“Lights, Camera … Money!” Why there are no simple transactions when it comes to money in narrative film.

“One Million Dollars, Mr. Bond.”

—the first words Joseph Wiseman’s evil Dr. No said to Sean Connery’s stalwart James Bond in the 1962 Bond film, Dr. No, the first in the famous adventure series



Since the birth of film Hollywood has used a variety of lenses to focus on money and finance in the screen scenarios of multiple genres. Famous lines of movie dialogue plucked from the ‘money tree’ include, “Show me the money” from Jerry Maguire  (1996), “Follow the Money,” (All the President’s Men, 1976), and “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”  (Wizard of Oz, 1939). Wait a minute, are we expected to buy the claim that Oz was a film about money?

According to Brad Tuttle, writing in Money Magazine, The Wizard of Oz is a parable about populism and the U.S. monetary system: “… the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion and Dorothy represent Midwestern farmers, industrial workers, William Jennings Bryan and Everyman, respectively… and the Munchkins are the oppressed masses powerless to stop the larger forces that control the system (Wicked Witch=Wall Street Bankers).”

Tuttle claims the Yellow Brick Road represents the gold standard while, “Dorothy’s silver shoes were stand-ins for silver coinage that populists wanted to incorporate into the monetary system.”[1]

Oz was not the only blockbuster that flew under the radar in using money as a major theme. Film enthusiast Fidel Castro lauded Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws  as a pro-Marxist fable featuring the Great White as a ‘great Red’ hero, battling back after the relentless attacks of the ruthless capitalist exploiters from Amity Island. Or did El Comandante mean the bourgeois elite producers from Hollywood exploiting audience fears to scare up big box office? Whatever ‘take’ you choose in analyzing these films, money is clearly in the eyes of the beholder.

As Honoré de Balzac has often been paraphrased, “behind every great fortune lies a great crime,” it can be said that behind every great crime movie, lies a great criminal character.

Film scholars and critics are in more general agreement when it comes to the various films that show us the money in more obvious and intentional depictions. D.W. Griffith’s 1909 short silent film,  A Corner in Wheat was an early portrayal of the evil roots of money as pursued by a villainous tycoon who corners the world wheat market and inflicts misery on small farmers and poor city folk. The film’s message is clear: Greed is BAD. The corrupt corporate executive is starkly contrasted with the early 99%’ers by using innovative parallel editing techniques. After cornering the market, the evil tycoon celebrates with a lavish banquet, while Griffith intercuts with shots of farmers unable to sell their wheat at market and the urban poor who can not afford to buy bread. This character-oriented approach was designed to provide the audience with accessibility and identification with the plight of the helpless victims at the hands of the greedy wheat baron.


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Films that focus on money and finance have traditionally reflected the temper of their times. Wall Street opened just three months after Black Monday, 1987 when stock markets around the world crashed. Its villain, Gordon Gekko, was a composite character based on real corporate raiders and financiers of the time. Mike Milken, the Junk Bond King indicted on charges of racketeering and fraud, was said to be one of the models that inspired Oliver Stone and his co-screenwriter Stanley Weiser. Gekko’s mantra, “Greed, for lack of a better term, is GOOD,” made him as big a revenge target for his victims as those poor souls preyed upon by Griffith’s evil wheat magnate and propelled the character to No. 24 on the American Film Institute’s Top 50 movie villains of all time.

Orson Welles cashed in on the notoriety of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst to create the starring role in Citizen Kane (1941). This classic shows the downside of rampant materialism and raw ambition. Charles Foster Kane laments that money ultimately stifled his legacy: “You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” When all is said and done, Kane is left with the elusive image of childhood happiness on his lips: “Rosebud.”

Director Martin Scorsese also capitalized, pardon the pun, on real life and money in his 2004 film The Aviator. Here we see the tumultuous rise and fall of Howard Hughes, one of history’s most famous billionaires. The moral of this story appears to be that money can not buy happiness, but it can afford a lot of weirdness.

Other recent films rose from the ashes of actual economic disasters. The  2008 Lehman Bros. collapse gave birth to Arbitrage (2012), Margin Call (2011), and Too Big to Fail (2011). These vehicles featured more nuanced and psychologically complex financiers. Their transgressions and motivations were a response to a fundamentally morally bankrupt corporate culture that elicited more audience empathy and understanding than the black-hatted villains of earlier eras. These films also sought to provide the audience with an insider’s view of the financial world’s machinery. The audience was given an ”all access backstage pass” to the boardrooms and trading floors. The Big Short (2015) and Moneyball (2011), both based on Michael Lewis non-fiction books, were an ‘Econ for Dummies’ exercise that provoked thought and raised issues. The Big Short’s audience was actually encouraged to root for the success of its main character as he bet against the American housing market. This is a far cry from other film classics that had very different morals to their stories.

George Bernard Shaw, the leading dramatist of his generation, would agree that youth is not the only thing wasted on the young.  So is money, and the way kids are shown dealing with it in the movies.

The fantasy allegories 1938’s A Christmas Carol[2], produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and directed by Edwin L. Marin, only the second feature version of the Charles Dickens classic and the first such American talking feature, and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), produced and directed by Frank Capra, feature businessmen facing crucial life crises that force them to re-examine their lives and deeds. Ebenezer Scrooge is a heartless miser whose ruthless business practices and constant abuse of his long suffering employee, Bob Cratchit, prompt a ghostly visit from ex-partner Jacob Marley and three Christmas spirits. Instead of encouraging Bob Cratchit and fellow employees to unionize, Marley and the spirits work on Scrooge’s corporate conscience and set him on the path to redemption by renouncing greed and embracing kindhearted labor relations that included health coverage for Tiny Tim.

It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey is a banker with a heart. In an era of postwar optimism, director Frank Capra portrays him as a responsible family man and pillar of the community. His family’s building and loan is the gold standard in small business until he runs into Henry F. Potter, local banking rival and the Scrooge of Bedford Falls. Potter’s obsession with a corporate takeover sends George out to contemplate a Christmas Eve suicide and it is only through the intercession of Clarence, the Angel, that George gets an infusion of Dale Carnegie self-confidence and triumphs over Potter’s evil M&A (mergers and acquisitions) plot. The Christmas tree bell rings, Clarence gets his angelic promotion, and the emotional stock market closes higher for the audience.

Other films have gambled on banking (pardon the pun again) on audience fascination with the criminal pursuit of money.  The exploits of a parade of con men, grifters and heist pullers are glorified in films like The Sting (1973), Ocean’s 11 (1960 with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, 2001 with George Clooney and Brad Pitt), The Color of Money (1986, the sequel to the 1961 classic about pool sharks, The Hustler), The Rounders (1998) and The Boiler Room (2000). The protagonists of these films are colorful anti-heroic outliers attempting to even the score with the monolithic, soulless gaming and amusement industries. These celluloid Robin Hoods are playing with ‘house money,’ knowing that the audience will side with them and derive vicarious thrills from their ingenious, daring and intricately plotted capers.

Even more thrilling are films that deal with crime as big business. As Honoré de Balzac has often been paraphrased, “behind every great fortune lies a great crime,” it can be said that behind every great crime movie, lies a great criminal character. Marlon Brando brought home the gold for his portrayal of the CEO of Genco Pura Olive Oil Company, Vito Corleone. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel, The Godfather chronicles the rise of the crime family business, culminating in its successful prosecution of the Olive Oil War, providing the narrative spine of the screenplay. The audience applauds Don Corleone for his ethical business practices when he refuses to diversify into the narcotics trade. This CEO not only has a sense of corporate responsibility he is also lionized for his philanthropy that comes in the form of ‘favors’ for the members of his community. Eat your heart out, George Soros.

Other criminal rags-to-riches scenarios can be found in Scarface (1932 with Paul Muni, remade 1983 with Al Pacino)and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), where we find street punks fulfilling Horatio Alger dreams as they shoot their way to the top of the criminal ranks through hard work, loyalty and ‘the art of the deal,’ however crooked it is.

George Bernard Shaw, the leading dramatist of his generation, would agree that youth is not the only thing wasted on the young.  So is money, and the way kids are shown dealing with it in the movies. Young, rich, entitled characters float through 1995’s Clueless, while another teen ensemble challenges authority and crashes a father’s priceless Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) In 1979’s Risky Business, Tom Cruise’s character comes up with an innovative high school start-up (prostitution) and crashes his father’s priceless Porsche 928 in the process. And in the granddaddy of the youth-confronting-growing up-rich-and-clueless genre, The Graduate (1967), which made a star of Dustin Hoffman, finds Benjamin, a recent Stanford MBA floating aimlessly in his parents’ swimming pool after receiving some unforgettable career advice: “Plastics.”

These ‘coming of age’ character studies highlight a generational shift in attitudes about money and finance. The young protagonists have the luxury of time and parental financial support to take a gap year off from anxiety over future career paths and how they will make their own money, start families, and reach some level of security and happiness. Their frivolous behavior and cavalier approach to materialism will soon come into direct conflict with harsh economic realities, but for now, they can enjoy the endless summer. Until their allowance runs out.

The ’80s and ’90s  have been noted for second and third-wave feminism and Hollywood found a new audience responding to films that dealt with women entering the boardroom and assuming powerful positions in high finance and industry. Earlier films of this period portrayed women as long suffering victims of male bosses who finally rise up and exact revenge on these misogynists and prove their mettle as talented executives running businesses. The rollicking comedy 9 to 5 (1980), directed by Colin Higgins, had audiences cheering the Fonda-Parton-Tomlin trio as they kidnapped their abusive boss and achieved new success for the business and recognition of their talents.

Nineteen eighty-seven saw Diane Keaton as a high powered executive in Baby Boom whose life changes when she inherits a baby and temporarily retires to Vermont, where she soon pines for the power and action of her old corner office. She winds up victorious by combining motherhood and career when she starts a new baby food company, the dream being promoted at that moment that women could have everything, domesticity and a professional life.

Melanie Griffith’s character in 1988’s Working Girl also found herself victimized by a tyrannical boss, but this time it was a woman. This new take explored women in the workplace as competitors, with Harrison Ford’s traditional alpha male caught in the middle.

Another more nuanced and complex portrayal of women and their power relationships in business saw Meryl Streep as a fashion industry mogul lording it over assistants Emily Blunt and the young new hire, Anne Hathaway in the more recent The Devil Wears Prada (2006), based on Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 best-selling novel of the same name. The men’s roles in this story are marginalized, allowing for more fully dimensional women characters and the exploration of their relationship dynamics. Audiences found it refreshing to see highly accomplished women facing the challenges of running a multinational fashion empire and movie studios found a new generation of women dragging boyfriends and husbands to what used to be known as a ‘chick flick.’

The majority of film plots revolve around either love or money. Some choose to incorporate both as major fulcrums for dramatic action. Love stories often mine box office success through class-conscious relationships: boy with money meets girl without… boy gets girl … boy loses money … but they have got each other and besides, girl has talent so they live happily ever after.  This was true of A Star is Born, only boy dies unhappily. In Love Story (1970), based on the Erich Segal best-selling novel,  upper class boy meets lower income girl… Boy gets girl, girl gets cancer.  Hmm, not so happy either but “being in love means never having to say … you’re broke,” to paraphrase the film’s famous tagline: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” In some ways, Love Story is the exact opposite of George Stevens’s 1951 film, A Place in the Sun, that starred Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor as the star-crossed, economically mismatched boy and girl. Based on Theodore Dreiser’s famous 1925 novel, An American Tragedy, which itself was based on a true story, here we get poor boy almost gets rich girl except that he murders poor factory girl whom he made pregnant (Shelley Winters) and thus must go to the electric chair. Class jumping, as we learn from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, is sure not easy. And a film like A Place in the Sun confirms that notion. Many Hollywood scenarios seem to be making a case for love conquering all, including money and socio-economic divides, except when it does not. But why can love and money not be fun?

They can, as evidenced by romantic comedies such as Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990), Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998), and Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996). Pretty Woman is a Pygmalion class conscious fairy tale in which a slash and burn corporate raider falls in love with a  slash but-won’t-burn-hooker. They have to overcome their cross-cultural differences in one weekend and money changes hands like crazy. She shops and he drops … lots of cash but he does not mind because he has hired her as arm candy to keep up appearances while taking over a company and putting its worthy elderly owner on the street. Moral compasses spin and Richard Gere’s character gradually becomes the unlikely Cinderella to his not-so-fair Lady, Julia Roberts.

An earlier draft of the screenplay assumed a much darker tone about ruthless business on Wall Street and sex work on Hollywood Boulevard but the comic instincts of director Garry Marshall prevailed and led this film to box office receipts of half a billion dollars.

“Show me the money,” from Jerry Maguire is one of the most famous  lines of dialogue in modern film history. It has worked its way into the zeitgeist and become the national anthem of economic aspiration. The eponymous lead character is the rebellious maverick  agent who does battle with marketing leviathan, Sports Management International. In the middle of a love story, director Crowe takes the audience into the heart of the business of professional football and shrewdly observes the details and inner workings of that arena. Authenticity is a big factor in engaging the viewer and Jerry Maguire had us at ‘fade in.’ Andrew Brandt, former Director of Player Finance for the Green Bay Packers, applauded the film’s portrait of pro football’s money game in his 2014 Sports Illustrated critique of yet another sports film, Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day, starring Kevin Costner: Jerry Maguire accurately portrayed the cutthroat nature of the agent business … It also captured the financial, emotional and psychological investment that goes far beyond negotiating contracts.”

You’ve Got Mail  is another example of corporate takeover leading to romantic makeover. Tom Hanks plays the owner of a chain bookstore empire that locates across the street from Meg Ryan’s boutique independent shop. Competitors in real life, they unwittingly fall in love online. Economic reality bites romance and hilarity ensues. The late Nora Ephron shrewdly retooled Ernst Lubitsch’s brilliant 1940 film, Shop Around the Corner which examined employer-employee relationships through the sub-rosa romance between James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan.

Any examination of the film industry’s POV of money and finance without a surprise twist ending would be shortchanging the reader, so see if this one is on the money (OMG, another pun): Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is actually about money!

Mervyn Nicholson makes this case in Monthly Review: “Psycho is all about money—about deprivation, frustration, and the privilege of property. It is about those who work for a living and have nothing—and those who do not work and have everything.” Nicholson claims that Psycho is far more a movie “about money than it is … about over-the-top psychiatric problems.”

Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane flees Phoenix after stealing $40,000 from her boss and intends to rendezvous with her boyfriend when she runs head-on into a rainstorm on back roads trying to stay one step ahead of the police. She checks into the Bates Motel to wrestle with her guilty conscience … and take a shower.  Hitchcock has put a knife into the idle hands of Norman Bates, who is way too early to fit into that entitled youth genre of the ’90s, and he is anything but clueless—he is CRAZY!! And Nicholson’s analysis appears at first glance to be just that but it is crazy like a fox as it turns out: “ … it will sound absurd to claim that Hitchcock has anything to do with class struggle. It is an interesting reaction, because issues that are a function of class struggle are plainly on view in Hitchcock, even if they are ignored—or blocked out … Many of his movies are built around class-struggle issues: without them, there would be no movie.”

In Goldfinger, as in other Bond films, money is in super abundance. Stacks of cash and gold bars are visibly present everywhere: in the uber-villain’s lair, Bond’s luxury hotel rooms, the piles of chips and endless banknotes flashing by in the casinos, and culminating in the caper to rob Fort Knox.

Nicholson cites Hitchcock’s interest in work, in featuring worksites and what people do for a living as essential to character development and plot:  “… their place in the capitalist order, as worker or as owner, is always carefully marked and meaningful.” In the case of Psycho, when Marion, the hard working drone accepts the boyish Norman’s hospitable invitation into his creepy parlor, little does she know she is  about to show him more than just the money: boy meets girl, boy kills girl. And Psycho lives creepily ever after in the nightmares of audiences past, present and future.

We have  examined how money is portrayed thematically in movies but how is it actually shown?  To sample the role of money in film plots consider these radically different movies from across the Atlantic: Goldfinger, the 1964 high-end James Bond extravaganza, and L’Argent  (Money),  French auteur Robert Bresson’s smaller-than-life 1983 crime drama. Both films use money as props and set dressing to propel their storylines, develop characters and weave in subtext dealing with wealth and class.

In Goldfinger, as in other Bond films, money is in super abundance. Stacks of cash and gold bars are visibly present everywhere: in the uber-villain’s lair, Bond’s luxury hotel rooms, the piles of chips and endless banknotes flashing by in the casinos, and culminating in the caper to rob Fort Knox. Money is truly at the root of Auric Goldfinger’s evil as he is out to corner the market in gold—the same as Griffith’s wheat robber baron—only Goldfinger’s plot threatens global destruction:  he will use the gold to buy a thermonuclear weapon. And this wicked alchemy provides the visual spectacle of Goldfinger’s gold gun, limousine, gold shoes and, in a major plot surprise,  Bond’s discovery of Jill Masterson’s gold-painted body. Production Designer Ken Adams provides a fantasized version of Fort Knox as  an ultramodern underground reservoir where dazzling gold bars are featured in symmetrical stacks. Colin Burnett, Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, describes this lavish set as  “… a great cathedral of capitalism that brings new meaning to the expression  ‘E pluribus unum’ Although there are many bars, they come together as one. In this cathedral there is one divinity—the bar of gold.” Burnett asserts that Bond films build a world as much as they tell a story and money and wealth are core aspects, symbolizing power and leverage: “Bond plots do not just reinforce, but depend upon the pleasures associated with powerful wealth. When Bond villains try to lure 007 to their side with this wealth, Bond’s refusal is portrayed as an act of great sacrifice, discipline and honor.” And besides, he gets to drive that Aston Martin and do all the shaking and stirring at British taxpayer’s expense. Whether Brexit will cause 007 to downsize and bunk at Holiday Inn Express is the next director’s guess.

Another director, Robert Bresson, was known for his spiritual and ascetic style and his films are noted for their minimalism—elements that would appear to be antithetical to featuring money in his scenarios—but one of his most acclaimed films owes its cachet to cash. L’Argent  (Money)  is a smaller-than-life drama inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Forged Coupon (1912)The plot centers on a counterfeit bank note as it is passed from a young boy who, failing to get more of an allowance from his parents, pawns off his watch to a friend who pays him with a forged 500 franc note. Bresson follows the trail of this single bank note with close-ups of hands exchanging the actual French currency as it makes its way through various characters and social settings including a photo shop owner who passes it on to the main victim of the forgery, Yvon, a working class gas man who accepts the bogus note as payment for the bill. He then buys dinner at a restaurant with the counterfeit note and is arrested. Yvon pays the price, literally, in this naturalistic nightmare, as in short order he is imprisoned for counterfeiting, his daughter dies, his marriage dissolves and he spirals down into desperation and murder. All because of a single bank note that we have seen depicted as the fateful instrument of his doom. Bresson has visually chronicled the power of a printed piece of paper in shaping people’s lives.

Colin Burnett,  author of the upcoming The Invention of  Robert Bresson: The Auteur and his Market (2017, Indiana University Press) contrasts L’Argents visual symbolism with that of Goldfinger’s: “Bresson graphically depicts money functioning as a token, a literary device to narratively unite various characters as money means different things in different hands.” Burnett sees a kind of sinister version of “trickle down economics” at play in Bresson’s plot. The privileged children of wealth see money as a frivolous plaything. The boy’s allowance is “pay without work,” while the 500 franc forgery has increasingly life altering effects as it works its way down the socio-economic food chain. This is visually depicted with close ups of hands interacting with money: “The figures of the hand gesture becomes less dexterous, less functional, less bound to the protagonist’s personal liberty and wellbeing, and serves merely to show the reflexive act of giving and taking bank notes. Hands have lost their purpose, their link to labor. The objects now wielded by characters ensure their tragic demise, their failures and social precarity. Money, in this context, becomes a symbol of class and gender distinctions.”

Bond to Bresson—what a difference the English Channel makes … and the Atlantic, as we  see what Hollywood has invested in for future films about money. Let us look at some 2017 coming monetary attractions on the Movie Insider website:


The Founder: Michael Keaton stars in the biopic of Ray Kroc, a salesman from Illinois who meets two brothers named McDonald and is impressed with how fast they can make and serve hamburgers. Citizen Kane with extra cheese.

Live by Night:  Ben Afleck writes, directs and stars in a Prohibition era crime story about grabbing money and power through a network of  speakeasies. Beware the hangover.

The Boss Baby:  a baby corporate executive foils the plot of the evil CEO of Puppy Inc. to destroy the balance of love in the world. Show me the Pampers.

Going in Style:  A senior citizen heist movie starring Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman as crinklies who are tired of feeding pigeons and waiting for Social Security checks so they decide to rob banks. I feel like a nap.

Ocean’s Eight: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchet and six other female stars rip off George Clooney and ten other male stars in a scenario that is being kept under wraps. Equal haul for equal work.


As for what played in theaters as of late 2016, The Accountant stars Ben Afleck as a math savant who juggles the books for a new client and finds himself on the wrong side of the ledger. P&L meets Smith & Wesson as Ben trades his calculator for a machine gun and starts counting bodies.

My advice to filmgoers on this fresh batch of films that deal with money and finance, both high and low?  Watch your wallets and curl up with a good book.

[1] Clearly, this interpretation only works with the L. Frank Baum’s novel and not with the 1939 film version where Dorothy does not wear silver slippers but ruby ones, to satisfy the requirements of Technicolor. The interpretation of the novel as a parable about the monetary crisis of the late 1890s is hardly new or original.  See Ranjit S. Dighe (ed.). The Historian’s Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory (West Port, Connecticut: Praeger, 2002) which provides the entire history of this interpretation of the book.  Also see Martin Gardner and Russel B. Nye (eds.), The Wizard of Oz and Who He Was (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1994, originally published in 1957) and the massively footnoted  Michael Patrick Hearn (ed.), The Annotated Wizard of Oz, (New York: Norton, 2000) for further exploration of this reading of the novel.  Nye was among the earliest post-World War II scholars to seriously study popular culture and an ardent defender of Baum’s novel when it was belittled by librarians during the 1950s.

[2] Dickens’s 1843 story has been adapted for screen many times as a feature film over the years including musical versions in 1970 (Scrooge starring Albert Finney) and 1992 (The Muppet Christmas Carol). A 1988 updated version of the story entitled Scrooged, starring Bill Murray and directed by Richard Donner, had a few musical numbers but was not a musical per se. For more about the significance of Dickens’s story, see Michael Patrick Hearn, The Annotated Christmas Carol, (New York: Norton, 2004) and Paul Davis, The Lives and Times of Ebenzer Scrooge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990)