A Most Unreflective Businessman

February 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I won’t do business in New York,” my father once told me.  When I asked why, he described how New York customers would cheat in order to push down the price they paid for his steel.

I hadn’t thought about that for a while. The memory came back just after I saw “A Most Violent Year” set in the grimy and graffiti-covered New York of 1981. The hero, Abel Morales, is trying to expand his heating oil business, but someone is out to thwart him. His trucks are hijacked, the oil stolen. His employees are threatened and beaten up.  In addition, the DA trying to clean up the heating oil business has gotten a 14-count indictment, and the bank withdraws the loan they had agreed to.

My father’s customers did nothing violent or illegal, just unethical and dishonest.  Why would they do that, I asked my father. I was young and naive. “Guys in New York,” he said, “it’s a tough market.”

I was amazed that he could be so understanding.  But he recognized that people in business acted not solely on the basis personal morality. In some markets, you had to be a little dishonest in order to survive. That’s the point that both Abel and the “A Most Violent Year” try very hard to ignore.  Instead, the movie, at least on its surface, seems to be trying to convey the message – that cliche that runs from old Westerns to the latest thrillers – that even in a corrupt world, an honest man acting honorably can come out on top. The bad guys may lie, cheat, steal, kill, kidnap, or whatever, unconstrained by any moral sense; yet the good guy, using only honorable means, will win. The good guy’s goodness and the bad guy’s wickedness are never in doubt. Doubt, in fact, is usually irrelevant.

Because Hollywood prefers this simplified view of morality, we have very few honest films about business. In “A Most Violent Year,” at least we see a more realistic businessman – successful, even wealthy, but not all powerful, running a small company, dealing with everyday crises, trying to negotiate loans so he can stay afloat. More often in Hollywood films, businessmen are the sinister, greedy, and powerful CEOs of large corporations. The Montgomery Burns caricature in “The Simpsons”  is not too distant from executives in serious movies.

I can think of only one movie centered on a businessman who faced with moral problems that have no simple, untainted solution – “Save the Tiger” from 1973.

“A Most Violent Year” could have been such a movie, but Abel never admits to himself that his motives and actions are anything but pure. The trailer gives some suggestion of his resoluteness. 

Others recognize that the the heating oil business is a compromised and compromising world. “Everyone in this room is fully capable of lying to their own mothers on their deathbeds,” says Peter Forente at a meeting of the fifteen important players in the business. Forente is the son of a mobster now in prison, but Peter is trying to do things differently to the extent he can. When Abel asks him for a much-needed loan, Peter tells him, “I don’t want you to be in this position. We are not nice people to borrow three quarters of a million dollars from.”

Abel’s wife – her father too was connected to organized crime – is aware of how that world works.  She has been keeping two sets of books, and she’s been skimming money over the years, apparently without her husband – the head of the company – knowing.  She has put  enough money aside that Abel won’t have to borrow from the “not nice people.”  She shows him a slip of paper with the sum on it.

What do you expect me to do with this?
Use it.... Abel...
Is it clean?
It’s as clean as every other dollar we’ve ever made.
That’s a fucking bullshit answer.

[a few moments later]

I’ll get it done. And it won’t be as a cheat.
(Yelling, but controlled enough to not wake the kids.)
Oh you are too much. You’ve been walking around your whole life like this all happened because of your hard work, good luck, and charm. Mr. Fucking American Dream. Well this is America... but it’s not a dream, and that wasn’t good luck helping you out all those years... IT WAS ME! Doing the things you didn’t want to know about...

Somehow, Abel acts as though he still does not to know about those things, continuing to believe in his own rectitude. In fact, compared with the other oil dealers, he is more honorable. Yet, despite the phony books (which he helps to hide under his house), despite the felony indictment, despite all those dollars he made being equally clean (i.e., not so clean), he fails to confront or even acknowledge the moral ambiguities. Abel is like so many other protagonists in American films.  All conflict is external. Life is about solving problems. Self-doubt would only get in the way.

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