Below is a film paper I wrote waaaaaaay back in grad school. I also posted it on Hardboiled Dixie back in the day. Down several cups of coffee and start reading. See how far you get.
Economics as Law Enforcement in the Noir World
Economics as Law Enforcement in the Noir World
In the dark, urban world of film noir, society?s official and recognized law enforcement agencies continually prove disappointing. The police are ineffective and, in many cases, hinder the progress of the hero detective. In noir films, we suspect the detective is more likely to be "taken downtown" than are the criminals. True, the detective hero skirts the edge between the darkness and the light, but when it comes right down to it, he is our only chance for justice. The police, rather than catching the criminals, simply provide them with a level playing field.
So we must ask ourselves, in the absence of standard law enforcement, what sort of system governs the noir world? What keeps chaos at bay in the realm of urban darkness? Before answering, let us consider a general but accurate characterization of the world which film noir depicts:
[Film noir], flourishing in America in the period 1941-58, generally focuses on urban crime and corruption, and on sudden upwellings of violence in a culture whose fabric seems to be unraveling. Because of these typical concerns, the film noir seems fundamentally about violations: vice, corruption, unrestrained desire, and, most fundamental of all, abrogation of the American dream?s most basic promises?of hope, prosperity, and safety from persecution. (Telotte 2)
It is this corruption and crime which concerns our examination, for if all noir films have these elements in common, we are led to ask if the motivations for the crime and corruption in these films are also identical. In almost every case, the driving factor for one if not all of the characters in these films turns out to be greed. Greed propels Gutman?s relentless quest in The Maltese Falcon. Greed is the reason behind the elaborately planned heist in The Killing. And if the main characters themselves are not motivated by greed, they are at least the victims of others who are greedy, victims of those who exploit, murder, extort and blackmail in the name of greed. In the noir world, such situations are commonplace. The noir world exists not because these evils exists; it is the way these evils are presented and relate to one another which constructs our notions of noir. In the noir world, even greed must operate within boundaries, and it is this system of controlling and administering greed which replaces traditional law enforcement.
The films which best illustrate this system are Billy Wilder?s noir classic Double Indemnity and Robert Siodmak?s The Killers. Both films show economics as the new system of law enforcement, but one is from the detective/hero?s perspective while the other is from the criminal?s. Specifically, the characters which act in the roles of the detectives in both films are insurance investigators. By taking the investigation--the detective?s search for truth--out of the hands of the traditional detective hero and putting it in the hands of the insurance investigator, the films allow a highly focused discourse which adopts the language of the insurance business and emphasizes the influence of economics in the system which governs the daily lives of the characters. In other words, money is the bottom line where law and order and justice are concerned in the world of these films. Let us here take a much more detailed look at Double Indemnity and use The Killers to supplement our findings.
In Double Indemnity, Walter Neff?s (Fred Macmurray?s) sexual overtures toward Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) early in the film become mixed with her questions about the insurance policy which has lapsed on the Dietrichsons? automobiles. In answer to Neff?s flirtations, Phyllis seems to stick doggedly to the subject at hand, saying that the Auto Club has a better rate. Talk of insurance juxtaposes constantly with sexual innuendo, fusing sex with economics, what Peter William Evans calls "interrelated transgressive desires to have an affair with an attractive married woman . . . and to defraud the insurance company that employs him" (165). Neff must relent and gives Phyllis his standard sales pitch, but even now we see Phyllis pacing, her schemes and machinations already forming early in the film. As Neff leaves after their first encounter, Neff offers a final flirtation. "I wonder what you mean," replies Phyllis. "I wonder if you wonder," says Neff. The implication is clear that even though they pretend to talk past one another?he about sex, her about insurance?they are actually participating in the same conversation. This initial encounter sets up the parameters for an economic negotiation. Phyllis needs Neff for his insurance connection, and she barters with the only commodity of any value available to her: herself. Neff?s desire for her is plain, and Phyllis finds herself in a strong position for bargaining.
But Neff as a character is complicated, divided, a characteristic which contributes to the doubling indicated by the film?s title. Neff, as a salesman, is a part of Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. Ostensibly, he owes his allegiance to them, and it is Barton Keyes? (Edward G. Robinson?s) trust in this fact, which keeps him ultimately from solving the Dietrichson case. But Neff?s association with Pacific All Risk is based on a motivation of greed. He is a salesman who earns his living on commission. In this light, the insurance company merely provides the tool, the system whereby Neff obtains wealth. Neff?s pursuit of Phyllis leads to the corruption of this system, and it is Barton Keyes? job to expose this corruption and repair it.
Barton Keyes is perhaps the most interesting character in the film, if the least complex. Indeed, Edward G. Robinson steals every scene he?s in. As the claims investigator for the company, it is Keyes? task to ferret out those who try to corrupt the system. It is with Keyes that we get the most straightforward example of economics as law enforcement. When we first see Keyes, he has a Mexican farmer "on the carpet." He informs the farmer that his claim on a burned truck has been denied because evidence shows he set fire to the truck himself for the insurance money. In addition, Keyes "little man"--the gut feeling that kicks around his innards whenever he gets suspicious--tells him that the farmer?s claim is rotten. He bullies the farmer into signing a waiver on his claim, and the matter is settled. Under the film?s system of economics as law, no other punitive measures are taken. The farmer?s signature on the waiver repairs the farmer?s attempted corruption of the system. Keyes is satisfied that he has protected his company, and justice, to the extent that it is allowed under this system, has been served, and he proclaims to the farmer, "Now you?re an honest man again."
Keyes and Phyllis Dietrichson are exact opposites within the framework of economics as law enforcement. Whereas Keyes guards this system, it is Phyllis?s lot to constantly attempt to circumvent and corrupt the system to her advantage. According to Phyllis?s stepdaughter Lola, Phyllis has already corrupted the institutions of marriage and family in the name of financial gain. We are led to understand that as the former Mrs. Dietrichson?s nurse, Phyllis was responsible for her death. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Dietrichson marries Phyllis. The motivation is simple: money. She confesses as much to Neff. Leaving out the part about the murder, Phyllis tells Neff she married him because she wanted a home and security.
A home and security are certainly not the most unconventional reasons for marriage, but Mr. Dietrichson himself confirms that Phyllis?s greed goes far beyond the need for simple creature comforts and blames their financial difficulties on her buying "five hats at a crack." Indeed, it is when Mr. Dietrichsion dries up as a "cash cow" that Phyllis feels the need to improve her financial situation by again corrupting the system. By offering herself to Neff in exchange for his helping to get rid of her husband, she is attempting to peddle goods which do not belong to her, for she has already made a commitment to Mr. Dietrichson in the form of marriage. In the noir world, it is allowable for Phyllis to turn marriage into a financial arrangement, but it is again a corruption of the system to fence goods which are no longer hers to sell.
If Phyllis and Keyes represent opposing forces within this system, then Neff himself falls somewhere in between. As mentioned before, Neff?s loyalties are divided. His sales for the insurance company and the commissions her derives from those sales come from a fair manipulation of the system. But Phyllis provides him with two things: an object of desire which can only be obtained through criminal means, and a "shill" to help him "crook the house." In Neff?s dictaphone confession to Keyes, Neff admits that insurance folk spend so much time watching for a con, that they try to figure out how they can crook the house themselves. The Dietrichsons finally provide Neff with the opportunity to "do it right," even telling Phyllis to make sure it happens on a train to cash in on the lucrative double indemnity clause.
But Neff immediately begins to regret his decision. His divided loyalty reminds him he is friends with Keyes. He tells Phyllis they can?t meet for awhile, ostensibly to keep a low profile, but also because Neff feels guilt for his deed, a guilt compounded when he talks to Lola who understandably grieves for her father.
Once the crime has been committed, the system of economics as law enforcement is slow to leap into action, but it is clearly superior to the traditional law enforcement which so often disappoints its citizens in noir films. In one of the most memorable scenes in Double Indemnity, the president of the company calls Keyes and Neff into his office to discuss the Dietrichson case. When Neff asks if something is wrong, Keyes replies, "It?s going to cost us dough. That?s always wrong." Although an off the cuff remark, the comment clearly illustrates how matters of economics become inseparable from ideas of right and wrong, ideas which are at the very core of the film?s system of justice.
The scene is important to this analysis for two significant reasons. First, it emphasizes the failure of traditional law enforcement in the context of the noir world. The president of Pacific All Risk reports that the police have declared Mr. Dietrichson?s death an accident. He tells Keyes and Neff that he does not believe this to be the case and even tells Phyllis later in the scene that he is not satisfied with the police report, "not satisfied at all." Although the president later shows himself to be a bit of a fool, he is correct in his suspicions that the death was by no means accidental as Neff and Phyllis wished it to appear. He is right (albeit for the wrong reasons) not to be satisfied with the police report. The traditional law enforcement elements in the noir world are not motivated to pursue the investigation. As Keyes points out, "It?s not their dough." Since Pacific All Risk is economically motivated to investigate further, they suppose Mr. Dietrichson?s death not to be accidental but instead a suicide. They pursue justice in the Dietrichson case not for the sake of justice itself, but because it is financially sound to do so.
Like Double Indemnity, other noir films illustrate the shortcomings of traditional law enforcement and turn to an economic system to maintain order and administer justice. In The Killers, it is not the police or even the traditional private eye we follow on the trail of truth. Rather, the protagonist is an insurance investigator like Barton Keyes. Whereas Neff?s loyalties are divided in Double Indemnity, the doubling in The Killers manifests itself in a dual story line, criminal as protagonist in one, detective hero as protagonist in the other. (Interestingly, insurance investigator Reardon--Edmond O?Brien--works for Atlantic Casualty, so between this film and Double Indemnity both coasts are covered.)But when both story lines at last converge, it is the insurance investigator who saves the day. Standing over a dying Colfax at the end of the film, Reardon is framed with Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) and two uniformed police officers on a staircase. In the blocking, Siodmak places Reardon two steps above the uniformed officers, emphasizing his superiority over traditional law enforcement. Other critics have also noted that film noir police don?t do their job very well, specifically in The Killers:
Another noir feature of the film is the implicit incompetence of the police. Not only did they fail to track down any of the four original robbers in 1940, but the local chief in Brentwood washes his hands of investigative responsibility for Swede?s killers and, even when his men later surround a building, they let Dum-Dum slip away. It is true that Lubinsky is able, eventually, to shoot the killers and that the master-criminal behind both the Prentiss robbery and Swede?s murder is finally exposed, but all these are primarily thanks to Reardon; without him, Lubinsky would have got nowhere. (Walker 134).
In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lana Turner?s lawyer correctly predicts that the district attorney will be unable to prosecute her. He knows this because the insurance company has already paid off on her husband?s life insurance policy. The lawyer knows how insurance companies operate, and he remarks that if the insurance investigators failed to find enough evidence to refuse the claim, the district attorney certainly would not be able to find enough to prosecute. His implication clearly suggests traditional law enforcement to be below par if not simply incompetent.
Returning to the important scene from Double Indemnity, we see that the second important element is its depiction of Keyes? relationship with this economic system of law enforcement. The president?s assertion that the death was a suicide is the very definition of ridiculous. As claims investigator, one might figure it would be Keyes? job to support his employer?s refusal of the Dietrichson claim. Instead, Keyes quotes elaborate and detailed statistics from actuarial tables which show suicide as an unlikely possibility. Instead of supporting Pacific All Risk, Keyes supports the system in which the insurance company is but a single member. The same system of economic justice which prevents fraudulent claims also prevents Pacific All Risk from abusing its customers. The rules apply equally in both directions, a uniform code which controls the greed of customer and company alike. To the president, Keyes declares in no uncertain terms, "You?re stuck, and you?ll have to pay through the nose." Keyes may be a company man, but his ultimate loyalty is to the system of economic justice in which he is an agent.
Again, Keyes may be a company man, but he is also an investigator, and although he condemns the notion of Mr. Dietrichson?s suicide, he begins to suspect something fishy is afoot when he notices that Mr. Dietrichson had a broken leg but hadn?t made a claim on his accident policy. He stops by Neff?s apartment to discuss the matter because Keyes? "little man" is kicking around in his chest again. Because Keyes mistakenly believes Neff to be trustworthy, he speaks frankly. He tells Neff he suspects murder, and points the finger of blame at the wife: "Maybe I like to take it easy on myself," admits Keyes, "but I always suspect the beneficiary." Keyes?s suspicions are right on the money. He knows that in the system which governs his world greed is at the root of all corruption, so he simply follows the money trail to Phyllis Dietrichson. After all, this is a hardboiled crime drama, not what we?ve come to understand as strictly a mystery. The suspense lies not in "whodunit" but in how the criminals will finally get what?s coming to them. So Keyes edges closer and closer to solving the puzzle, Neff being the only piece he fails to apprehend.
Neff himself offers an explanation for Keyes? oversight in the confession he records on Keyes? dictaphone. Neff suggests that Keyes couldn?t see Neff?s involvement because it was "right under his nose." Neff is more correct than perhaps even he realizes. Ironically, the sensibilities which separate Keyes from the other characters in the film, thus enabling him to conduct an honest investigation, are the same sensibilities which prevent him from pursuing Neff as a suspect in the murder.
Although Keyes is not the protagonist of Double Indemnity, he does fill the role of the truth-seeking detective, and the sensibilities mentioned above demand closer examination. How Keyes relates to his system of law enforcement and to the other characters in the film inform our understanding of justice in the noir world.
Keyes' misplaced trust in Neff stems from Keyes? mistaken belief than he and Neff are the same kind of men. In a thematically important scene, Keyes finds Neff in his office and offers him a job by saying, "How would you like a fifty dollar cut in salary?" One would normally see this as a demotion as, in fact, does Neff. Because Neff is at least in part greed motivated, he refuses Keyes? offer. But in Keyes? eyes, the offer is a step up, not a demotion. The fact the job pays less money separates those in the job from greed motivation, thus thrusting the claims man into a position of superiority. Keyes explains to Neff that the claims man is like a surgeon, "a doctor, a bloodhound?Judge, jury and confessor." Here Keyes attempts to communicate to Neff that the work--claims investigation--is its own reward. The value of it does not derive from the economic rewards it produces.
By calling himself "doctor, judge, jury and confessor," Keyes not only confirms his role in noir?s economic system of justice and law enforcement, he also extends that authority to include other societal conventions. Keyes represents not just justice but in fact civilization as a whole, for it is through him and others like him that American institutions are protected. For instance, one of the most obvious institutions being violated is the institution of marriage. Greed in Double Indemnity is pursued and fully realized through blatant acts of adultery--another staple in the noir film. But it is Keyes? job to perpetuate and protect such institutions, and he suggests Neff should "settle down and get married." At one point in the film, Keyes refers to himself as "poppa," suggesting a protective authority and "an endorsement of a conformist society" (Evans 166). Even the name "Keyes" implies his role as a guardian and his propensity to keep things at least figuratively under lock and key.
Keyes, like many of the more traditional noir detective heroes, is an outsider, but he is not an outsider in the same way Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer are. Ironically, Keyes must be outside of the system in order to enforce it more effectively. Likewise, Spade, Marlowe and especially Mike Hammer could not possibly conduct business in their own way if they were members of traditional law enforcement. These men straddle the border between light and darkness. For instance, their relationships to greed are far different than Keyes?. Charles Gregory notes "We are disoriented by Spade?s greed ("We didn?t believe you, we believed your $200.")"(159). Part of these detectives? noir sensibilities and attributes are their inner conflicts. But even though Keyes? is an outsider, we never sense such inner conflicts in him. We trust him to serve truth in the most straightforward manner possible, a character trait which easily explains Neff?s fear of him.
Keyes polices a system which operates on the principle of greed, but he himself is not greed motivated. He is not affected by the system he helps maintain and is therefore an outsider. Yet unlike Spade and Marlowe, Keyes is more trustworthy for his outsider status rather than less so. Without greed motivation, Keyes is simply not corruptible, for he does not possess the desires that Neff or Phyllis or Hammer or many of the other characters have in the noir world. It is this incorruptibility--conferred upon him by his outsider status--which makes him the perfect "poppa" in Double Indemnity.
We have been examining economics and specifically greed at some length, focusing especially on economics as the measuring device for a system of law and justice. In "Democracy?s Turn: Homeless Noir," Dean MacCannell claims "The still unexamined tension at the heart of film noir is that between senile capitalism and democracy"(284). In a portion of his essay, MacCannell discusses the seeming tendency of capitalism to subsume democracy and to press democracy into capitalism?s service. MacCannell elaborates:
Classic film noir has an almost fatal fascination for the confrontation between capitalism and democracy, which it witnesses with an implacable numbness. In countless films . . . a tainted, slightly compromised, democratic hero battles corpulent and decadent capitalism to a draw. The basic principle that is compromised in these films, and in democracy as it is currently inflected, is inclusion: everyone is supposed to have a "place" in it; anyone can win; everyone has a voice. (284-6)
But not everyone has a voice or a chance to win in Double Indemnity. Although a rather insignificant part in the film, the elevator operator in one of the early scenes confides to Neff that he can?t get life insurance because he has a bad heart. The system precludes him even from participating let alone winning.
But we need not lapse too deeply into Marxist rhetoric to appreciate MacCannell?s observations. His essay recognizes the economic elements in film noir as a major thematic concern. Intricate capitalistic conspiracies, however, are a bit grander than we need to be. Rather, let us refocus our attention to the subject at hand: greed. What makes greed stand out as more significant than any of the other elements of the noir film? Adultery or murder or betrayal?
First of all, adultery, murder and betrayal are all usually the results of greed. Phyllis and Neff enter into an adulterous relationship because of greed. Mr. Dietrichson is murdered in service of greed, and Neff betrays his best friend because of greed. At the core of every sinister act in Double Indemnity lurks greed. The same can be argued about most noir characters in most noir films.
Identifying greed as the root of all noir evil, however, falls short of explaining how greed works differently in noir films than in others. Film noir, after all, doesn?t have a monopoly. Double Indemnity deals with greed by accommodating it. Whereas other films understandably classify greed as aberrant or undesirable behavior, the noir film includes it as a given. Greed is standard in the noir world and rather than deny it or attempt to eradicate it, films like Double Indemnity incorporate it into a system. That Phyllis marries for money or that Neff earns his commission by "glad-handing" are acceptable, if not particularly admirable, applications of greed. When greed compels them to team up and kill Mr. Dietrichson, they are abusing a system in which there are strict rules governing greed. By including greed as a natural part of the system of law and justice which governs noir, men like Keyes can, in part, stem the tide of unfairness and abuse.
It is the fact that Keyes upholds this system from without which allows him to conduct himself untainted by greed. Greed is a part of the system; Keyes is not. Thus, he can safely and objectively make judgements and rule on matters of law and justice. This is how he is able to deal with the Mexican farmer. This is why he goes against the interests of Pacific All Risk to tell the company?s president--his employer--that the suicide angle is all wrong.
Inevitably, the criminals in Double Indemnity get what?s coming to them. Just as in all classic tragedy, the protagonist brings his ultimate demise upon himself. Neff and Phyllis trade bullets, and Neff slowly bleeds as he records the events of the film into Keyes? dictapone. It seems Aristotelian aesthetics have conspired with the Hollywood Production Code to make sure film-goers know crime doesn?t pay. In James M. Cain?s novel, after all, the criminals get away. R. Barton Palmer would have us believe the following:
If [noir films] paint a terrifying picture of evil, it is only to reinforce the sense of inevitable punishment for wrongdoing effected by a moralizing conclusion. In other words, the film noir is only superficially, not essentially, different from the standard Hollywood movie, which always supports the status quo. (Perspectives 7)
Perhaps, but this hardly seems the case. Certainly, the dark, unsatisfying endings in noir films cause us to question whether or not the status quo these films advocate deserves to be supported. Hardly the typical Hollywood fare if true, and if men like Keyes defend systems, not people, let?s hope the system is worth it.
Double Indemnity. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Fred MacMurray,
Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson. Paramount, 1944.
Evans, Peter William. "Double Indemnity (or Bringing Up
Baby)." The Book of Film Noir. New York: Continuum,
Killers, The. Dir. Robert Siodmak, Perf. Edmond O?Brien,
Ava Gardner, Burt Lancaster. MGM, 1946.
MacCannell, Dean. "Democracy?s Turn: On Homeless Noir."
Shades of Noir. Joan Copjec, ed. New York: Verso,
Palmer, R. Barton, ed. Perspectives on Film Noir. New York:
G.K. Hall, 1996.
Postman Always Rings Twice, The. Dir. Tay Garnett. Perf.
Lana Turner, John Garfield. 1945.
Telotte, J.P. Voices in the Dark. Chicago: U of Illinois P,
Walker, Michael. "Robert Siodmak." The Book of Film Noir.
Ian Cameron, ed. New York: Continuum, 1992.