Money is not only a universal means of solving many problems but also a resource that largely forms modern social trends and the aspects of interaction among people. Attempts to increase capital are the desire of many citizens who, in their aspirations, are ready to make all the possible efforts to achieve their final goals. The theme of the power of money over people is presented in different contexts and various genres of art, including cinema.
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Filmmakers often resorted to the problem of human relationships in a financial context, and over the years, this topic has not become less relevant. As evidence, two famous and fascinating films will be analysed – Double Indemnity by Billy Wilder and The Spanish Prisoner by David Mamet. These movies are widely known in their noir genre and are recognised positively by both viewers and cinema critics. The themes of money are directly addressed in the two works, and despite more than half a century of the age difference, the movies reflect how financial well-being can be a strong motivator for people who are ready to do anything for personal profit and betray their human dignity.
Money as a Means of Achieving Goals
The plots of both films under consideration differ due to various factors – a distinctive time period, the main conflict, the characters’ natures and other criteria. Nevertheless, one of the key themes that unite the works of Wilder and Mamet is the thirst for money as a basic instinct that creates unhealthy ideas in people. For instance, when comparing the films, one can note that in Double Indemnity, the main characters do not see any obstacles when they anticipate significant financial opportunities, and even killing a person is not an obstacle for them (Double Indemnity).
In The Spanish Prisoner, a similar situation is repeated when corporate heads and influential people start the hunt for a valuable technology and pursue the protagonist, intending to seize his development with all their might (The Spanish Prisoner). These events are the leitmotifs of both films and form viewers’ clear understanding that the financial aspect can hardly lead to any good prospects when very big money is a real perspective. This theme is reflected in the two movies, which brings them together in many ways and emphasises the similarity of the directors’ ideas and their subtext.
At the same time, when analysing these films, one can remark that some differences are present in the intentions of the characters to achieve goals. For instance, Joe Ross, the main character of The Spanish Prisoner, is a victim of circumstances and is forced to hide from people who are chasing him and eager to get his genius and, most important, highly profitable technology (The Spanish Prisoner).
In Double Indemnity, the characters, conversely, are antagonists who plan to kill for profit, despite their respectable and non-marginal lifestyle (Double Indemnity). Walter Neff, being a respectable insurance agent, becomes one of the organisers of the murder, which does not identify him with Joe Ross, but, on the contrary, distinguishes them (Double Indemnity). These factors contribute to evaluating the behaviour of the characters with two different fates and purposes. However, the only common detail that brings them together is great financial opportunities, and although one of the men seeks to defend himself while the other wants to attack, the plots reflect similar ideas about the power and influence of money. Therefore, its role can be considered an unconditional means of achieving any goals.
Economic Benefits vs. Human Ethics
The goal of financial gain is the key for the antagonists of both films, and in pursuit of the desired wealth, the characters go to great lengths and forget about the elementary humane and ethical standards of life. When Walter Neff plans a murder with his new lover, he does not notice how he turns into a tough and prudent person, and although this idea seemed impossible and absurd from the beginning, later on, he steps over his moral principles (Double Indemnity).
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For Joe Ross, the situation is different because he himself is the object of persecution, but among those who are eager to get his valuable technology, there are respected business people who, as it turns out, are ready to sacrifice ethical norms for the sake of an extremely profitable project (The Spanish Prisoner). This economic issue raised in the movies is an occasion to reflect on how far people are willing to go if the ultimate goal is big money. The similarities of the films are the loss of personal dignity and becoming blind hunters of profit as the main resource that determines the value of human life.
When speaking of differences, one can note the special and overt rigidity of corporate agents from Mamet’s movie. When Joe Ross faced real killers who do not intend to retreat from their goal, he realises how ruthless and inhumane the world is when money rules everything (The Spanish Prisoner). Wilder’s characters behave less aggressively, and the whole idea of murder unfolds gradually, starting from hints and ending with a real crime (Double Indemnity).
Moreover, in the two movies, the antagonists have different rates of influence, which is reflected in the scale of their actions. For instance, Walter Neff is an ordinary insurance agent who, despite the lack of strict moral principles, has never thought about killing for the sake of big money and the consequences that such an act could entail (Double Indemnity). Economic benefits are the links that connect the characters of the films and create a unified view of the dangers and inadmissibility of depriving a person of one’s life for enrichment. Thus, in this topic, the only similarity lies in the thirst for profit and its manifestations but not in the methods of implementing the plans conceived.
Money as an End in Itself: A Philosophical Interpretation
The morality of both films is obvious in a philosophical context because some of those theories and truths promoted by ancient thinkers are reflected in the movies. For instance, as Aristotle argued, if money lost its function as a medium of exchange, it turned into an end in itself and was dangerous as a resource exploiting people and encouraging deception. In the context of the considered cinematographic works, the concept of Aristotle can be traced explicitly. The characters of Double Indemnity lose their human appearance gradually and become obsessed with the idea of getting great wealth, which may be obtained by killing a person (Double Indemnity).
The antagonists of The Spanish Prisoner appear as distraught speculators initially, thereby confirming Aristotle’s idea of the unnatural effect of money on people (The Spanish Prisoner). When interpreting the obvious messages of the directors, it is believed that the obsession with money is one of the most dangerous vices that have survived in society during its evolution. Thus, in both films, this idea is emphasised as a moral prompting viewers to discuss how far a person can go in one’s cruelty due to money.
At the same time, a conflict of interest, which is based on a financial aspect in accordance with Aristotle’s theory, may be partially different in the two films. For instance, in Double Indemnity, the main characters do not have enough resources and opportunities to achieve the desired wealth, and therefore, they resort to deceit and cheating (Double Indemnity). Aristotle believes that money should be a means but not an end goal, and regarding the situation in The Spanish Prisoner, this argument may be partially justified.
The characters of this movie have enough financial resources to develop and promote the technological sphere, although the device that they hunt for can bring them a huge profit (The Spanish Prisoner). However, these antagonists can use their strength and power to achieve what they want, while Walter Neff and his lover act solely through cunning and insurance manipulation (Double Indemnity). Thus, one can argue about a significant contrast in the possibilities of the characters of the films in question and the financial decisions to which they resort.
Confidence Tricks and Financial Perspectives
Greed and aggression, as dangerous human vices, manifest themselves in both films under consideration. In this regard, confidence tricks may be considered plot attributes and tools that enhance intrigue and interest to viewers. In the two movies, the actions of antagonists are subordinated to the goal of influencing the psyche of people through deception, intimidation and other tricks. Therefore, for each of the films, it is possible to distinguish individual confidence artists involved in criminal activities. In Double Indemnity, Phyllis Dietrichson, Walter Neff’s beloved woman, generates ideas to increase capital and uses her new boyfriend as a partner by utilising his tender feelings for her (Double Indemnity).
In The Spanish Prisoner, Julian Dell is the character who attracts his close people to get the highly profitable technology of the protagonist, and his actions are based on tricks and hiding facts (The Spanish Prisoner). As a result, the concept of confidence artists is revealed in the two films, although, while taking into account the aforementioned financial possibilities, the characters’ actions may differ due to the accessibility of the resources used and the techniques for the implementation of insidious plans.
Since in the film by Billy Wilder, there is no an explicit protagonist who acts as a person opposing confident artists, this feature distinguishes the movie from that of David Mamet’s. In The Spanish Prisoner, the main character is a key fighter against injustice, who is forced to experience pressure from influential people due to their desire to take away his high-performance technology (The Spanish Prisoner).
Such a classic conflict is not given in Double Indemnity, where the two main participants plan to kill the heroine’s husband based on self-interest. The latter, in turn, is a secondary character and does not show his image to the extent necessary in order to judge his moral and ethical qualities (Double Indemnity). According to Phyllis Dietrichson’s stories, he is a rude and aggressive man, which, nevertheless, is purely her personal opinion and cannot be taken for truth since she is guided by exclusively financial interests (Double Indemnity). Therefore, regarding the theme of confidence artists and the classic concept of the conflict of protagonists and antagonists, Mamet’s film is more canonical, although the main character acts alone and does not have enough support.
Neglecting Personal Dignity
The aforementioned theme of neglecting personal dignity can be developed into a separate sub-topic observed in both films under consideration. For instance, in Double Indemnity, an insurance agent who has a good reputation loses his value guidelines under the influence of a beautiful woman and, as a result, becomes a murderer (Double Indemnity). The plot of The Spanish Prisoner implies denying respect for the personality of the protagonist and his rights, which is expressed in antagonists’ behaviour and the absence of obstacles to satisfy their selfish interests (The Spanish Prisoner).
Money, in both cases, plays a key role, and the desire to make big profits blocks any manifestations of humanism. Neglecting social norms due to the desire to get rich has weight in the context of the two stories occurring in different periods. The directors highlight that financial preferences may be higher than others because people tend to care about personal comfort and often sacrifice their personal dignity in order to achieve profit. Thus, this aspect touched upon in both movies and considered one of the significant plot topics brings them together and creates a similar impression after watching.
Finally, when talking about the differences between the films in question in the context of the given theme, one can note that there is a significant contrast between the perceptions of the main characters. In Double Indemnity, Walter Neff is becoming greedier throughout the movie (Double Indemnity). Joe Ross, unlike his opponents, retains his personal convictions and does not intend to give up to those who encroach on his property and life (The Spanish Prisoner).
This difference is key in this topic, which allows judging the stronger personality of the latter character. When Phyllis Dietrichson persuades Walter Neff to get involved in her crime and adjust the insured event, she cannot predict how much the man will become obsessed with this idea (Double Indemnity). As a result, the principles of morality, personal beliefs, fortitude and other important qualities inherent in people are manifested in Joe Ross more strongly and make him a more equitable person who does not want to obey either side (The Spanish Prisoner). Therefore, his image distinguishes him from that demonstrated by Billy Wilder in his work and promoted as an antihero unable to maintain personal beliefs.
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The issues of the power of money over people are addressed in the films Double Indemnity and The Spanish Prisoner often and reflect how people lose their personal dignity and betray moral values for the sake of enrichment. Despite many common aspects, some differences are present, which may be due to the specifics of the plots. A large time gap between the creation of the movies proves the relevance of the financial theme in people’s lives and the consequences that excessive greed and aggression may carry.
The evaluation of this topic from a philosophical, individual, financial and some other perspectives suggests that in the films examined, the characters’ behaviour is largely determined by the influence of the amount of money and its availability.
Double Indemnity. Directed by Billy Wilder, performance by Fred MacMurray, Paramount Pictures, 1944.
The Spanish Prisoner. Directed by David Mamet, performance by Ben Gazzara, Sony Pictures Classics, 1997.