It's always the bad guys who carry the most clout. In memories, in books, in movies, saturnine smiles beat dimpled grins every damned time.
One of my favorite movies comes from Thailand, in which the mild and suicidal Japanese librarian turns out to be a mild and homicidal killer who fled the bonds of the yakuza. When I choose a flick by Wong Kar-Wai, it's always 2046, with Tony Leung channeling the baser instincts of Rhett Butler, rather than In the Mood for Love, where he is the sweet betrayed husband. And I once had a mammoth argument with a bookselling colleague over the character of Sam in Infernal Affairs. I maintained he was my kind of guy, while my friend sputtered, "Dude's a psycho-killer." Well, yes...
Last night I found out where this predilection comes from, when I watched John Sayles' Baby It's You. Vincent Spano as the Sheik is quintessential cool, even after divulging that he's nicknamed after a condom brand. Even when he's lip-synching to a jukeboxed Frank Sinatra. Even when he finds out that the bonds of social class are stronger than any forged by puppy love.
Watching this as a 60-plus-year-old woman, I'm well aware that the Sheik is a born loser who will be lucky to get a union job somewhere in New Jersey. And yet, he'll always know how to drive a fast get-away car, rule a dive-bar, and carry off a cheap tuxedo--plus the guy can dance, slow-dance, better than anyone else at the prom. That's not a skill that fades over the years.
When I was in first grade, in a one-room schoolhouse where everybody went out for lunch recess at the same time, there was an older man, an eighth-grader, who wore engineer boots, a black leather jacket, and a t-shirt with a pack of cigarettes tucked under the sleeve near one of his biceps. I couldn't stop watching him--he was that cool. He ended up a complete flop in life, naturally--but somewhere at his core, I knew he still had the capacity to win a drag-race.
Yeah, Tony Romano turned into Vincent Vega, but even with that greasy ponytail and pitted complexion and abysmal conversation, he still had it. He was still, at the heart of the matter, cool.
Is this a mental deficiency that ended with my generation? Have the girls who came along post-first-wave feminism grown up without that yearning for modern-day Heathcliffs? Is this a form of "Every woman loves the boot in the face" masochism that deserved to die out? Maybe.
But Caravaggio will always be my favorite character in The English Patient and I never walk into a room without registering the guy who looks as though he might be a mafioso. It's an attitude that just doesn't die, it just lies dormant under all of the wrinkles.