Monday, September 3, 2012

Some Labor Day Thoughts on Sex and the Insurance Investigator

We mark the end of summer with a holiday that celebrates working men and women. Labor Day in the U.S. means backyard barbecues and a day off from trudging to the factory or the office. Which reminds me of the very American tendency to define people in terms of their jobs. When we meet someone new, one of the first questions asked is “What do you do for a living?”

When I was researching the impact of film in the Sixties on the Baby Boom generation, I discovered that many of my fellow Boomers gravitated toward their professions because of what they saw on a movie screen. Fred Stawitz, growing up in Topeka, Kansas, went into teaching at least partly because Sidney Poitier made such a good case for educators in To Sir, With Love. David Steiner of Los Angeles, impressed by screen portrayals of Clarence Darrow types in Inherit the Wind and Compulsion, decided he could best help the underprivileged by going to law school.

Of course the screen does some professions no favors. I doubt many young people have decided on a career in dentistry after watching Laurence Olivier work the drill in Marathon Man or Steve Martin turn up the gas in the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors. (Come to think of it, the sadists among us might have flocked to submit their dental school applications because of this duo.) And many occupations are seen through a double lens: some movies show us their best side, while others point up their worst. In movies, doctors cure the sick and heal the wounded, but they are shown in equal measure as cold-hearted leeches who put science and the pursuit of the almighty dollar ahead of the humanity they have vowed to serve. Movie cops keep us safe, but look at how many films depict them as on the take: even the generally heroic Denzel Washington went rogue (and won an Oscar) in Training Day.

Teachers are portrayed as hard-working, idealistic, and selfless in Up the Down Staircase, Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, and Freedom Writers, in all of which they work against terrible odds to liberate young minds and hearts. In films geared toward the youth market, though -- take Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as prime examples -- teachers are (at best) foolish and out-of-touch. For every film showing an attorney as a brave crusader (like Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird), there’s one in which a lawyer is a conniving creature free of moral scruples. Though I’m someone who counts intelligent, ethical lawyers among my friends and family, I can’t resist mentioning my favorite sleazy movie lawyer: Ned Racine (played by William Hurt) in Body Heat. Who can forget Kathleen Turner’s Matty Walker upending the stereotypes of cagey film attorneys when she purrs to Ned, “You aren't too smart, are you? I like that in a man.” That’s before she convinces him to murder her husband.

Which brings me to the insurance industry. It’s one that doesn’t inspire many romantic or heroic thoughts. But insurance ties together two things that have intrigued us since time immemorial: money and human jeopardy. That’s why insurance policies, and those who write them, play such key roles in classic film noir. The folks at are serious movie buffs as well as Beverly in Movieland fans. They’ve compiled a most entertaining list of their favorites, ranging from (of course!) Double Indemnity in 1944 to The Last Seduction fifty years later. Check it out.

And stay healthy on Labor Day.


  1. That's a terrific list! And I'm happy to say I've seen every one of those movies! I guess I'm an insurance scheme movie buff! Also, it might interest the list authors to know that there was a full-on sequel to Strange Bargain that aired as an episode of Murder She Wrote. It was called "Strangest of Bargains" and aired THIRTY-EIGHT YEARS after the original movie premiered and it had the film's three original stars - Martha Scott, Jeffrey Lynn, and Harry Morgan reprising their roles!