Insurance and the Oscars: Two clear winners

By Allen Wastler
Allen Wastler is a former financial journalist with over 30-years of experience, including time at CNBC, CNN, and Knight-Ridder Newspapers.
Posted on Mar 1, 2018

This year’s Oscars are upon us. Do the Academy Awards have any bearing on insurance, either for the industry or consumers? Sure.

“Double Indemnity” and “The Apartment”: Both were in Oscar contention and both involve insurance.

Take a look at the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest films, and you’ll find “Double Indemnity” at Number 29. “The Apartment” rests at Number 80.

These two films sit atop a mound of movies involving insurance. In fact, if you cruise the internet, you'll find that various businesses and insurance-related outfits have made lists of them. Those lists include movies with straight-on insurance takes (“Cedar Rapids”) to those that are more tangential (“The Incredibles”).

“The Apartment” is representative of the latter. Jack Lemmon’s character could have just as easily worked for a bank or manufacturing conglomerate. It was his abode that was central to the plot. The insurance business was simply a backdrop for a job and corporate hierarchy.

Insurance, however, is a major player in “Double Indemnity.”

Directed by Billy Wilder in 1944, it’s a film noir exercise in murder. It was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Barbara Stanwyck was also nominated for her performance as the femme fatale. She acted opposite Fred MacMurray, who played Walter Neff, a wise-cracking, cynical, and, eventually, murderous insurance salesman (which is kind of jolting for baby boomers who grew up seeing him as the kindly father on TV’s “My Three Sons”).

Beyond the classic seduction-murder angle, the film features the notion that the murder of the husband, if done under the right circumstances, will allow the wife to cash in on a special clause in his life insurance policy that allows for double payment of benefits.

Yes, such insurance provisions did exist back then, and still do today, as riders that can be added to a policy. But most financial advisors are dismissive of such special accidental death benefit payouts, since the circumstances would have to be especially unlikely and not worth the extra money usually tacked on to the premium.

As MacMurray’s character, notes when explaining it to Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson: Look, baby. 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.1

Obviously, the movie casts insurance as a negative motivator and insurance companies as profit-obsessed organizations.

However, there is a positive side. Ultimately, the movie bears out the notion that crime doesn’t pay. But to do this it has to establish the importance and proper use of insurance in the first place. And it does. Throughout the movie there’s an appreciation that insurance is there to serve an important need. No one questions that the husband should be insured for the sake of his family’s welfare. And no one questions that an insurance company shouldn’t or wouldn’t pay claims — just not fraudulent ones.

And there’s some extra appeal for insurance professionals. It’s probably the only movie where actuarial tables are used to point to murder. It’s when Barton Keyes, the insurance investigator played by Edward G. Robinson, explains to the company’s CEO:

Come on, you never read an actuarial table in your life. I'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 poisons, 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 wheels of trains, under 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.1

Picayune insurance details aside, “Double Indemnity” establishes insurance as a basic need for most people, albeit one that can be misused. It didn’t win the Oscar, losing to “Going My Way,” a feel-good movie. The Best Picture Oscar in 1960 went to “The Apartment,” which at least gives a nod to insurance’s overall presence in society at large, even if it seems a bit bureaucratic.

Financial considerations aside, both movies are well worth watching for their entertainment value and artistic merit. And if such movies, at least, get people to think about how insurance may bear on their own circumstances … hooray for Hollywood!

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Paramount Pictures, “Double Indemnity,” 1944.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.