Double Indemnity might be the only film ever named for a technical insurance term (unless you count Take This Job and Shove It). Nominated for Best Picture in 1944, Double Indemnity is the essence of film noir. It took director Billy Wilder and writer Raymond Chandler eight years to have the script approved by the Hayes office, so it's surprising the film's not about setting up an insurance company in the United States. It's about a murder/insurance fraud from the inside, as you probably know.
When you think of an insurance salesperson, if an image comes to mind of an agent in a trench coat and a battered hat, it's Fred McMurray playing Walter Neff, in this movie. We know he's a bad guy right from the start. In his office late one night, he smokes a cigarette. Then he smokes at a client's house. On his way home, he stops for a beer in his car. Then he boffs the client's wife.
He briefly tries to dissuade his new girlfriend from killing her husband with this timeless line: "Not if there's an insurance company in the picture, baby. They know more tricks than a carload of monkeys."
He changes his mind and decides to kill the husband for $100,000 of life insurance written by his company, Pacific All Risk Insurance. He has the husband unwittingly sign an application. Then, darkly, our man commits a capital offense: He smokes in a Los Angeles supermarket. And we're still in the first reel.
The insurance industry has never fared well at the hands of any branch of the popular media, which might be part of the reason insurance is held in such relatively low regard. Vide Florida. How different might have things been had the movies chosen to reflect insurance as a force for good?
Just about every Marx Brothers movie contains a joke at the expense of the insurance community. My favorite is in A Night at the Opera. Groucho hops a ride aboard the steamer trunk he has brought on a trans-Atlantic voyage, which is being wheeled to his cabin by a steward. A collision occurs between Groucho's trunk and another trunk. Groucho asks the steward pushing the other trunk if he has insurance. The steward does not.
"Just the man I'm looking for," says Groucho, pulling a document out of his pocket. "I have something here that will be of great interest to you." He starts to read it aloud: "If you lose a leg, we'll help you look for it . . ."
Insurers have done poorly in radio too. Professor Stanley Unwin, a British humorist who invented his own language, Unwinese, a form of on-point gibberish, referred those who might buy car insurance to a program "with the slidey rate of the insurance firm, all welshy and the compensakers policy as they slip smartly out the back door."
In print, of course, insurers have been taking a beating for a century or more. Even columnists who should know better sometimes have a go. Mark Twain wrote: "Certainly there is no nobler field for human effort than the insurance line of business--especially accident insurance. Ever since I have been a director in an accident-insurance company, I have felt that I am a better man. Life has seemed more precious . . . I do not care for politics--even agriculture does not excite me. But to me now there is a charm about a railway collision that is unspeakable."
Insurers might do well to combat this universal view by sponsoring some movies in which the hero is an insurance man (Agent X, maybe), or in which insurance somehow saves the planet from doom. Perception is reality, and perception does not change unless acted on by an outside force.
lives in Bermuda.
April 15, 2007
Copyright 2007© LRP Publications