10 great films about catastrophic lies 

The kind of lies that start small but have a corrupting, destructive effect.

30 March 2023

By Georgina Guthrie

God’s Creatures (2022)

White lies, black lies, fibs, fraud, hoaxes and cover-ups – lies come with a complex grading system, largely instigated to assuage the guilt of the deceiver or condemn the perpetrator. When you really dig into it, they’re a fascinating phenomenon – perhaps that’s why so many films mine their dramatic potential. 

Plenty of American noirs feature double-crossing dames whose lies land them in hot water. The silver screen’s most infamous femme fatales capitalise on their beauty, which masks duplicitous and often deadly intentions. Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in Out of the Past (1947) uses her angelic appearance to trick men, as does Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon (1941) – though her ploys are lost on the pessimistically intuitive Sam (Humphrey Bogart), who hands her over to the cops. The 1930 to 1968 Hays Code insisted characters were punished for criminal deviancy, so victims of circumstance or not, noir’s wily women usually meet with ‘just’ catastrophe in the end. 

Infidelity is another prolific plot device that centres around a lie, and like the disreputable dealings of noir’s shady ladies, it offers riches in terms of moral questions with which to grapple. Brief Encounter (1945), Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) and In the Mood for Love (2000) present three examples of marital deceit that aren’t as clear cut on the right/wrong scale as one might think. Luckily, none ends in catastrophe per se, unlike some of the illicit unions in this list. 

Then there are lies that work on a bigger scale – government cover-ups, à la All the President’s Men (1976), false promises of economic milk and honey in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), as well as those that begin in the domestic realm and spread outwards. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Hunt (2012) and Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s upcoming film God’s Creatures – starring Emily Watson as an Irish mother who fibs to protect her estranged son (Paul Mescal) – all centre around a lie that spreads its poison tendrils outwards, corrupting everything it touches.

Double Indemnity (1944) 

Director: Billy Wilder

Double Indemnity (1944)

When a towel-clad Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) sashays on to the landing of her Los Angeles villa to greet insurance salesman Walter (Fred MacMurray), signs point to a lady who’s on the back foot and about to be seduced. Not so fast – like her faux-Spanish home, she’s all surface: with her butter-wouldn’t-melt face, blonde hair and that white dress she slips on. The duo begin a sizzling cat-and-mouse flirtation that ultimately sees the hunted come out on top: Phyllis convinces Walt to sell life insurance to her husband, then conspire to murder him so they can make off with the cash. 

The tragedy of Double Indemnity doesn’t belong to Phyllis, though, who (allegedly) understands the meaning of love too late – or even Walt, who finds himself entangled in her myriad deceits. It belongs to his boss Barton (Edward G. Robinson), who takes Walter under his wing, only to see his esteemed protégé fall from grace. “Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya,” says the ailing salesman as he slumps to the floor. “Closer than that, Walter,” comes the rueful reply. 

Madame de… (1953)

Director: Max Ophüls

Madame de... (1953)

The opening of Max Ophüls’ opulent classic sees Louise’s (the titular Madame de… played by Danielle Darrieux) gloved hand hover over jewels, fine dresses and furs, before setting back where it started – on a pair of sparkling earrings, gifted to her from her husband on their marriage. It’s for this reason the sale is conducted in secrecy and accompanied by her first lie: she pretends to lose them at the opera. This sets off a chain of events in which the jewellery makes its way through various hands until it arrives back in hers via her paramour, which imbues the earrings with new emotional weight, as well as a rich history of deceit that inevitably poisons things.

This swoony tale of love and lies offers emotional clout and visual decadence aplenty, but notable is the ballroom scene that showcases Ophüls’ virtuoso use of the tracking shot. In one take, our lovers swirl in a haze of glittering outfits and shimmering candles over five nights, with the sexual tension ratcheting up with every mesmerising dance. A lie has rarely been so beautiful and heartbreaking. 

Les Diaboliques (1955)

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot  

Les Diaboliques (1955)

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s dark masterpiece follows an unhappily married wife who plots to murder her husband with a little help from his brassy mistress. When the body goes missing, events assume a supernatural flavour, and the delicate wife’s barely suppressed guilt takes its toll. She’s coerced into a murder plot then tormented by her husband from beyond the grave – a rough deal, and the real tragedy is that the liar’s a good person who doesn’t deserve the events that ensue. 

Les Diaboliques is often hailed as the best Hitchcock that Hitchcock didn’t direct, Clouzot having pipped him to the post in buying the rights to Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s source novel. As a consolation prize, Hitch snapped up another of their novels for adaptation – D’entre les morts (‘From Among the Dead’), which became the story for Vertigo (1958), another web of lies that ends in disaster. 

Throne of Blood (1957) 

Director: Akira Kurosawa 

Throne of Blood (1957)

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with deceit. There’s Iago dripfeeding Othello jealousy-inducing falsehoods, and Hamlet’s feigned madness sending Ophelia to a watery grave – but few of the Bard’s creations show the full catastrophic effect of a lie quite so well as Macbeth. We begin with the witch’s prophecy (or is that a lie?), then move on to treason, which leads the co-conspiring power couple to hatch separate plots. It all goes south from there. 

There are countless adaptations to choose from. Orson Welles’ German expressionist-inspired take (1948), Justin Kurzel’s landscape-rich epic (2015), Joel Coen’s stripped back version (2021) – all excellent. But while Akira Kurosawa’s samurai tale parts from the source material script-wise, it stays truest to the play’s simmering paranoia and weirdness. Barren battlegrounds stand in for the highlands, and the three witches become one eerie ghost who sings cryptic messages while spinning a loom – a reference to the web of falsehoods she’s weaving? It’s as ambiguous in film as in text. Then there’s that minimalist score of screeches and percussive bangs that chills the bones deeper than any Scottish winter. 

Vertigo (1958)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo (1958)

No one reading of Vertigo seems to hold universal appeal, but here goes (and watch out: spoilers ahead). We all know what the lie is – Judy (Kim Novak) gussied up to look like Elster’s wife to trick Scottie (James Stewart) into murderous complicity. But what’s the catastrophe? 

It isn’t the death of Madeleine, the object of Scottie’s lust – nor the wife we never met, nor is it the death of Judy, the makeup-caked Kansas girl who played the part of Madeleine. The first never existed, the second we don’t know, and the last was guilty of a crime, not to mention the catalyst that sparked Scottie’s descent into immorality (though let’s not blame her for his faults). The catastrophe of the film’s central lie is the ruined life of Scottie who, by the end, is cured of his acrophobia, but trapped by the past at the moment he’s finally free; fettered to a desire he can neither recreate nor banish. As Richard Brody writing for the New Yorker eloquently suggests, this is what that famous free fall iconically captured via the sickening ‘Hitchcock zoom’ is all about: Scottie’s inescapable fate. 

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) 

Director: Miloš Forman 

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Early-career Jack Nicholson plays Mac, a hard drinking, foul-mouthed lout who, in an attempt to avoid jail for statutory rape, feigns mental illness and ends up in a psychiatric ward headed by the icy Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). He rips through the unit like a tornado, but he’s a breath of fresh air, instigating basketball games, a breakout fishing trip and a boozy party after hours. His antics do more for the mental wellbeing of his fellow inmates than hours of Ratched’s ‘care’ ever could. 

Lewd and crude, it’s hard to like Mac – but Ratched’s banal cruelty throws his humanity into sharp relief, and before long we’re sympathising with this rough-cut everyman. Sadly for him, his opponent has the relentless, crushing heft of bureaucracy behind her, and his lie to avoid jail swiftly turns tragic.

L’Argent (1983) 

Director: Robert Bresson

L’Argent (1983)

In L’Argent – a loose adaptation of Tolstoy’s novella The Forged Coupon – small gestures accrue monumental moral weighting through sound: the dry rustle of money, the chime of a cash register and the slam of a car door mark the banal actions that trace the journey of a forged banknote that poisons everyone with whom it comes into contact. The lie here is capitalism itself, represented by the note, which is acquired and passed on by the son of a wealthy couple to a respectable shopkeeper. With what ease these bourgeois characters lie, and willingly watch the ripples of that lie turn into waves that upturn those less well off. Characteristically, Robert Bresson is interested in those on the margins: lowly blue-collar workers and criminals occupy this tale, and are ultimately the ones who suffer most.

The swansong of Bresson’s career, it’s a story told with thrilling economy, mixing enigmatic gaps with blinding directness: hearing “L’argent” uttered over a shot of a blood-spattered wall tells us all we need to know.

The Remains of the Day (1993) 

Director: James Ivory

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Self-deception is a tricky beast; the human mind expert at clouding our vision with biases and blocking out the objectionable. Closely following the Booker Prize-winning novel by Kazuo Ishiguro on which it’s based, The Remains of the Day centres on ageing butler Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) as he drives through the West Country on a short break away from his place of employment. Much of the film is told via flashback as he reminisces about his time working there under the hall’s former owner, Lord Darlington, who we gradually learn was a Nazi sympathiser. 

The buttoned-up Stevens reveals little about his feelings, but through his memories and present day interactions, we learn two things: firstly, that he dedicated the best years of his life to his former boss; and secondly, that he now feels shame for having served such a man. The tragedy is profound, yet quiet: it’s the tale of a man who sees, too late, that he has wasted his life. 

The Hunt (2012)

Director: Thomas Vinterberg 

The Hunt (2012)

The proverb ‘out of the mouths of babes’ pairs wide-eyed innocence with inherent truth-telling – what it misses is that the corrupting influences begin from the moment we’re born. In Thomas Vinterberg’s film about a beloved kindergarten teacher (Mads Mikkelsen) who’s accused of sexual contact by a pupil (Annika Wedderkopp), a pornographic magazine is the corrupting force that lends tragic credence to a young girl’s lie. 

It’s excruciating watching well-meaning adults unwittingly place words in the mouth of an overwhelmed child – as it is watching the devastating effects of this false accusation slowly tear a life, a school, two families and then a close-knit village apart. Where The Hunt excels, though, is in showing the pervasiveness of a lie. Like the smell of damp infiltrating a house that no amount of scent can mask, the girl’s childish mistake marks her teacher forever. 

Parasite (2019) 

Director: Bong Joon Ho

Parasite (2019)

‘Banjiha’, the name for South Korea’s semi-basement flats, gained international fame on the release of Boon Joon Ho’s pitch-black comedy about a family who gain access to an affluent home by posing as professionals. By 2022, the Seoul government promised to ban the dank dwellings after deadly floods, but the vast gap between the haves and the have-nots that forms the core of Parasite remains. 

Inspired by Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960), and the story of Christine and Léa Papin, two live-in maids who murdered their employer, Bong Joon Ho’s class fable treads uncomfortable ground: the idea that those you invite into your home could turn against you. But there’s a bigger lie at play here, and, once again, it’s capitalism. The film’s title refers doubly to those who live off the wealthy household and, more poignantly, to the upper classes who leech off the labour of those below, keeping them in docile servitude by the lie that one day they’ll make it, if they just work hard enough.

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