Do you have any idea how many movies have unbelievable scenes about life insurance in them?
I didn’t, until I started to do some research for this post. I’ll be honest, it’s a refreshing change of pace. Usually I’m writing about life insurance terms that need to be defined or the history of the life insurance industry.
And while those are interesting topics, few things fire my imagination like classic cinema. In fact, you’ll probably notice a distinct bias toward older movies on this list.
I offer 2 reasons for that:
So here are 10 movies with unbelievable scenes about life insurance.
This movie has actually been made twice–once in 1946 and again in 1981. Both movies are based on the eponymous novel from James M. Cain. (There was also an Italian adaptation, but I talk about it later on this list.)
My preferred version is the 1946 vehicle for Lana Turner and John Garfield. Tay Garnett directs the movie from a script by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch. The story is straightforward enough:
A hobo named Frank Chambers (John Garfield) starts working at a small restaurant in the country. He soon starts having an affair with the owner’s wife, Cora Smith (Lana Turner).
Cora, of course, doesn’t love her husband–the much older Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). Frank and Cora eventually hatch a plot to murder her husband so they can start life anew.
Of course, a big part of Cora’s motivation for offing her husband is the life insurance policy they have. I won’t go into more detail about the plot, but I will recommend this movie heartily. It’s a fine example of classic hard-boiled crime fiction adapted into a film noir (my favorite genre).
If you enjoy watching the original, the 1981 remake starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange is worth your time, too. The remake features a screenplay from the always-incredible David Mamet (of Glengarry Glen Ross fame).
And if that doesn’t sate your desire for more of The Postman Always Rings Twice, check out the original novel. And also check out #6 on the list below.
This is my favorite movie on the list. Groundhog Day didn’t make much of an impression when it came out, although it was popular.
But it’s really done well in hindsight. Groundhog Day has famously been called “the most spiritual movie ever made”.
The spirituality of the film is not what merits its inclusion on this list, though. I include it here because of one of the film’s minor but hilarious characters, Ned Ryerson–a life insurance salesman.
The plot is about a weatherman (Bill Murray) who’s stuck in a time loop. He keeps living the same day over and over again, and he doesn’t know why. One of the characters he runs into every day is Ned Ryerson, played by Stephen Tobolowsky.
Every time Phil (Bill Murray) runs into him, Ned tries to sell him life insurance. And Ned is, of course, the stereotypical example of the obnoxious life insurance salesman.
Here’s his pitch:
Do you have life insurance, Phil? Because if you do, you could always use a little more, right? I mean, who couldn’t? But you wanna know something? I got the feeling…
… you ain’t got any. Am I right or am I right? Or am I right? Am I right?
The premise of the movie is that Phil must repeat Groundhog Day until he finally gets it right. Apparently, part of getting it right it buying lots of life insurance from his old buddy Ned Ryerson.
Here’s a video with all the Ned scenes:
They’re funnier in context, and I heartily recommend watching the entire movie at least once. You might also check out the new musical version.
So I’ve covered a film noir and a comedy/fantasy. Now I turn my attention to the only documentary film on the list, Sicko.
This Michael Moore documentary takes a look at the healthcare industry in the United States. Sicko focuses mostly on health insurance and the pharmacy industry.
In the United States, healthcare is a capitalist dream. You can only get coverage if you can afford it, and it’s all about profits. But in other countries, universal health-care is the order of the day. Sicko focuses its foreign country examination on 4 countries offering universal health care:
To be fair, Sicko only touches on life insurance matters peripherally. This is a film about health care. It’s dated now, because of Obamacare. (Sicko was released in 2007.) But if the Republicans in power can ever agree on how to do it, Obamacare might become a thing of the past.
If and when that happens, Sicko will become as relevant today as it was when it was originally released.
I should be fair and warn you that this is a movie from Michael Moore. I’m not sure which direction your politics lie, but I know that a lot of people on the right might not enjoy films from this particular director.
Let’s get back to classic crime films, shall we? Strange Bargain is a 1949 Will Price film starring Jeffrey Lynn, Martha Scott, and Harry Morgan. It’s also a great example of “high concept”.
A high concept is a story that can be described succinctly in a sentence or two. It’s also important that this description be compelling enough that an audience will want to see the movie.
Sometimes a high concept is as simple as an example of another movie with a variation. For example, Grizzly could be described as Jaws, but with a bear.
Other times, it’s just an interesting description of a plot. In the case of Strange Bargain, the high concept is that a man offers an employee $10,000 to make his suicide look like a murder.
His goal, of course, is to be able to collect his life insurance death benefit.
Malcolm Jarvis is the main character. His company has gone bankrupt. He hires one of the employees he’s laying off, Sam Wilson, to murder him. Malcolm wants his wife and son to reap the benefits of the policy. (They get no money in the event of a suicide.)
Sam initially says no, but he later finds Malcolm’s dead body. At that point, he decides to honor Malcolm’s wishes. (He’s motivated, at least in part, by the $10,000 in the envelope that Malcolm left him.)
The cops suspect Malcolm’s business partner, Timothy. But Sam suffers from a crisis of conscience. There’s a big twist ending which I won’t reveal here, but it’s good enough that it wouldn’t be out of place in a more modern thriller.
For some reason, film noir and later crime films love life insurance related plotlines. I enjoy film noir for the quality of the writing and the inventiveness of the photography and the sets. Most of these films, especially Strange Bargain, were made on a shoestring budget.
What it lacks in big budget appeal, it makes up for with style.
Not all crime films related to life insurance fraud are film noirs from the 1940s. One example of a more modern film about life insurance is Fletch, starring Chevy Chase. It came out in 1985, but check out the plot:
Irwin M. Fletcher (Chevy Chase) works for the L.A. Times as a reporter. A millionaire offers him a small fortune ($50,000) to murder him. (The millionaire has terminal cancer anyway). Fletch does some investigating and discovers that the millionaire isn’t actually sick after all.
Fletch is based on a series of novels from author Gregory McDonald. It had a sequel, Fletch Won. They’ve also been developing a prequel for the last 20 years. I’m sure at some point the franchise will be rebooted.
Fletch is now considered one of the cult films of the 1980s. The Chevy Chase portrayal of Fletch resembles other smart alec roles from the period. I wonder what kind of movie we’d have wound up with if Bill Murray had been cast instead, but that will never happen.
For years, the rumors were that Jason Lee would start in a new Kevin Smith directed version of Fletch. But that seems unlikely to happen now, too. If I were able to cast my dream actor to play the character in a future version, I’d almost surely choose Jason Sudeikis.
Remember the first film on this list? The Postman Always Rings Twice?
It was based on a James M. Cain novel, but it wasn’t the first film version of the story. Ossessione is a 1943 Italian adaptation of the novel. Critics consider it the first Italian neorealist film.
Ossessione retains the plot of the novel and resembles the other versions of the story, too. Where it differs from the other versions is in terms of directorial style. Ossessione is an Italian neo-realist film.
It’s a film that strives for authenticity. Neo-realist filmmakers also concern themselves with the time and place of a film. Historical accuracy, as well as psychological accuracy, matter more than anything else.
For a film about a guy killing another guy so he can get with his wife, this is a pretty serious approach. It’s also light-years away from the film noir approach, which focuses largely on presenting a dreamlike quality.
At this point, I feel like I need to get back to writing about some comedy. Alias Jesse James is the perfect movie for this. It’s a 1959 comedy-western starring Bob Hope.
Alias Jesse James is another good example of a high concept film. The premise is that an insurance salesman sells Jesse James life insurance. When the company finds out who he sold the policy to, they send him out west to protect the outlaw so they won’t have to pay a claim.
Bob Hope is a predictably bumbling character–the life insurance salesman, Milford Farnsworth–that I explained in the high concept of the film. But of course, Jesse James has his own plan. He’s going to have Farnsworth dress as him and get killed.
Then Jesse James’s widow, Cora Lee Collins, will collect the $100,000 policy. But she falls in love with the Bob Hope character.
If you’ve never seen Bob Hope act, you’re in for a treat. Woody Allen modeled his entire film persona on Bob Hope’s acting. Bill Daly, who co-starred on both I Dream of Jeannie and on The Bob Newhart Show, is also clearly influenced by Bob Hope’s acting style.
1959 was a different time for movies–a brighter, more innocent time. It’s refreshing to see that life insurance can be used as a plot device even in a comedy.
Billy Wilder looms large over this list of movies with unbelievable scenes about life insurance. He directed both Double Indemnity and The Apartment. The first is arguably one of the greatest of all film noirs; the second is arguably one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time.
The plot of Double Indemnity is simplicity itself. An insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) falls in love with a client’s wife (Barbara Stanwyck). Together, they plan to murder her husband and make it look like an accident.
Not only that, but they’re going to make it look like an accident on a train. Apparently accidents on trains are so unusual that life insurance policies pay double.
Double Indemnity also co-stars Edward G. Robinson. At this point, Robinson was coming up on the latter part of his career. He was old enough that it was harder for him to get leading man roles. His choices were to consider leading man roles in second-rate films, or character roles in first-rate films.
Thank goodness he went with the ladder, because his performance and interplay with Fred MacMurray are legendary.
I only wish that life insurance salesman talked with the same kind of tough-guy chutzpah that MacMurray demonstrates in this film.
The life insurance aspect of The Apartment is more secondary to the plot, but it looms over the entire movie. It’s a romantic comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Fred MacMurray. It’s also one of the earliest vehicles for Shirley Maclaine.
Lemmon’s character works at a large insurance company in New York City. He has an apartment that he loans to the executives at his company so that they can entertain their mistresses. Eventually the head of the company, Fred MacMurray gets wind of it. He uses the apartment for his trysts with the Shirley Maclaine character.
The hijinks ensue when Lemmon’s character falls for Shirley Maclaine’s character.
This one’s a neo-noir from the year 2000. Christopher Nolan directs, and Guy Pearce stars. The main character has a specific type of amnesia which makes it impossible for him to create new memories past a certain point. (It’s the same condition Drew Barrymore has in 50 First Dates.)
Of course, the Guy Pearce character (Leonard Shelby) is an insurance investigator.
What’s most interesting about Memento is its presentation. Half of the film is told with a chronology that moves forward. The other half is made up of flashbacks. Eventually the 2 storylines merge into one single story.
Modern audiences might find this to be the most interesting film on the list.
And there’s my list of 10 movies with unbelievable scenes about life insurance. As you can see, films run the gamut from documentaries to comedies to thrillers.
You won’t learn what you need to about no exam life insurance, or how to get life insurance after having had bariatric surgery, but if you’re interested in some entertainment that’s related to the industry, you’d be hard-pressed to find better movies than the ones on this list.
Got a favorite scene from a movie involving the insurance industry?
Tell me what I missed in the comments section.