- Disciplinary Identities; Or, Why is Walter Neff Telling this Story?
A car careens through damp, dark city streets and pulls up in front of an office building. The driver staggers out and rouses a janitor who recognizes him and lets him in. He takes the elevator, evading the janitor’s questions, and makes his way to a lighted office where it become clear that he is wounded. He sits down at a desk and begins to talk into a dictation machine, telling someone he calls Keyes a story, the story that will be Billy Wilder’s 1943 film, Double Indemnity. It is curious that a wounded man would take time out for story telling, especially as we later learn that this wounded man has just committed his second murder and has refused to frame another man for the crime. Why is Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) telling this story? Because he is a disciplined individual, the very embodiment, in fact, of disciplinarity—and this not at all in spite of his crimes. They also mark his disciplined status.
Neff tells Keyes that he is not hearing a confession, a claim that is both true and false. It is true in the sense that Neff is not telling this story to expiate guilt. The little guilt that Neff shows seems to involve what he might have called “collateral damage,” emotional or legal danger to those he hadn’t intended to hurt. But if Neff’s story is not a confession in the religious and traditional juridical senses, it is one in the sense that, as Foucault has observed, has become one of the chief products of the modern will to knowledge. Psychoanalysis is Foucault’s leading instance of this, but the dossiers which disciplinary institutions assemble are constructed more on the basis of confession than on unwillingly revealed information. The confession might be seen as the final proof, the guarantee, that an individual has been made, for individuals, as Foucault also tells us, are disciplinary products. [End Page 97]
Double Indemnity, as the title reveals, is set in the insurance business. Insurance is so dependent on disciplinary technologies that it is remarkable that Foucault did not do something with it. 1 The whole possibility of profit in the business depends upon the norm and the normalizing gaze. It is no coincidence that insurance investigators are often protagonists in film noir. Neff is a sales agent, among the best we are told, and Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is the head of the claims division. The first murder which Neff commits has a dual motive: it results from Neff’s desire for Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) but it is also motivated by Neff’s desire to beat the system. Keyes represents the system, and film tells us in a variety ways that Neff identifies with Keyes. There is admiration in his voice when he tells us how smart Keyes is. Moreover, Keyes recognizes himself in Neff and asks him to become his protege. The two are linked by a repeated bit of business, Neff lighting Keyes’s cigar after Keyes has searched his pockets unsuccessfully for a match, a gesture that is reversed in the film’s final scene.
Keyes, as his name suggests, has special access to the truth. Part of this is represented as a uniquely intuitive ability to recognize fraud. Keyes speaks of a little man in his stomach who lets him know when a claim is not right. The film also makes us aware, however, that this little man is in fact the internalization of norms, of actuarial tables, of the knowledge of repetitive patterns of human behavior. What foils Phyllis and Walter’s plot to kill her husband and collect on an insurance policy’s double indemnity clause for train accidents is that the “accident” and events surrounding it deviate in many small and seemingly insignificant ways from the norm. Keyes is a master of his discipline.
What is important for my purposes about Double Indemnity is that Neff is not merely one of the individuals in the company’s files, not like the miscreant who Keyes forces to give up the claim he filed...