November 28, 2007

Moral Failings of Hearts and Minds

In a Yes Minister episode, Sir Humphrey and Jim Hacker debate whether it is better to be heartless or mindless. The Minister argues for mindlessness, the civil servant for heartlessness. Perhaps it isn't surprising that Hollywood films have tended to laud the heartless over the mindless- but they and Sir Humphrey have a point. Its a point that goes all the way back to theology from the seventeenth century and earlier- where the leading argument was that anyone who was mindless risked losing their mortal soul, whereas heartlessness in the acheivement of God's purposes was a virtue to be encouraged. The great Hollywood film noir enables us to understand some of the virtues of such approaches- it enables us to see the contrast between a failed human and a flawed human.

The Big Heat is one of the great films made in the fifties, that came out of the film noir and gangster traditions. The film counterpositions the lonely cop, played by Glenn Ford against a vast criminal organisation. At its most fundemental though it plays off different types of moral behaviour, different types of moral individual against each other. I want to concentrate on two of those individuals- the main male and female characters, played by Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, the cop Rick Bannion and the gangster's moll Debbie. Both encapsulate different forms of good character- Bannion is righteous, the kind of policeman who has no cares in the world except to locate and destroy criminals. Bannion's wife is killed during the film to leave him almost without adult ties. Bannion doesn't care whether he survives or not, heartlessly he is determined to destroy the criminal gang that he faces.

Debbie isn't heartless but she is mindless. She can see perfectly well that she has created a gilded cage, but she seeks to enjoy the cage and the moment. She is vivacious, mocking the gangsters even as she sleeps with one of them to make her way in the world. She is caring enough to know that when a gangster beats up a woman its a bad thing, and to talk to Bannion afterwards, but she still goes back to the gangsters. She lives in the world, sister under the mink, to anyone who lives in that world. She is one of the most lovable femme fatales in film noir because of that naivete and that feeling. She cares and ultimately she joins in with Bannion to destroy the criminals, ultimately she does that though through an act of heartfelt rage and she is the one that breaks the gang. But Bannion of course survives the film.

After Bannion's wife dies, he loses his heart, he cares for noone, manipulates a series of people to their individual disasters in order to destroy the villains. And these are no ordinary villains, a corporation of hoodlums produces sympathetic people- bosses with daughters, thugs who have a kindness about them. Bannion doesn't care- for him they are scum, he never even gives them names he just calls them thief. He identifies them by their job and by their evil, for him there is no forgiveness, for him there is no compromise. Debbie though is different, for her there is always compromise- thanks friend she says to a kind gangster and she is willing to talk to a policeman who is trying to put away her boyfriend. She takes risks and yes she is mindless in the way that she gets in bed (literally) with the gangsters, but she has a heart and sympathises with people. Bannion doesn't care- doesn't care when Debbie gets hurt, when people get shot, for him there is only the certainty of righteousness.

And how about the film. Well the film leaves us with an interesting contrast. Ultimately we don't like Bannion, too ferocious and too hard, he leaves a sharp taste in the mouth- he gets 'his kicks out of insulting people'. We like Debbie, she is fun and flirtatious, vivacious and friendly. But Bannion gets the decisions right- Bannion is uncompromising enough to see that the gangsters are gangsters not human beings and deserve to be put away. He sees that the murderer is a murderer- Debbie thinks he is a human being and 'you gotta take the bad with the good'. In that sense the distinction between heartlessness and mindlessness becomes a distinction between two moral vices- the vice of indulgence and the vice of self righteousness. Debbie ultimately is over indulgent to her boyfriend and the others- perhaps for selfish reasons as well as unselfish ones. Bannion's crusade is irresponsible, leading others to their deaths, veers into self righteousness but is impecably moral.

The film illustrates the way that heart and mind must work together- to beleive in either on its own is to make a real moral mistake. Debbie makes one, but she redeems it by the end when she turns against evil and brings it down. Bannion makes one, but at the end of the film killing the evil outside enables him to rediscover the human within. Debbie though loses her life because of her compromises, Bannion is guiltless for losing other people's lives- I wonder if that's an image of the price of sympathy.


Lord James-River said...

...heartlessness in the acheivement of God's purposes was a virtue to be encouraged....

Good thing you mention that ths is "theology". As a historian, of course, you'd know this has nothing to do with Christianity, simply by definition.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Very interesting take on a great film, Gracchi. I never thought of it that way before. Thank you.

Gracchi said...

Well James theology is religion- its the study of religion- if you don't have a theological position you don't have a religion. Take for example God's existance- the only non-theological position is that he doesn't exist. As for it not being Christian- plenty of Christians believed it and believed that they had biblical support for it- you might not believe its Christian but to say they weren't Christian or had nothing to do with Christianity reduces that faith ultimately to only those who agree with you about its intepretation.

Cheers Welshcakes- I'm glad you like this film- it is a wonderful one.