard's U.S. Marshal Service.  It's a world where powerful people get away with murder and worse, and where the good guy cops might very well moonlight as the baddest guys of all.

Bud White, played by Russell Crowe, is a simple guy in a complicated world.  He's just a detective, a minion.  He's not terribly bright, and doesn't ask questions of his own, and is perfectly willing to be as corrupt as necessary in the cause of justice.  Planting evidence is just what you do to be sure the bad guys get caught.  You could say that Bud it a team player.

But Bud also has a hobby, something he does all on his own, although his fellow cops know about it.  Bud, whose father killed his mother, hates "Woman Beaters" with a passion far beyond what the job can contain.  So he hunts them down, and keeps them in check.  In the opening scene of the movie, he's supposed to be picking up booze for the department Christmas party, but he stops along the way to take care of a little business.

Bud's methods are as simple as his philosophy: brute force.  Beat the guy up, handcuff him, scare the excrement out of him with threats.

But his power comes from a deep seated rage.  Where Sam Spade might pretend to lose his temper to scare the other side, Bud White really means it.  I decided to show you the scene below from the middle of the movie, because it's a more heightened example.

The set up is this: Bud's fellow detectives are investigating a murder at an all night diner.  They've picked up a couple of young men with blood on their clothes, and a fellow cop (Exley, played by Guy Pearce) who is brilliant at interrogation has them in adjoining interrogation rooms.  He's just gotten the younger one to confess... except not to the crime they're investigating.  This is a crime they don't even konw about -- a Rape.  (The ultimate in woman abuse!)

As the clip begins as everyone is just beginning to realize that this is a whole different case.  (It's only about a minute and a half.)

Exley is by the book, and good at what he does, but when it comes to abuse of women, Bud it outside and above the law.  And his simple direct brute force dominates everything -- the oak chair, Exley, the suspect.

When that inner rage is triggered, Bud becomes a vigilante.

However, that incredible force of nature makes him valuable to the LAPD of the time, so for him vigilantism is just a hobby that comes in useful at his day job. 

And he's a nice bridge into the last group I wanted to talk about in this series: the Rogues.

Sir Percy Blakeney - Laissez-faire Rogue

There are a lot of characters in film and  literature who work outside the law. However, most of them are not great examples for this series.  They're free spirits.  They aren't into dominance so much as twitting the authorities.  Often they are thieves and rescuers.  They right wrongs.  Bad guys may be punished, but mostly bad guys are just stopped from doing their evil deeds.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a perfect example of this laissez-faire hero -- he rescues people from the guillotine.  He does his best not to kill anyone, or to hurt anyone more than necessary.  Late in the series, he even rescues his nemesis -- a man who certainly deserves to lose his head if anyone does. (Although I have to admit it has been a long time since I read that book.  Maybe Chauvelin does get caught, but the person who matters most to him is saved. But I think he is left to live out his life in peace, knowing it is by the grace of a hero.)

While the Pimpernel loves to push the buttons of authority figures (sometimes playing the same sort of psychological games as Columbo) dominance is not his thing.  As a matter of fact, his thing is sometimes showing that he could dominate but won't.  Becuase domination is what villains do.

But there is one rogue hero who is all about domination: The Saint.  The original Simon Templar wasn't the idle gentleman adventurer we see in the TV show with Roger Moore.  The orginal was a vigilante.

Simon Templar - The Man Who Hates Crooks

The Saint's modus operandi was to target a villain -- say a drug dealer or head of a gang -- rob him, humiliate him, and hand him over to justice, and then take ten percent of the proceeds and give the rest to charity.  He did this as an outlaw, and the police were always on his trail.  (Though he often managed to keep his nose above legal hot water, and was also a friend to his persuers on the police force.)

He reveled in the intimidation and humiliation and sometimes put the victims at risk to be sure he could properly punish the bad guys.  Of course, he did it with more style than Bud White.  His signature card -- that stick figure with the halo that is associated with the character to this day -- was intended to terrify his target.  While the Scarlet Pimpernel left his calling card behind after a rescue, the Saint left it up front, a warning like the Black Spot: "I'm coming for you."

My own inclinations lean much more to the Pimpernel type hero than the original Saint.  Alex, from The Case of Misplaced Hero, was raised to be like the Pimpernel.  And though Karla compares George to The Saint, in The Man Who Did Too Much, she's talking about Roger Moore.

And that's it for this series on Characters and Money and Power.  If something truly interesting crops up, I might do a wrap up post next week.  Otherwise, I'm more likely to take up related issues in some distant future series.

On Friday, with the Story Game, we'll be talking more about the character types from Romantic Suspense (the Heroine and Hero, specifically) and maybe a little about the character structure of related genres, like Whodunnit.

See you in the funny papers.

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