The Ethical Spectacle September 1995

The Prisoner's Dilemma at the Movies

Every film noir involves a prisoner's dilemma. In all movies of this genre, the universe is alien and rather frightening; no-one's motives are quite clear; in a morally barren world, the characters have the opportunity to forge bonds of loyalty or to betray each other.

In one variation, the heist movie, freelance criminals team up to commit a robbery; if all cooperate, they will each receive a proportional share of the loot; if one betrays the others, he will take all, and the rest will have the sucker's payoff.

Most noir films end with a showdown or standoff; this usually represents the penultimate moment in a prisoner's dilemma, where the players hang on the edge of a move, undecided as to whether to cooperate or engage in an act of defection which will certainly end the game and will probably result in a death, their own or someone else's. Confrontation occurs in an empty warehouse or abandoned pier; players slide satchels or guns across the floor to one another; the gun represents the card being played, cooperation or defection; the satchel is the payoff that is being contested.

"Family" ties in the Godfather movies indicate the structure that is built through long cooperation in a morally barren universe;Tit for Tat reigns, and acts of defection are bloodily punished as soon as they occur. An assassination attempt is made on Don Corleone only when, due to his age and peacefulness, the future seems to have no shadow; but the assassins are mistaken, because it is ultimately his son Michael who will restore the length of the shadow. The defection is punished in the restaurant where the "Turk" and his police guard lie dead in the marinara sauce. Later, when there has been more defection and bloodshed, Don Corleone tells Michael how he will know the defector within his family: it will be the man who approaches him to arrange a peace meeting, a false act of cooperation. As the defector is taken off to his death, he apologizes: "Tell Michael it was only business." The doors that close in Kay's face at the end of the first and second movie represent Michael's defection from her.

In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the defection is played out over the gold: if we all work together as partners to dig the gold, we will all benefit equally. But perhaps one of my partners is planning to kill the rest of us and keep everything. So perhaps I should kill them first, and keep everything myself? Bogart begins to crack up under the strain of the dilemma: "Nobody ever put anything over on Fred C. Dobbs..." An intruder in the camp places himself squarely and intentionally in play, telling the others that, now that he knows the location of their stake, they must either kill him or make him a partner. (My cousin, Artie, the personal injury attorney, accurately describes this scene as a pretty fair representation of the process by which law firms decide whether or not to make new partners.)

Almost every Humphrey Bogart movie is about a prisoner's dilemma. In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade and his partner, Spade and his client, Spade and the band of criminals seeking the falcon, all play out an iterated game. Transient acts of cooperation are repeatedly followed by betrayals such as the mickey finn, the stabbing of the captain, and the climactic selection of a "fall guy" for the police.

Every film detective plays a prisoner's dilemma with his client: is she who she says she is? Is she crazy? Is she the murderer? Will she love me? Pay me? Kill me?

Almost every Hitchcock film is about a prisoner's dilemma; the object of everyone's strivings, which Hitchcock called the "Macguffin", is the payoff. Cary Grant showing up in the wheatfield in North by Northwest is an act of cooperation. The plane "dusting crops where there ain't no crops" is a defection. The two men agreeing to exchange murders in Strangers on a Train: cooperation. But one sneaks in to warn the other's intended victim, not to kill him: defection.

Gene Hackman in Night Moves watches the payoff, a monstrous pre-Columbian statue that had been hidden underwater, rise from the sea: it represents the sucker's payoff. Everyone he has tried to protect is dead, he is mortally wounded, and the movie ends with his unpiloted boat eternally circling the risen monster.

Scores of movies, from Hitchcock's Saboteur to this year's Johnny Mnemonic, have a scene where the hero and villain fight on a roof, hang from a bridge, the Statue of Liberty, etc. The villain at some point is hanging off the roof, or both are. There is an opportunity to cooperate, so that both survive; but the imperilled villain, a true scorpion, is more interested in pulling the hero off, so that both die, than in surviving himself.

Dark dramas are most often about the prisoner's dilemma. This was true long before the movies existed: most Shakespeare tragedies are also about the game, for example, Lear, whose daughter Cordelia cooperates while the others defect.