Moral ambiguity is a central theme in John Huston's film The Maltese Falcon (1941) and in Billy Wilder's film Double Indemnity (1944) and James M. Cain's novel by the same title. The films and novel follow characters whose motives are questionable and morally problematic. This essay will discuss these characters' motives, the effect of the motives on the message and plot of the films and novel, and how noir filming techniques help to portray moral ambiguity. Complex ideas such as What is moral, what is morality? are shown in these films with complex cinematic setups. This essay will also show how the message of Wilder's film Double Indemnity differs from the message of Cain's novel Double Indemnity.
Keywords: Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder, Moral ambiguity, Sam Spade
[...] At the end of the film Neff receives much more sympathy from Keyes and the audience than he does in the novel. In the film Neff confesses, know why you couldn't figure this one, Keyes? I'll tell ya. 'Cause the guy you were looking for was too close, right across the desk from you.” To which Keyes replies, “Closer than that, Walter.” And Neff responds, love you too.” The dialogue exchange suggests that Keyes is very sympathetic to Neff. But this is not the case in Cain's novel. [...]
[...] Her capacity for murder is not the issue with Spade; rather, the larger issue for Spade is one of mistrust based on Brigid's tendency to manipulate. Thus, morality for Spade takes a backseat; when he is given the opportunity to escape the noir world, through love, he would take that opportunity, despite Brigid's immorality. In the film Double Indemnity, the morality of insurance salesman Walter Neff is in question despite his confirmation of legal guilt in one of the first scenes: I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. [...]
[...] These several details make Spade appear to be the “demented” character who Janey Place and Lowell Peterson detail in their article “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir.” Spade's appearance and his dialogue suggest his detachment and paranoia, which result from his precise rationalization: I've no earthly reason to think I can trust you, and, if I do this and get away with it, you'll have something on me that you can use whenever you want to. Since I've got something on you, I couldn't be sure that you wouldn't put a hole in me some day. [...]
[...] I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman.” Neff may be legally guilty of the crime, but his moral guilt is uncertain because viewers can sympathize with Neff in his lowly, wounded state. Neff's wounded state is evident in the opening scene as he speeds in his car—flees—to the sanctity of his office and to the sanctity of his father-figure, Keyes. Phyllis has wounded Neff physically and metaphorically, which is apparent from the above quotation and from Neff's gunshot wound. [...]
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