You know the archetypal film character -- venal and corrupt, slimy and repulsive, selfish and merciless. A man whose evildoing is preceded by a heavy sigh and a wiping of a sweaty brow with a cotton pocket square.
The question is, why did this role so catch on in old Hollywood that it became a stock noir character?
Jackie Gleason played it in "The Hustler." Orson Welles played it in "A Touch of Evil," Charles Laughton took it on as the magazine publisher Janoth in "The Big Clock." Laird Cregar was always handed the role (save for his last film) -- he's the timorous WW II turncoat and mobster in "This Gun for Hire," the slimeball blankety-blank in "I Wake Up Screaming!"
Sydney Greenstreet merits mention because he is too rarely recalled these days. He was as ruthless as any of them in his few major titles, including "The Maltese Falcon" and "Flamingo Road."
It's clear we humans perceive larger men as having great appetites across the board -- their girth so expansive that they simply can't be denied what they want or need and not just in the realm of cuisine: They must yearn, we figure, for a limitless supply of power, too.
That seems like a biological reaction -- evolution having attuned us to the meaning of the body. Those layers he's carrying are unnaturally unhealthy -- here's a man who seems like he's swallowed a smaller, more fit one. Whom will he gobble up next?
We viewers conflate literal obesity and its metaphorical cousin. This guy is in deep, buried below subcutaneous fat -- so he's likely buried also under a spiraling string of crime. And he will never manage to pull himself out of that world. The heavy man cannot drop sufficient weight to lift himself physically or morally (in tragic reality, Laird Cregar did crash-diet and lose 100 pounds for his first starring role -- but the massive and sudden reduction killed him).
Which brings me to the less-obvious answer: These bad guys are good guys. And they convey that in somewhat subtle cues that our subconscious picks up on. Those sighs they emit before ordering hits, those reflective moments when they wipe their brows before issuing new orders: It's always clear that they're stalling for a millisecond, trying to give that inner angel voice an opportunity to speak up. When the angel stays silent and the devil keeps prodding, fat villains seem more resigned to their evil fate then hell-bent on executing it (look at how many henchmen the star baddies employ to carry out the dirty work).
The allure of the maleficent fat guy is not just his taboo wrongdoing and Ripley's size. It's also the sympathy he elicits. We know he wants to turn his life around, if only there weren't so many accumulated layers in the way.