You probably consider life insurance, or any kind of insurance for that matter, a pretty dull topic and certainly not one worthy of a great suspense film. But consider the plots and characters that recur in several classic films, especially those from the era of film noir. In addition to a femme fatale and a dead body (usually the femme fatale’s schmuck of a husband), there’s almost always a clever (or sometimes not-so-clever) insurance agent among the cast, either trying to figure out who killed who or, just as often, scrambling to cover up a crime the femme fatale convinced him to commit. If the following films are any indication, crime doesn’t pay, unless the victim has an insurance policy.
In Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray stars as an auto insurance salesman who, after becoming involved with bored housewife Barbara Stanwyck and her wig, conspires to kill her drag of a husband, Mr. Dietrichson. The film’s title refers to a clause in a life insurance policy that doubles the payout if the death of the policy holder is caused by accidental means. We know MacMurray is screwed from the beginning, since the film opens with him confessing to his crimes into a dictaphone and delivering the immortal lines: “I killed Dietrichson! Me! Walter Neff! Insurance agent, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars … until a while ago that is. Yeah, I killed him. I killed him for money and a woman!”
Based on the book by Herman M. Cain, who spent a year trying to sell accident insurance before turning to journalism, screenwriting, and writing novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice features a stunning Lana Turner as a (you guessed it) unhappily married wife who seduces a drifter played by Frank Chambers and convinces him to (you guessed it again) kill her husband. Of course, in the process of making Turner’s husband’s death look like an accident, things get screwed up, and not one, not two, but a total of three insurance companies end up involved in the ensuing court case.
Despite the fact that the short story by Ernest Hemingway that The Killers is based on makes no mention of insurance, the scriptwriters chose to make the lead a brave, no-nonsense insurance investigator (played by Edmond O’Brien), who is called upon to figure out why Burt Lancaster’s character, known as “the Swede,” passively allowed himself to be executed by two killers. The backstory of “the Swede,” told through a series of flashbacks, includes committing a robbery with the help of a gangster’s moll played by the lovely Ava Gardner. Thanks to films like The Killers, investigating insurance claims must have appeared as exciting to audiences as deep sea fishing or big game hunting, which Hemingway probably found somewhat laughable.
“Hey, how was your weekend?”
“Pretty good, boss! Thanks for asking.”
“That’s a nice suit.”
“Thanks! It’s one of three cheap suits I own. They’re all identical!”
“How do you like your job? Are you liking the company?”
“Oh, it’s swell. I love working here.”
“Great. By the way, you’re fired.”
“Yep. I’ve run this company into the ground! Ruined everything. Everyone is getting fired. And I’m going to blow my brains out. However, the life insurance I have won’t pay out if I commit suicide. And I’m worried about my family. So can you come by my place, say after dinner, and make sure my suicide looks like a murder?”
“But you have so much to live for!”
“Whatever. I’ll give you $10,000 to do it. And by the way, you’re still fired.”
“Oh! Well, okay. I’ll do it. Even though it’s a strange bargain, what could possibly go wrong??”
In the rarely seen noir classic Roadblock, a hard-boiled insurance investigator (played by Charles DeGraw) falls for a brunette bombshell played by Joan Dixon and conspires to commit a crime that, in an ironic turn of events, he’s later called upon to investigate. Dixon’s character is initially a vamp, but ends up actually falling for DeGraw, even though he believes she’ll dump him for someone with a lot more money. His romantic if somewhat self-pitying scene with Dixon after breaking into her place to decorate a Christmas tree is a classic.
Obscure classic or an unintentionally hilarious parade of bad acting and even worse dialogue? Even as a so-so example of film noir, A Life At Stake does manage to put a new spin on what was, by 1954, the thoroughly regurgitated tale of an unhappy wife (played by Angela Lansbury) convincing her not-too-sharp lover (played by Keith Andes) to bump off her no-fun husband. The twist here is that Andes character, an architect and builder hired by her and her husband as part of a three-way business venture, is named in a key person insurance policy that will pay the married couple $175,000 if he dies. Read before signing is the lesson here, folks.
Sleuth stars the iconic Sir Laurence Olivier as an upper-class mystery writer who invites a hairdresser with working-class roots, played by Michael Caine, to his theater prop-filled home. He tells Caine, who he knows is having an affair with his wife, he’s sick of his wife and wants his help staging a burglary in his home that would leave Caine with her jewelry and Olivier with a big, fat insurance payment. And yep, given the fact this is Laurence Olivier, one of the 20th century’s greatest stage and film actors, you might not be surprised when you discover he’s setting Caine up. However, Caine’s character turns the tables on Sir Olivier in an unexpected way.
In the 1994 film The Last Seduction, the femme fatale, played by Linda Fiorentino, frames her small-town hick lover Mike (played by Peter Berg) for murder , sprays a can of insecticide into the mouth of her drug-dealing ex-lover, and ultimately, gets away with one or two murders and plenty of cash. From the very beginning Berg’s character, who works at a small insurance company (what is it with these guys?), ignores more than a few obvious red flags for the thrill of getting it on with the white-hot Fiorentino. Her character is the smartest and meanest person in the film.