Morality and Movies
by Dwight Longenecker
J.R.R.Tolkien was famous for his dislike of allegory, and one of the reasons he disliked The Chronicles of Narnia was because he thought they were too allegorical for his taste. Tolkien didn’t like allegory because it was didactic and heavy handed. Didacticism is often counter productive because the audience can spot a sermon a mile off, and they switch off (not because they necessarily disagree with the sermon’s point but because they expected to be entertained, and when a sermon comes along they feel cheated). Didacticism in art is therefore a cheap trick and allegory (for all its charms) is too often simply didacticism dressed up in theater costumes.
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 certain moral choices as the story unfolds. In the opening scenes of the movie, a good film writer and director will get us to sympathize with the hero, so that when the hero faces moral choices, we face the choices with him.
Moral choices are fascinatingly complex and multi-faceted. 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. We are intrigued by a film hero’s choices when the director and writer skillfully limit our own perceptions and keep us guessing.
This kind of thrill involving moral choices is built into many movies, but suspense and crime movies deliver most powerfully. Movies in the film noir genre succeed in engaging us in moral choices in a way that is most suspenseful and fascinating. The stock characters in film noir are the open hearted ‘good guy’ who gets caught up in dark goings on, a villain, and often a femme fatale. It doesn’t take much thought to see that the classic film noir is a type of ‘garden of Eden’ story. Adam faces the bad guy and the classic femme fatale. What will he choose? What will the outcome be? Who is going to die and why?
One of the classic films in the film noir genre is Double Indemnity with Fred MacMurray, Edward G Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck. MacMurray play Walter Neff, a likeable, 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 claim the life insurance payout in a ‘double indemnity’ clause in 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.
When teaching the film course at our local high school one of the students said she didn’t like the film because she liked Walter Neff and was hoping he wouldn’t get caught. This led to an interesting discussion about identifying with the heroes of films. The smart thing about film noir is that we do identify with someone who is doing something evil. We are thrilled as we share their fear of being caught, and we dread the punishment with them. The intriguing part of Double Indemnity is that we see ourselves as ordinary people like Walter Neff, and as we think and scheme along with him we realize that we have within ourselves the same sort of deviousness that led ordinary insurance Walter Neff into murder. We may not tread the same dark path that he does, but vicariously, through the magic of the movies, we see that we have the same dark potential, and like my student, we do well to be disturbed by these revelations. Furthermore, by liking Walter Neff we come to understand that in the real world there are no total villains like Cruella deVille or, Captain Hook, but evil is perpetrated by ordinary, complex people who are like the seemingly harmless insurance salesman next door.
Although it deals with insurance fraud and murder, Double Indemnity is a moral movie. As we go down into the dark anarchy of murder 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. Finally, like many films, Double Indemnity is moral, despite dealing with murder and deceit because both murderous characters receive their just punishment in the 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’. Furthermore, the root of the word indemnity is shared by the word ‘condemnation’, and in the film we see the real ‘double indemnity as the murderous couple, Neff and Dietrichson are doubly damned.
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Copyright © Dwight Longenecker. All rights reserved. Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic writer and broadcaster working and living in England. Check his website
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