Double Indemnity – A Timely Review Of A 67-Year-Old Movie

by Ezra Fox on June 20, 2011

photo by newhousedesign/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Double Indemnity might be the one movie about insurance that everyone can name. A shadowy film about murder and exploiting clauses in life insurance policies, Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic is genre-defining noir. It’s a treat to return to a world where men were men, fedoras were fedoras, and catching sight of a married woman’s anklet was enough to convince a fella to commit murder and insurance fraud.

The movie revolves around Walter Neff, an insurance agent played by Fred MacMurray, who is (mostly) seduced by Phyllis Dietrichson, a frustrated widow-to-be, played by Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck milks the femme fatale role and turns in a smokey performance, despite getting constantly upstaged by her terrible blonde wig.

No noir film would be complete without heaps of witty repartee, and Double Indemnity soars here, courtesy of the Raymond Chandler-penned script. We’re treated to such gems as:

Neff: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?

Phyllis:(Opening the door)I wonder if I know what you mean.

Neff: I wonder if you wonder.

And also:

Phyllis: Fix you a glass of iced tea?

Neff: Unless you’ve got a bottle of beer that’s not working.

It’s smart, fun, and it makes “insurance salesman” seem like a reasonable profession for a movie protagonist, as long as he’s 6’3” and looks like Fred MacMurray.

Neff is a straight shooter until he meets Mrs. Dietrichson and gets sucked into the challenge and danger of pulling off the perfect crime.

The scam is simple. First, take out a life insurance policy on Mr. Dietrichson, but make it look like he took it out himself. Then kill him. Then make it look like he fell off of a train to collect on a double indemnity clause. What’s a double indemnity clause? I’m so glad you asked.

Neff: There’s a clause in every accident policy, a little something called double indemnity. The insurance companies put it in as a sort of come-on for the customers. It means they pay double on certain accidents. The kind that almost never happen. Like for instance if a guy got killed on a train, they’d pay a hundred thousand instead of fifty.

Phyllis stands to earn a payout of $100,000, which would be over $1.2 million today after accounting for inflation. I’m not sure it’s “kill your husband” money, but if you don’t like the guy, and have a hole in your life that only $1.2 million can fill, I supposed it could be.

(Warning: spoilers ahead.) The plan hits a speed bump when Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes, played by the gruff and lovable Edward G. Robinson, suspects foul play, in part because of the double indemnity clause. Since the insurance policy had only been in place for a few weeks, the biggest possible payout looks mighty suspicious.

Keyes figures out nearly all parts of the scam, except for who Phyllis convinced to kill her husband. As the noose tightens, both Neff and Phyllis simultaneously realize that killing each other might be their only way of eluding the cops. They shoot each other and their partnership abruptly unravels. Neff confesses everything, and Keyes finds him just as he dies from a femme fatale-inflicted gunshot wound. Given that fatal(e) is in the name, we really shouldn’t be surprised.

As a cautionary tale, we learn that crime, specifically insurance fraud when performed to impress widows, never pays.

Since I’ve got a friend in the insurance business, I decided to quiz him on some of the finer points of the movie, and see if six decades later, insurance is still the same. For some reason he prefers to remain anonymous, so let’s call him Insurance Man (the most cautious superhero imaginable).

Ezra Fox: Is there a double indemnity clause for anything anymore? If so, what kinds of things? Is there triple indemnity?

Insurance Man: Double indemnity still exists, but it’s not automatically built into a policy. It can be purchased at the request of the insured for an additional premium. Triple indemnity does exist as well, under the same circumstances for certain life insurance policies. Double indemnity exists outside of life insurance in the form of a “double indemnity accident policy.”

Moreover, Elliott Matloff, a health and life insurance broker who makes informative insurance videos says that double indemnity is also referred to as an “accidental death benefit.” He gives an impressively gruesome hypothetical with a large payout:

“So, if you go skiing and you get impaled by your ski pole because you fall down a cliff and you die, the insurance company might say that your base policy is $500,000. But, because of this accident, we will pay double. So your spouse or beneficiary of your policy will get $1 million dollars instead.”

So nowadays, Neff and Phyllis might not have to make it look like Mr. Dietrichson died on a train to collect on the double indemnity clause. Although for the sequel, Double Indemnity 2: Triple Indemnity, it’d probably be a good idea to stick to trains. Says Matloff, “Some companies even pay triple if it’s a vehicle of hire. For example if it’s an airplane or train or a bus or a taxi.”

There’s this fun monologue that Keyes gives when his boss tries to imply that Mr. Dietrichson committed suicide by jumping from a train.

Barton Keyes: Come now, you’ve never read an actuarial table in your life, have you? Why they’ve got ten volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed: by poison, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide by poison, subdivided by TYPES of poison, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth. Suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from STEAMBOATS. But, Mr. Norton: Of all the cases on record, there’s not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. And you know how fast that train was going at the point where the body was found? Fifteen miles an hour. Now how can anybody jump off a slow-moving train like that with any kind of expectation that he would kill himself? No, no soap, Mr. Norton. We’re sunk, and we’ll have to pay through the nose, and you know it.


EF: Do you have actuarial tables for suicide and extensive statistics on how people kill themselves?

Insurance Man: We don’t deal in actuarial tables. The companies certainly do and that is how policies and premiums are formed/determined. I am sure I could access them if I needed to but the need has never come up.

The second time Neff and Phyllis meet we get a rare glimpse into the inner life of an insurance salesman.

Phyllis: I hope you didn’t mind my changing the appointment. Last night wasn’t so convenient.
Neff: It’s all right. I was working on my stamp collection anyway.


EF: Do insurance agents all have stamp collections?

Insurance Man: I don’t have one but I was strongly advised to start one by the international insurance agents council. Of course, I am only kidding. No, we do not all have stamp collections.

(A quick Internet scouring has confirmed the lack of a link between insurance agents and stamp collectors, although stamp collector’s insurance is real, and according to one policy has an exclusion for war and nuclear hazards. I have to think that after war and “nuclear hazards” a destroyed stamp collection might be the least of the average philatelist’s problems, but I could be wrong.)

In a character-defining scene, Keyes picks apart a fraudulent insurance claim.

Keyes: Every month hundreds of claims come to this desk. Some of them are phonies, and I know which ones. How do I know? Because my little man tells me.

Garlopis: What little man?

Keyes: The little man in here. (He pounds the pit of his stomach.) Every time one of those phonies comes along he ties knots in my stomach. I can’t eat.


EF: How do you know if a claim isn’t good? Is the tip-off just a little man in your stomach tying knots in it?

Insurance Man: The little men found in the not so little stomachs of insurance agents are important voices for each one of us. All kidding aside, we hear some very strange claim stories but it’s not up to us to determine whether they are on the up and up.  It’s up to the companies. Our common sense and past experiences play a role but I’ve learned that true life is usually much stranger than fiction so it’s a difficult thing to judge the merits of a claim before all of the facts are known.

After Neff and Phyllis turn on each other, the movie’s emotional core becomes the surprisingly sweet friendship between Neff and Keyes.

Neff: (Slowly and with great difficulty) Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell you. ‘Cuz the guy you were looking for was too close. He was right across the desk from you.

Keyes: Closer than that, Walter.

Neff: I love you too.


EF: Keyes, despite being brusque, is pretty soft-hearted. Are claims adjusters all cranky men with hearts of gold?

Insurance Man: NO! – Some are just cranky old men.

Lastly, there’s a ton of drinking throughout the movie, with Neff even stopping briefly at a drive-in for a bottle of beer. The alcoholism reaches a fever-pitch when Keyes tries to get Neff to stay late and talk over the Dietrichson case by offering a drink.

Keyes: Come on — I’ll buy you a martini.

Neff: No thanks, Keyes.

Keyes: With two olives!


EF: Is a martini with two olives still an acceptable bribe among colleagues in the insurance business? If no, what is the current standard?

Insurance Man: Martinis are out. Dark liquor is in. Single Malt Scotch aged no less than 12 years.

So there you have it, folks. If you’re going to kill your spouse for a bunch of money, making it look like a train accident is still a good way to land a big payout. On the downside, you’ll most certainly be a prime suspect. Probably the most important lesson is that any affair you might’ve started before the murder is unlikely to survive the added strain of a criminal investigation. Turns out bonding over plotting a spouse’s murder isn’t the best way to build a lasting relationship. Live and learn, huh?

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