The allure of Wall Street’s lusty pleasures

Many people believe that a relatively few individuals were the real villains behind the financial heart attack of 2008: Those on Wall Street; in banks and other financial institutions; on the faculties of the nation’s leading graduate business schools, writing financial jabberwocky for small-circulation journals; setting policy in the West Wing of the White House and on Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve Board.

It’s popular to believe they hijacked the free market ideal because they could. It was American as handguns. They then proceeded to twist it to serve personal agendas at great cost to the. American people. Enough financial violence was done to make Attila the Hun look like Mother Teresa.

Some of these hijackers could have been hopeless psychopaths whose brains were wired in such a way that they actually got more pleasure scamming $10 from widows and orphans through elaborate Times Square shell games than by honestly earning $100 selling Bibles door-to-door.

In fact, everything needed to understand them is contained in several film noir classics.

Presumably, the only defense against such psychopaths is to isolate them before they can do too much damage. But the overwhelming majority of those assumed to have turned the free market ideal into a rip­ off of the American public probably started as fundamentally decent individuals, as morally straight as church deacons.

So what turned these Boy Scouts into shameless hustlers eager to sell their mothers 10 times over for a fast buck? The answer is clear enough to anyone who’s ever been bedazzled by Billy Wilder’s corrosively breathtaking  1944 movie “Double Indemnity,” with Barbara Stanwyck’s pathologically definitive scarlet woman promising poor schnook Fred MacMurray riches and sexual ecstasies beyond his wildest dreams if he helps her with a murderous insurance scam, all while working her own angles and making her own rules. If only he would bend a few rules. Just a little. Even for a short time.

Now imagine Stanwyck is America’s free market and MacMurray  is the Wall Street schmuck who should have known better.

Money and sex are hopelessly tangled in the male consciousness. So when a scarlet woman strutting in capitalism’s strapless red gown turns her wet-lipped allure loose on them and moves in close enough to fill their lungs with her dizzying perfume, what hungry Wall Street player is strong enough to resist her? Or even care when their homes and hearths and panoply of family values go rushing down the drain?

And if worse comes to worst, they can always stand up in court and plead the equivalent of Adam’s excuse when God scolded him for having eaten the forbidden fruit.

Barbara Stanwyck’s definitive portrayals of scarlet women throughout her .long career make these performances especially relevant in helping us appreciate why so many men in our male-dominated society remain confused little boys who get sex and money all mixed up. They become ·ready prey for the allure of money and power and all too eagerly sacrifice their careers, families, and very lives for the promise of a tainted dollar.

To our good fortune, many of these classic films noir are now available on DVDs and various video ­ streaming services. So be on the lookout for “The Lady from Shanghai,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Out of the Past,” “Touch of Evil,” “The Killers” and many others.

Nothing beats movies from the classic noir era when it comes to exploring the darker side of human nature and providing us with psychological insights into why so many Americans are driven to behave like schmucks. Or at least they offer some convenient and reassuring explanations. 

originally published: May 9, 2015

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