Unhappy Accidents: Insurance and the Business of Living in Double Indemnity and The Apartment

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity

Jack Lemmon in The Apartment
Double Indemnity (1944, Paramount Pictures) | The Apartment (1960, United Artists) 

There are plenty of people you could describe as being “married to their jobs,” but it takes a particular kind of person to deliver their own eulogy via office memorandum. There’s a sense, as our would-be hero Walter Neff sits slumped in an insurance office in Double Indemnity, uttering his dying words into a dictaphone, that he’s addressing the only person who really matters to him: his boss. This is a man whose life is so intricately, dangerously tied up in his work that you might argue, as he slowly expires at the office, that his job is quite literally what killed him.

You could also argue that had Neff’s character lived he would have evolved into Mr. Sheldrake in The Apartment, another insurance man in an office 16 years later that’s likewise lined with infinite desks and infinite secretaries. Both men are played by Fred MacMurray, and float through life with an air of hubris that usually keeps them buoyed above the rest. They sell floatation devices—also known as insurance policies—designed to inflate only when something goes awry. Otherwise customers can stay protected in a cycle of sameness, of certitude—the same cycle that both of MacMurray’s characters have grown used to. And yet it seems naive for insurance men to rely on this pattern. After all, their livelihood is based on convincing clients that something will go wrong. 

With these two films, Billy Wilder showed he had a talent for turning seemingly bland, sexless settings into epicenters of vice and deceit. While in Double Indemnity, he, along with Raymond Chandler, adapted James M. Cain’s 1943 novella for the screen without altering the set-up, with 1960’s The Apartment, the choice to return to an insurance office was his, along with his frequent writing partner I.A.L. Diamond. Ever the chameleonic writer/director, Wilder makes a huge jump in genre between these two films, from an existential noir to an off-beat romantic comedy. But the two films share a kinship between their subtler themes, and both can be read as cautionary tales for what happens when their characters mix business and pleasure. 

“I used to peddle vacuum cleaners,” Walter Neff explains to Phyllis Dietrichson one afternoon. “Not much money but you learn a lot about life.” Phyllis, his soon-to-be partner in crime played by the bewitching Barbara Stanwyck, keeps her cool as she pours him iced tea in her living room, observing a man who learns about life not from living, but from working. He also seems to have a hard time separating the two practices when presented with an offer from a housewife he finds charming (fatally so, it turns out). While on a routine visit to renew Mr. Dietrichson’s auto insurance, Neff falls hard for Dietrichson’s wife, who coyly proposes to “throw a little more business [his] way” by setting up a surreptitious accident policy for her husband. It’s not long before Neff is swept up in her plot to speed up the policy’s trajectory by committing a little murder. Perhaps Neff’s commitment to his job is no match for his libido—he can’t take his eyes of Phyllis’ shimmering “honey of an anklet” as she dangles it like a carrot in front of his face. (Wilder seems to have a thing for anklets: Audrey Hepburn’s character uses one to try and woo Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon.) Or perhaps he’s more aroused by the prospect of using the little power he has—as someone who knows the ins and outs of these complex policies—to have an adventure on the side. 

Speaking the only language he really knows, Neff lays it on thick once the pact has been agreed upon, somehow managing to sexualize an insurance policy clause. “They put it in as a kind of come-on for the customer,” Neff says as he explains the “double indemnity clause,” which states certain accidents (“the kind that almost never happen”) pay double. It’s almost heartening to watch this smarmy pencil-pushing door-to-door salesman evolve into a noir anti-hero—how often does a simple man with a mundane job like Neff get such a juicy plotline? As it turns out, his boss is also trying to somehow escape his station, even though he pretty much gets his rocks off by assessing actuarial tables. Claims man Barton Keyes, played by a recalcitrant but passionate Edward G. Robinson, sees Neff as somewhat of a protogé, and the two share an endearing working relationship—Neff’s signature move is to lovingly light Keyes’ cigar when he can’t find his matches. When Neff rebuffs Keyes’ offer to come on as his assistant and work as a claims man himself, saying he doesn’t want a “desk job,” Keyes retorts with a stirring ode to his post: 

Desk job? Is that all you can see in it? Just a hard chair to park your pants on from 9 to 5, huh? Just a pile of papers to shuffle around and five sharp pencils and a scratchpad to make figures on? Maybe a little doodling on the side? Well that’s not the way I look at it, Walter. To me, a claims man is a surgeon. That desk is an operating table and those pencils are scalpels and bone-chisels. And those papers are not just forms and statistics and claims for compensation. They’re alive. They’re packed with drama, with twisted hopes and crooked dreams. A claims man, Walter, is a, is a doctor and a bloodhound…

And in a way, Keyes is right. Sometimes, when watching Keyes and Neff go about their business—be it crooked or straight—you forget that you’re observing the inner workings of Pacific All Risk Insurance and not the LAPD. Like Edmond O’Brien’s insurance agent-turned crime-fighter in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, released two years later, Keyes sees himself as an amateur gumshoe, more competent than the cops because he can sniff out insurance fraud a mile away. While Keyes may find his job utterly riveting, it’s revealed that his work has entirely eclipsed his personal life—he tells Neff he almost settled down at one point, but couldn’t stop himself from having the “dame” investigated. “The stuff that came out…” he utters in disgust. While he found out nothing worse than the fact that she’d been dyeing her hair since she was 16 and was married before, he abandoned ship—too aware, and too afraid, of the risks associated with living. 

C.C. Baxter in The Apartment could be viewed as an inheritor of Barton Keyes—this time, he’s just starting out in his career as an ambitious actuary at Consolidated Life in New York, and is played by a jumpy, but equally industrious Jack Lemmon. The Apartment begins with a voiceover from Baxter—less monotone than the typical noir narration that Double Indemnity popularize —but in a sense, just as cynical: 

On November 1, 1959, the population of New York City was 8,042,783. If you laid all these people end to end, figuring an average height of 5 feet 6 1/2 inches, they would reach from Times Square to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan. I know facts like this because I work for an insurance company.

Right away, Wilder asks us to see the world through this removed, statistical viewpoint—people aren’t human beings, but figures to be organized and assessed. It’s with this in mind that he drops us onto the 19th floor of the offices of Consolidated Life. Humming and buzzing with typewriters and chatter, the set epitomizes the corporate offices that we still see today—it’s easy to imagine Scorsese drawing inspiration for the chaotic, football-field sized-office in The Wolf of Wall Street from Wilder’s iconic imagery. We soon find out that Baxter’s life has just about been overtaken by his job—he stays late most nights at the office, not just because he’s a hard worker, but because his apartment has been co-opted as a makeshift lovenest for his colleagues and their mistresses or one-night-stands. It appears the only compensation Baxter receives is their promise of an eventual promotion. For this, he’s forced to live like a nomad, not so much taking work home with him as handing over the keys and the lease. 

Matthew Weiner has cited The Apartment as one of the strongest influences on Mad Men, and you can see how it showed him how to portray the office as a microcosm. People may lead double lives on either side of the revolving doors, transforming, Superman-like, as they pass through, but it’s impossible to fully escape either persona on each side. There are dozens of Joan Holloways having affairs with their bosses, trying to ignore the fact that these men go home to their wives and families on the 7:05 train to New Rochelle.

One such woman is Fran Kubelik, an elevator operator played with the sort of chirpy melancholy that only Shirley MacLaine can pull off. Fran, or “Ms. Kubelik” as she’s called, has gotten herself involved with none other than Mr. Sheldrake. Like Baxter, she’s sustained on promises—that he loves her, that he’ll leave his wife, that he’ll marry her—all of which turn out to be utterly empty. It seems every man in the office wants a piece of Ms. Kubelik, as their hands wander towards her in the crowded elevator and they form circles to gossip about who will snag her first. The only one who seems interested in the whole Fran is Baxter, though even he maintains a disturbing sliver of entitlement, motivated perhaps by his own sexual frustration at witnessing everyone getting lucky in his apartment but him. It’s as if he thinks being the nice guy should mean he gets dibs on the nice girl. 

All of these factors converge when Mr. Sheldrake doesn’t so much ask for as demand the use of Baxter’s apartment—to spend the night with a mystery woman who just happens to be Ms. Kubelik. During a debaucherous office Christmas party (which forms the blueprint for the raucous holiday party in the Mad Men episode “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”) Sheldrake’s secretary drunkenly tells Fran about their former tryst…and the one with the secretary before her…and the one before her. Later when the two are alone in Baxter’s apartment, it becomes clear to Fran that Sheldrake won’t be leaving his wife. The film, like Fran, reveals its true nature here. “This isn’t like you Fran,” Sheldrake says as tears stream down her face. “You were always such a good sport, such fun to be with.” “That’s me,” she replies sarcastically. “The happy idiot. A million laughs.” She tells him she’ll stay in the apartment for a while as he rushes off to catch his train home. Here, at about the halfway mark, The Apartment becomes a drama—she rummages through Baxter’s medicine cabinet, swallowing an entire bottle of his sleeping pills. From this point on, the film is largely about saving Fran’s life. 

It’s lucky that another man, Baxter’s next-door neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss, is used to taking work home with him as well, and has his physician’s bag—and know-how—at the ready to diligently revive Fran from her near-lethal overdose. In a scene that recalls, or rather, predicts, Tom Cruise’s Dr. Bill Harford being called upon to revive a rich friend’s playmate after a similar episode in Eyes Wide Shut, Dr. Dreyfuss repeatedly asks Fran where she is, what happened, and does everything short of punching her in the face to keep her from falling back into a potentially fatal slumber. It’s somewhat of a strange interlude in an ostensibly upbeat script, a scene that goes on for a rather long time and verges into the realm of medical drama. Baxter is forced to play the part of the jerk who brought her to his apartment, for fear of Dr. Dreyfuss finding out about his “arrangement” with Mr. Sheldrake and company, and these dueling identities—of the man who loves Fran and the one who drove her to suicide—go head-to-head as he helps the doctor to keep Fran’s eyes open. 

In a morbid parallel to Double Indemnity, Fran, like Neff, finds herself fighting for survival because of a near-fatal mixing of her personal and professional life. Even though Fran is an innocent and Neff is a scoundrel, they both fall victim to their jobs. The work of an insurance man—or woman, although none of those seem to exist in this world—is based on the premise of keeping people safe from all possible risks—but neither Neff, nor Baxter, nor Fran, nor even Sheldrake, are able to truly protect themselves—from femmes fatales and exploitative executives, from predatory men and office affairs. Typical of a Wilder film, everyone is their own worst enemy, stuck in a pattern of self-sabotage until the end. In the insurance business, you’re betting on the probability that you won’t actually have to pay out the policies you provide. Hell, you probably wouldn’t even insure someone who’s high-risk. The sales pitches, the actuarial tables, and the claims desk are meant to entrap people, not to really protect them. It’s rather poetic, then, that the people peddling protection against disasters that are unlikely to occur end up being the most accident-prone of all. 

Most of these accidents occur because of a sense of confidence that the messiness of life can be controlled, that it won’t interfere with your work, and vice versa. When Baxter calls Sheldrake at home on Christmas Day to explain to him what happened to Fran, Sheldrake seems thoroughly taken aback that his office dalliances could seep into his family life. He barely expresses concern for Fran as he tries to end the call as quickly as possible. Flash back 16 years—and Neff, too, seems miffed that his carefully-controlled universe could be offset by something as seemingly innocuous as an anklet. Neither of them can manage to choose between having it all at work and in life, and they suffer the consequences when they conflate their ambitions in both domains. Ultimately Baxter survives this mess because he allows his life, like a dominant personality sublimating a subordinate one, to win out over his work. In a moment of bravery, he stands up to Sheldrake and quits his job—by now quite cushy—telling him he’s decided to (in the words of Dr. Dreyfuss) “become a mensch.” In other words, he explains, “a human being.”