The rogue financier played by Richard Gere in Arbitrage is a pretty bad chap. All he cares about is amassing wealth and status, and, when things go wrong, saving his own skin. Yet although he plunders, deceives and betrays, the audience is invited to root for him. Such are his charisma and magnetism that the invitation proves irresistible. In this film, the villain is the hero. His daughter, its paragon of virtue, is a bit of an anaemic bore. His antagonist, a maverick detective, is more engaging than her, but to make him so, he too is given a sinful side: he himself is prepared to transgress in order to get his man.
Arbitrage's success in glamorising evil has attracted comment; but of course the film's achievement in this regard is far from unusual. Evildoers who have charmed filmgoers range from the Joker, Clyde Barrow and Michael Corleone to Catherine Tramell, O-Ren Ishii and Bellatrix Lestrange. Meanwhile, worthy characters tend to be dreary, like Captain America, or plain irritating, like Poppy Cross. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen's character is unmoved by Snow White and yearns instead for the Wicked Queen. The rest of us, it seems, are not so different.
Anyone who thinks the movies influence our behaviour may find this phenomenon unsettling. It certainly unsettled James Francis McIntyre, the sometime cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles. In 1952 he told assembled Hollywood dignitaries: "There is too much glamorising of that which is wrong." He urged them to mend their ways, and on their behalf, Oscar-winning actress Loretta Young assured him: "We're all sinners, and the one big difference among sinners is that some are sorry."
Six decades later, it seems that this sorrow has yet to bear fruit. Perhaps that's not too surprising. The sin the cardinal was railing against is far older than the movies. William Blake observed that Milton was "of the Devil's party" in Paradise Lost back in 1790. There seems little doubt that in throwing their weight behind the bad guys, film-makers are reflecting, rather than shaping, a keen human appetite.
Plato's dictum that "to prefer evil to good is not in human nature" is hard to square with what we see around us. Mae West was perhaps closer to the mark when she ventured: "Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before." Real-life criminals such as the Krays or the great train robbers can acquire something of the allure of their big-screen counterparts. Famously, women prefer bad-boy lovers.
Or perhaps you think that's just an insulting stereotype cooked up by the misogynist media? In 2008 researchers at New Mexico State University tested 200 male students for deceitfulness, manipulativeness and thoughtlessness. Those who scored highest in these categories turned out to have the most sexual partners. Another study, conducted at Bradley University, Illinois, suggested that this correlation holds good across different countries and cultures. Death row groupies, such as the one Nicole Kidman plays in The Paperboy, take this syndrome to an extreme conclusion.
On the face of it, embracing evil seems a little perverse. Bad people harm the rest of us, so why should we applaud them?
Perhaps the most obvious explanation is that we're recognising a dark side of ourselves that we're otherwise forced to repress. "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being," wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, "and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" According to Kenneth Tynan: "A villain who shares one's guilt is inevitably more attractive than a hero convinced of one's innocence." Richard Gere would probably agree with them both. He believes he shares the moral failings he portrays in Arbitrage.
He may, but I don't. Gere seems a decent enough bloke when you meet him. The prosaic truth is that most of us aren't actually all that bad. Perhaps this is the real reason why we're so in thrall to those who are, both in fact and fiction. Most of the time, most people live their lives within constraints imposed by law, convention, conscience and the needs and wants of others. They know that if most people didn't do this, life would become impossible for everyone. Yet they also know that there's something inglorious about such a circumscribed existence.
On the other hand, evil people create their own essence. They uncover their true desires, pursue them wholeheartedly and trample on those who get in their way. Compared with them, we're only half alive. Understandably, we don't just envy them; to some extent, we admire them. It's therefore hardly amazing that we enjoy seeing them heroised on screen.
Perhaps we ought to grow out of this iffy attitude. "Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring," said Simone Weil. "Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating."
Well, maybe. Even so, we aren't ready to absorb this news. Film-makers, don't start disparaging your bad guys yet. We still need to pay them homage to compensate for our own dispiriting rectitude.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Jessica Diamond