double indemnityThe movie mogul Sam Goldwyn once rightly growled through his cigar to a screenwriter, “If you want to send a message use a telegram.”

Didacticism in storytelling is always a disaster because the audience sniffs out a sermon and switches off. They do so not because they disagree with the point of the sermon, but because they came to be entertained, not preached at. Didacticism is therefore not only a cheap trick, but an ineffective cheap trick.

A good story is not the same thing as a good sermon. A sermon explicates the truth whereas a story incarnates the truth. The moral truths locked within a story are most powerfully conveyed not when they are explained, but when the hero faces complex moral choices as the story unfolds. In the opening scenes of a successful film we begin to sympathize with the hero. Within that dynamic we prepare to go on his adventure with him, and as a result when the hero faces moral choices, we do too.

The hero has to weigh motives, circumstances, other characters’ reactions and all possible outcomes. Unforeseen events may occur, and the hero’s understanding is always constrained by his own limited knowledge and awareness—of himself, the other characters and the full range of possibilities.

It is the puzzle and thrill of moral choices that make suspense and crime movies so powerful, and movies in the film noir genre top the list.

Double-Indemnity-2One of the film noir classics is Double Indemnity with Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson, and Barbara Stanwyck. MacMurray plays Walter Neff, a likable but flawed insurance salesman who works for Robinson’s Barton Keyes. When he’s out on a sales call he meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), an attractive blonde who seems to be an abused wife. Together they plot to kill her husband and to claim the life insurance payout in a “double indemnity” clause by which they will receive double the money. The plot twists and turns until Walter Neff is truly caught in a murderous web of both his own and Phyllis’ making.

The smart thing about film noir is that we identify with an ordinary good character who is drawn into evil. We are thrilled as we share his fear of being caught, and we dread the punishment with him. The intriguing part of Double Indemnity is that we see ourselves as ordinary people like Walter Neff, and as we plot and scheme along with him, we realize that we have within ourselves the same sort of deviousness and cunning that led a “man next door” into murder.

Although it deals with adultery, insurance fraud, and murder, Double Indemnity is a moral movie. As we go down into the dark with Walter Neff, we see that every other moral value suddenly slips and slides away until we are “at the edge of the grimpen where there is no foothold.” Like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Neff is sucked into the moral morass as fast as a worm down a hole, until destruction is his only end.

dipst-lgWe are left pondering the film’s ambiguous and clever title. Double Indemnity is not only the name of the insurance clause that pays double, but “indemnity” also means “the penalty paid for one’s actions.” In the film we see the real “double indemnity” as the murderous couple; Neff and Dietrichson are doubly damned and destroyed.

Because classic film noir examples like Double Indemnity end justly there is light in the darkness. Filmed in black and white, it is right to say they are not simply film noir, but film noir et blanc.

If Double Indemnity serves as an effectively “moral movie,” the 1974 Roman Polanski-directed Chinatown, is an example of a failed film noir. Jack Nicholson stars as the private eye J.J. Gittes who is hired to investigate corrupt water board officials. Like Walter Neff, Gittes is drawn into a relationship with Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), who seems to be a classic femme fatale. As the plot unfolds, Gittes investigates the murder of Mulwray’s husband, and discovers that her father, Noah Cross (John Huston) is the villain behind the corruption. When it turns out that he is also guilty of incest with Evelyn and there is a child from the union, the darkness deepens.

film-noir-chinatown-1974-movie-poster-via-professormortis-wordpressChinatown received multiple awards and was widely hailed as a modern example of film noir. As such Chinatown certainly dwells in the darkness, but instead of portraying a moral universe with an ordinary hero struggling with complex moral choices, we are plunged into a wasteland of chaos and anarchy. Everyone in Chinatown is corrupt, in one way or another, and there is no struggle with moral choices. Instead, there is nothing but the nothing of nihilism, and that lack of meaning and purpose produces a horrible fatalism. Everyone’s future seems predetermined to end not in justice, but in pointless violence and despair. The film ends in a revelation of complete evil as we see the innocent Evelyn murdered, and Noah Cross—her crazy criminal father—walk free. When Nicholson’s character Gittes protests, the film ends with his colleague cynically advising, “Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Screenwriter Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski argued about the ending of Chinatown. Towne had written what Polanski called a “happy ending” in which Evelyn survived and her father was killed. Polanski argued for the existing dark and nihilistic conclusion. In doing so he yanked morality from the movie and guaranteed that his film stands, not as an example of film noir et blanc, but an example of film noir… and blank.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
13 replies to this post
  1. I am not sure about Rev. Longenecker’s claim that an audience cannot accept a moral or nihilistic message, but surely if it is too obvious then it will not be engaging e.g. “entertaining”.

    As for the two films, we know the traight-laced Neff is headed for the abyss through his attraction to the married femme-fatale from their opening meeting, and we also know that he will not get away with it… classic Hollywood, but less entertaining to the modern eye. Chinatown is an effort in the new realism of course– it does not say there is no justice, only that we sometimes cannot make our justice in this world despite fervent effort, especially if we are already failed, like Gittes While voyeuristically tracking immorality, it also shows that immorality can pervade the top of society, thereby staunching any envy of riches we may harbor, which in my book is a good thing.. Though its random and tragic ending is sad, to me the film it is no more immoral than, for example, those who say that there is no use in trying to reform capitalism or worry about the decline of nature, because we are just fallen sinners who cannot help ourselves, and since we cannot bring about God’s Kingdom anyway, and that we should simply continue to trade as exuberantly as possible and wait around for, if not actually pray for, the Apocalypse.

  2. Quite the contrary, I think. To draw your conclusion, at the end of an essay which begins with a warning about preaching, rather than than storytelling, is to needlessly ask for preaching, not good storytelling. As it is, Polanski pulls away from preaching, even at the ending. With Gittes wanting to do something about Noah Cross and his colleague saying forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown, the issue is left open for the audience to decide. Note that Jake does not agree with his colleague. Why would you think he does finally change his mind? There is no evidence that he does, or ever would. In fact Polanski forces the audience to decide which character is right. Just because the last word is given to the colleague doesn’t mean that that is what Polanski thinks, or that anyone who is watching would think that “forget it,Jake” is viable morality. But the audience IS left to think about the question of whether Jake Gittes would actually try to get it done. Would ever have the guts, in film-noir terms. But that is a completely different issue. He has already decided that somebody should. The audience audience generally agrees without being told to.

  3. I think Polanski’s wife was killed in the Manson murders, so if he had a particularly dark view of life (in 1974), that would certainly be understandable.

  4. Chinatown represents the ethos of that particular “New Hollywood” era, when old conventions were being overturned all over. The old Production Code that Double Indemnity was made under practically forbade morally ambiguous endings, and immoral or criminal behavior was always to be punished. Polanski was just doing what everyone had been doing since Bonnie and Clyde in 1967: portraying evil as good, and even if we want to say that there is such a thing as moral truth the system is rigged against justice winning the day. Certainly the tragic murder of his wife and pre-born child influenced his artistic choices, but either way Chinatown is very much representative of Hollywood in the 1970’s.

  5. I have not seen either of these films. I nominate “Guardians of the Galaxy” as a moral film and the best new one I have seen in a while.

  6. There’s no moral to “Double Indemnity.” The movie is, in fact, although probably not intentionally, immoral, in that, with interesting people, like the three main characters, it leads the audience into murder and adultery, leaving it no choice but to identify with the main characters. The movie could be called sadistic, again probably not intentionally, with only your popcorn as an anodyne.

    It is interesting that Billy Wilder, who made such excellent films as “The Emperor Waltz” (with Bing Crosby at the top of his form), “A Foreign Affair” (how can you go wrong with Jean Arthur?).
    “Ace in the Hole” (“The Big Carnival”), and “Sabrina,” is best remembered today for two highly unpleasant films: “Double Indemnity” and “Sunset Boulevard.” The latter opens with a corpse in a swimming pool, beginning his explanation of how he ended up there. And you haven’t even opened your popcorn! Then, you’re treated to a sojourn in a mausoleum, with the dead people alive and unwell. “Look, Ma, there’s Buster Keaton!” Yeah, sort of. It is still highly regarded by the critics.

    • I think you have forgotten the word “satire” when you speak of Billy Wilder and especially of Sunset Boulevard. Or perhaps did not recognize it when you saw it. Satire at its most serious, Juvenal and Swift. Unpleasantness is not necessarily immorality. Satire is by nature a defense of a moral code. There have been very few really serious satirists in Hollywood and Wilder is one of them and Sunset Boulevard is unpleasantly moral. Double Indemnity has not only Father Longnecker’s film noir going for it, but also its satirical elements. Ace in the Hole is another one of his masterpieces. Stanley Kubrick is another satirist. Watch A Clockwork Orange if you can find an uncensored cut of it (Criterion, for example) and if you have the stomach for it. Deeply disturbing and deeply moral for all of it’s nudity and violence. The fact that you find Sunset Boulevard unpleasant and disturbing means that you get Wilder’s point, but you lack the imagination to believe that Wilder intends you feel that way. It means you are intelligent. But perhaps too cynical about directors.

  7. I can’t defend anything without specific charges, or defend something I have not said. I”d think a reading of my post would lead, at least, to a suspicion that I like Wilder, and possibly to one that I’d seen and admired Ace in the Hole.

    I appreciate your not putting titles in italics or quotes, though, and will use that as a precedent, following your lead hereafter on this site. I mean that sincerely. I’d thought about doing it originally.

    Incidentally, far from being captivated by a moral in Double indemnity, the murderer in Parnell Hall’s latest Puzzle Lady mystery. Puzzled Indemnity, is inspired to try his hand. Of course, he and his co-conspirator are caught in the end. The moral is: “Don’t mess around with the Puzzle Lady.”

    If you can make a case for Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard being satirical movies, or even if you can’t, I’ll leave the field to you.

    I realize that my original post had some unintentional zigzagging. i don’t apologize. Expecting apology for computer ineptness should be unlawful.

    • No defense needed, of course. I tend to assume discussion, not debate, here so no charges have been filed or intended. My take on satire and Wilder is that, in the case of Sunset Boulevard, the initial indication of satirical intent is signaled at the very beginning of the film, with the corpse in the pool talking matter-of-factly in a cynical and sardonic tone of voice, about why he is dead in the pool. He is a very unsurprised and matter of fact corpse. Some of the other characters are intendedly grotesques. Norma is not a ha-ha character. She is a Hollywood cliche of a movie-star pushed so far she is a kind of side-show freak and pretty clearly Wilder wants the audience to be queasy at “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. deMille” which is both funny and grotesque at the same time.

      For me what I would call “serious satire” is often not ha-ha funny at all. It can be quite vicious. Just read Swift’s A Modest Proposal and its murderous take on The Irish Problem in England for the classic example. People who think it’s intended to be a load of laughs are morally dense. But the word “satire” in English also is used for a more light-hearted effort like Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones or his The Loved One which intend to leave the audience laughing but also thinking. His The Charge of the Light Brigade has some terrifically funny scenes but wants no one to laugh all the way to the exit.

      So things can get confused if you don’t define which sense you mean. and that was my fault. I suspect that we are closer together in our ideas about Wilder than you may think.

      If you can find a crime novel titled The Getaway by an American named Jim Thompson from I think the 1950s or thereabouts, read the whole brief novel which is very short and very hard-boiled-paperback in style until in the last chapter Thompson turns to a modern sort of 18th century prose style and tells you just exactly what befell the two principals after they Gotaway. Triumphantly mordant and satiric. I would like him to stand beside pulp paperback writers Raymond Chandler and Dashell Hammet on my library shelf in a Library of the Americas edition as a writer well worth preserving.

  8. Thanks for bringing up the subject of satire to begin with, because, today, it is being displaced by absurdity. Swift has been upstaged by Planned Parenthood. Maybe The Imaginative Conservative has someone in the wings who would take up the subject.

  9. There’s bit of dialogue in Wilder’s One, Two, Three not to be missed. Whether he or co-scriptwriter I.A.L. Diamond originated it is inconsequential, for it is quintessential Wilder. James Cagney is trying to persuade his daughter’s young German fiancé, Horst Buchholz, to wear striped pants for some occasion, maybe the wedding. Buchholz, a ridiculously dogmatic communist, objects, claiming that striped togs are somehow associated with capitalism, or some such nonsense. Whether I remember Cagney’s argument, or Buchholz’s pronunciation correctly, doesn’t matter. Here is the exchange:
    CAGNEY: “You don’t want to be seen in striped pants? Even Tito has been seen in striped pants.
    BUCHHOLZ: “Ve vill deal with Tito ven the time comes.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: