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.
One 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.
We 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.
Chinatown 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.