The Little Man and the Big Clock: Two Crime Dramas and Totalitarian Theory in the Age of Anxiety

The machine cannot be challenged. It both creates and blots out, doing each with glacial impersonality. It measures people in the same way it measures money, and the growth of trees, the life-span of mosquitoes and morals, the advance of time. And when the hour strikes, on the big clock, that is indeed the hour, the day, the correct time.

George Stroud[i]

In his relatively recent investigation of the role of terror and fear in politics, Fear: The History of a Political Idea, Corey Robin begins his chapter on the history and myth of totalitarian theory with the story of Nikolai Bukharin, a Bolshevik theorist and critic who came to prominence during the 1920’s. Despite enjoying a convivial relationship with Stalin, one that at one point even included a few summers at the leader’s country estate, Bukharin began to disagree with key aspects of Stalin’s policy by the 30’s, and was banished from the party in 1937. The next year, he was accused of treason, and ended up at the heart of a show trial that culminated in his confession to an absurd, counter-revolutionary career that he most certainly did not lead. Shortly afterwards, Bukharin was executed- just one of the 328,618 executions that year, as Robin points out.

The most compelling element for Robin about Bukharin’s case is that shortly before his death, in a letter to Stalin, he invokes the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac to describe his fate. Pitting Stalin as Abraham and himself as Isaac, Bukharin resignedly writes: “No angel will now appear to snatch Abraham’s sword from his hand.” This is a truly interesting, if unrealistic analogy, thinking that Stalin, like Abraham, must sacrifice his “son” or loved one for the sake of a greater power- in his case, the party- but Robin argues for a better application of this biblical reference. He notes how after his death, intellectuals clung to a different interpretation of this story, one that viewed Bukharin himself as “the true Abraham, the devout believer who gave up to his jealous god that which was most precious to him”:

For generations of intellectuals, Bukharin’s confession would symbolize the depredations of communism, how it not only murdered is favored sons, but also conscripted them in their own demise. Here was an action, it seemed to many, undertaken not for the self, but against it, on behalf not of personal gain, but of self-destruction… The willingness of the Bukharins of this world to give up their lives for the sake of their ideology remains, for many, the final statement of modern self-abasement. [ii]


Robin begins with this story to initiate his discussion on the American, intellectual construct of the psychological ramifications of living not only in a communist state, but more broadly, in a totalitarian one- a qualification that, since the 1930s, has allowed for the inclusion of Fascist Germany as well.[iii] In the ’40’s, as WWII raged and then left a cold, dark shadow of destruction on much of the world, theory on totalitarianism abounded, as political theorists like Hannah Arendt in her popular study Origins of Totalitarianism sought to understand and philosophize on what they saw as an entirely new form of government.[iv] These theories, although in disagreement on some issues, all concentrate on such macabre themes as the pervasive loneliness and powerlessness of the modern man, that were very much in tune with the sort of post-war, disillusioned attitude that marked much of the culture that was coming out of American urban centers like New York City during the latter half of the decade. This seems particularly the case in the crime dramas of both film and literature that, at the time, were in the midst of something of an artistic renaissance- although it may not have been acknowledged until later.

In light of this, it may be beneficial to investigate a piece of work from crime literature and crime film oeuvres:  Kenneth Fearing’s hard-boiled, tough guy 1946 novel The Big Clock and Billy Wilder’s quintessential 1944 film noir Double Indemnity, two pieces whose connection to totalitarian theory seems at once most direct and similar enough to other cultural output to have some representational significance. Both are highly critical of their social setting, and paint dark, tortured portraits of the world of the modern, salaried white collar intellectual worker that are very much consistent with the totalitarian theory propagated by Arendt and her contemporaries. Both are highly critical of their social setting, and paint dark, tortured portraits of the world of the modern, salaried white collar intellectual worker that are very much consistent with the totalitarian theory propagated by Arendt and her contemporaries.

Both of the artists behind these works also had distinct connections to the spheres where this sort of theory was coming from. Fearing was a poet and novelist who, like many of his fellow New York based artists, was a member of the communist party. However, it seems he still remained skeptical of communism throughout his life, particularly after attending a lecture on the party’s transformation under Joseph Stalin, and was known to be disillusioned with the political system by his peers.[v] He also worked in Time, Inc., the massive journalism syndicate that George Stroud’s organization is based off of, under Henry Luce, a high-powered, devoted fascist.[vi]

Billy Wilder’s connection to this sort of theory more pronounced. Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1906, Wilder experienced first hand the nature of totalitarian government- he was forced to flee to Paris in 1933 and later, Hollywood in the late thirties when it became clear that his Jewish heritage would pose some serious problems to his remaining in Europe.[vii] Interestingly enough, Wilder shares this personal encounter with the totalitarian state with two of the other most significant directors to shape the genre of film noir: Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang, both of whom were forced to flee their native Germany on account of their Jewish heritages, and both of whom very similar

In the narratives of the protagonists of both The Big Clock and Double Indemnity, we can find eerie similarities to the myth of Bukharin and the kind of “totalitarian man” ideology put forth by Arendt and writers like Arthur Schlesinger and Erich Fromm. In taking on the job to hunt for the man that was last seen with Pauline Delos and is thus most likely to have been her murderer, George Stroud, a higher-ranking editor of one of the organization’s publications, Crimeways, begins a circuitous, multi-investigator hunt for himself. He has himself followed and searched for, all the while, completely aware of who actually killed Delos: his boss, Earl Janoth. It is not his loyalty to this man; he expresses distaste for both of his superiors Earl and his partner Steve Hagen, and never once thinks of himself as saving Janoth. Rather, his almost suicidal drive seems to be in order to preserve the pre-existing structure of his life.

Where did I stand? To become involved would bring me at once into the fullest and fiercest kind of spotlight. And that meant, to begin with, wrecking Georgette, Georgia, my home, my life.

It would also place me on the scene of the murder. That I did not like at all. Nothing would cover Janoth better. [viii]


These are the sole reasons we are given and by Stroud’s account are supposed to be the reasoning that leads him on this massive, highly dangerous path to track himself down to be turned into the authorities. Frankly, for a man who comes so close to implicating himself in a high profile murder that he did not commit, Stroud does not question this reasoning nearly enough. He doesn’t look at his family life, and reflect how much he loves them and all that he’s doing for them. And, as we find out later, his wife has been aware of his extramarital affairs for some time.  “The squeeze felt tangible as a vise,” Stroud thinks to himself after getting the case, “My personal life would be destroyed if I ran to the cops. Death if Hagen and his special friends caught up to me.”[ix]

And he does not choose between them. He doesn’t move out of the vice.  Rather, he tries to sidestep the decision altogether, refusing to give in to what he sees as his fate: “And I could beat the machine. The super-clock would go on forever, it was too massive to be stopped. But it had no brains, and I did. I could escape it. Let Janoth, Hagen, and Billy perish in its wheels. They loved it. They liked to suffer. I didn’t.” [x]

Thus, The Big Clock becomes the story of one man’s battle against the force of a machine, a machine that determines fate and is constantly ticking forwards, forcing things into motion. The big clock follows Stroud throughout the book; he sees it in the beginning of novel at office party, and acknowledges its presence at a number of intervals throughout, sometimes simple one or two sentence acknowledgements and sometimes one or two paragraph reflections, particularly towards the end of the book. It is a giant mechanized structure, always moving forward, always running, and always correct:

The big clock ran everywhere, overlooked no one, omitted no one, forgot nothing, remembered nothing, knew nothing. Was nothing, I would have liked to add, but I knew better. It was just about everything.[xi]


It is a presence that only Stroud seems to be aware of, but at the same time dictates the fate of everyone in the book. Towards the end of the novel, after he has narrowly escaped being identification by a chance meeting with upper-management, Stroud does some reflecting on the nature of the big clock, heavily emphasizing its mechanical aspects:

The big, silent, invisible clock was moving along as usual. But it had forgotten all about me. Tonight it was looking for someone else. Its arms and levers and steel springs were wound up and poised in search of some other person in the same blind impersonal way it had been reaching me on the night before. And it had missed somehow. That time. But I had no doubt it would get around again. Inevitably. Soon.[xii]


Stroud has survived his perilous encounter with the big clock, although his escape was not a product of his own agency: it simply missed him. By not choosing a course of action, or more specifically, not choosing to come forth with his account of what happened to the police after he has been given the task of searching for himself, he had already resigned himself to the workings of the big clock. All of his efforts of “escape” were mere deferrals, delays, and if his being identified was the direction of the force of the clock than he would have gone the way of Earl Janoth, who by hurling himself out of a window, fulfilled his fate as determined by the hands of the clock.

This sort of resignation to the workings of a giant machine, as well as Stroud’s whole persona and the environment that Fearing surrounds him with fits well within the dominant theory of “totalitarian man” that was advocated by writers like Erich Fromm, Hannah Arendt, both of whom we may assume would subscribe to myth of Nikolai Bukharin. Bukharin himself was actually said to have compared the Stalinist totalitarian regime to a terrible machine, as quoted by Boris Nicolaevsky,

Instead of going mad, [the soviet people] accepted terror as a normal administrative method and regarded obedience to all orders from above as a supreme virtue…. They are no longer human beings. They have truly become the cogs in a terrible machine.[xiii]


Here we have a direct parallel, made by one of the icons of the perversity of totalitarianism, between a “terrible machine”(i.e. a big, ticking clock) and totalitarian government. Arendt does not explicitly make this comparison, but speaks to a very similar issue in her discussion of the “stringent logicality” that dominates totalitarian thinking and ideology.

While in The Big Clock the representations of the totalitarian state may be said to rely on the imagery of machine, Double Indemnity advocates for different conception, one that more resembles Margaret Conovan’s interpretation of Origins in her essay “Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism: a reassessment.” The traditional, dominant notion of a totalitarian state before Arendt published Origins was one more in the image of a frozen lake- a state and people marked by rigidity, uniformity, transparency, and immobility all dictated by a sort of all-powerful omnipotent leader or, while she argues that Arendt’s notion of totalitarianism is more in the model of raging hurricane: a torrent sweeping away everything in its path, destroying all that is recognizably human and, significantly, existing as entity in an of itself, that is to say once it is in motion, this “totalitarian” entity that Arendt theorizes grows bigger and more powerful than the state begins to act of its own accord.[xiv] We certainly see elements of this interpretation in Big Clock. The clock itself is in perpetual motion, as mentioned earlier, ticking forwards, driving Stroud into a logicality that may be removed from reality.  However, as would be expected, this is a very mechanical sort of motion. The tick is a single unit of time, and the clock ticks away furiously, but predictably. The totalitarian machine also operates in the pattern of well-known shape- concentric, tightening circles. By the book’s climax Stroud can feel the vice grip, and the tightening circles have finally approached their center.

In Conovan’s reading of Arendt, however, the totalitarian state does not operate in any shape- it is rather a shapeless, hectic, maelstrom, a hurricane that destroys everything in its path that is distinctively human. This seems a recognizable force in Double Indemnity. As soon as Neff and Mrs. Dietrichson meet the narrative is thrown into a blur of activity, a crescendo, yes, but not in any shape, only a direction. There is an energy that sends the couple “straight down the line”, hurdling towards death and destruction, along the way losing touch with their “human” characteristics- committing murders, outright deceit, and eventually coming to loathe each other- performing every action with cold calculation in an attempt defer the inevitable onslaught of the hurricane.

For Arendt, totalitarianism, which she considered an extremely complex and novel government unseen before the regimes of Hitler and Stalin, relies on the logic of Nature and History as a way to ensure a sort supreme, inevitable law of movement and enforce terror. Terror, in Arendt’s theory, is the essence of totalitarian domination:

Terror as the execution of a law of movement whose ultimate goal is not the welfare of men or the interest of one man but the fabrication of mankind, eliminates individuals for the sake of the species, sacrifices the ‘parts’ for the sake of the ‘whole.’


The execution of the law of movement is critical to Arendt’s totalitarian theory. Everything must always be moving, expanding, hurdling forwards. Terror accelerates this movement. Eliminating freedom among political subjects does as well. Both of these contribute strongly to the logicality that ensures that the “idea”- whether it is the struggle of classes or the struggle of races)- is carried out. This sort of logicality applies a vice grip to the mind of the totalitarian subject, disconnecting his thoughts from reality to the degree in which they can only operate under the groundwork laid out for them by their totalitarian society. Writes Arendt:

The tyranny of logicality begins with the mind’s submission to logic as a never-ending process, on which man relies in order to engender his thoughts. By this submission, he surrenders his inner freedom as he surrenders his freedom of movement when he bows down to an outward tyranny.[xv]


This is all very abstract language, but seen in terms of The Big Clock, actually begins to make a lot of sense. This “motion” finds a remarkably similar representation in the hands of the clock. The most crucial thing about the clock for Stroud, is that is constantly ticking, moving forwards. It has no time to reflect on time past, but rather seems to be relentlessly counting down towards something. This sort of constant advancement is then further mirrored in the investigation that Stroud is conducting for himself. As the clock ticks forward, the team that Stroud has created circles closer and closer around him, securing a vice grip that gives him less and less options for escape.

We also see a sort of collapse of thinking as this vice grip tightens that is consistent with Arendt’s logicality. As the big clock ticks away and the investigation team gets closer, Stroud loses his ability to think about anything else, all of his mental work is devoted to planning an escape that he himself has made impossible. It’s also at this stage in the development of the search that Stroud’s perception begins to turn very bleak:

I returned to the office from a lunch I could not remember having tasted. It had been intended as an interlude to the plan for new eventualities and new avenues of escape.

The Janoth Building, covering half of a block, looked into space with five hundred sightless eyes as I turned again, of my own free will, and delivered myself once more to its stone intestines. The interior of this giant God was spick-and-span, restfully lighted, filled with the continuous echo of many feet. A visitor would have thought it nice.[xvi]


This may be more of a consciously antagonized representation of living in totalitarian society than Arendt would entirely support, but it seems to absolutely give evidence to power of the logicality that totalitarianism enforces, particularly in Stroud’s inability to remember the taste of his lunch, suggesting that he has stopped living in the moment and can only now appreciate things for their relation to the search, and also his failure to recognize the people on the street as actual people. This passage covers important ground for how totalitarianism organizes its subjects as well. For Arendt, the living space of freedom exists “between men as it is hedged in by laws” and totalitarian ideology seeks to limit this as much as possible.

Total terror uses this old instrument of tyranny but destroys at the same time also the lawless, fenceless wilderness of fear and suspicion which tyranny leaves behind. This desert, to be sure, is no longer a living space of freedom, but it still provides some room for the fear-guided movements and suspicion-ridden actions of its inhabitants.[xvii]


This passage has enhanced implications when thinking about the urban setting of a book like The Big Clock. George Stroud works in a massive, hulking office building in a city with a population completely unprecedented in human history. New York City, for Stroud is a place to drink, to meet women, to see art, go to shows, to work and to leave, but it is also distinctly impersonal place. At none of the places he frequents are the patrons able to even provide Stroud’s name. He is described as simply “average” a number of times, just another person in the masses the flow in and out of the city on a daily basis. The idea of the “mass man” was one that intrigued a number of political and social thinkers, including Erich Fromm, whose study on the modern man, Escape From Freedom, seems to have influenced Arendt as she began writing Origins four years later.

When Fromm looks at the modern man in 1941, he sees a troubled, beleaguered soul. One who has lost all conviction and sense of self, and who turns to outside forces to fill the sort of void that the combination of both Protestantism and capitalism has created: the sense of profound loneliness and anxiety.[xviii] These two feelings defined the “mass man” for Fromm, and many of his psychological analyses follow as responses to them. Indeed, this is the avenue by which he seeks to explain the rise of authoritarian governments- the masochistic strivings toward submission or domination that result from feelings of powerlessness and individual insignificance.

The frightened individual seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to; he cannot bear to be his own individual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again by the elimination of this burden: the self. Masochism is one way toward this goal… If I can succeed in reducing my individual self to nothing, if I can overcome the awareness of my separateness as an individual, I may save myself from this conflict. To feel utterly small and helpless is one way toward this aim; to be overwhelmed by pain and agony another; to be overcome by the effects of intoxication still another.[xix]


Here, Fromm has offered us a potential explanation for both the rise of urbanization and totalitarian governments in the 20th century: a masochistic desire to be part of the masses, to  “lose” the burden of the self and attach instead attach it to a greater whole.

It must, of course, be acknowledged that Fromm was speaking of authoritarian regimes and does not use the word “totalitarian” in his text, but does acknowledge that he is indeed talking about Fascist Germany many times throughout the book. The difference between authoritarian and totalitarian is explored by Louis Menand, who, in an article for the New Yorker, offers this distinction by quoting Carl Friedrich, a major figure in totalitarian political theory:

‘Totalitarianism is precisely the opposite of authoritarianism… In a totalitarian society true authority is altogether destroyed.’ He meant that a key feature of totalitarian societies is the absence of any reliable legal or political structure. Totalitarian rule is experienced as arbitrary rule: the citizen never knows when the knock on the door may come. Another name for this is ‘terror.’[xx]


Thus, there is hardly any thing for the self to truly latch to in a truly totalitarian state, except “terror.” If we accept Fromm’s masochism line and then apply it to a totalitarian environment, the results are something like the experience of George Stroud in The Big Clock. By allowing for the search party to search for himself, Stroud is attaching himself to the whim of the big clock, an arbitrary power that strikes at whim. His experience then is one of complete terror, living every moment in growing and growing fear that the clock will strike and he will have to “pay the bill” for a murder he did not commit.

The same can also be said of Walter Neff, the insurance agent protagonist of Billy Wilder’s classic 1944 film noir Double Indemnity. When Neff attempts to beat his own insurance agency out a hundred thousand dollars in an extremely risky murder plot with a woman he has only barely met, he is attaching his self and his fate to the workings of the insurance agency- in particular, his boss, the claims manager Barton Keyes, who denies agency in investigating false claims but rather leaves it to the “little man,” who lives in his chest. When we first meet Keyes he is in the middle of telling off a dirty, poor looking man, Carlopez, who apparently has tried to file a false claim on his truck.

Keyes: Now look, every month hundreds of claims come to this desk. Some of them are phonies, and I know which ones. How do I know? Because my little man tells me.

Carlopez: What little man?

Keyes: The little man in here [points to chest]. Every time one of these phonies comes along he ties knots in my stomach- I can’t eat! Yours is one of them, Carlopez, that’s how I knew your claim was crooked.[xxi]


Thus, it is this “little man” in Keyes’ chest that is responsible for the well being of the company. Of course, Keyes is using this metaphor to speak of some deeper, instinctual response to his insurance claims, but the fact that he designates it a whole other entity, compiled by the fact that he speaks of this little man virtually every time we encounter him, force us to think more critically about its significance. It seems to me that it is an entity not unlike the big clock for George Stroud, and certainly has a similar effect on the thinking of Walter Neff, who now must live in a constant of alarm, uncertain of if- but more likely when– the little man in Keyes’ chest is going to tell him there is something wrong with the Dietrichson case.

In this light, Neff’s actions in Double Indemnity can also be seen as deeply masochistic. Early in the film, Neff gives us his explanation of why he decided to try to best the system:

Neff [talking into phone receiver]: It was all tied up with something I’d been thinking about for years, since long before I ever ran into Phyllis Dietrichson. Because you know how it is Keyes, in this business you can’t sleep but try to figure out all the tricks they can pull on you. You’re like the guy behind the roulette wheel, watching customers to make sure they don’t crook the house. Then one night you get to thinking how you could crook the house yourself and do it smart. Because you got the wheel right under your hands, you know every notch by heart.


Walter Neff doesn’t try to beat Keyes and the company because he’s in any sort of financial desperation. He doesn’t need the money. And he doesn’t do it because of any particular inspiration from Phyllis Dietrichson. She is only the face of the opportunity. He does it out of a different sort of desperation- a crisis of identity. Neff seems to have developed a distaste for thinking about himself as a complacent company man. It doesn’t fit with his conception of himself, which, judging from the manner he approaches Phyllis Dietrichson on their first meeting, is more than just a traveling insurance agent.

One of the other issues in totalitarian theory that Menand touches on his essay is the superfluousness of man in a totalitarian society, an idea that Arendt in particular was very interested in, and seems particularly applicable to the case subjects of this paper. Menand writes:


The distinctive feature of totalitarian societies is that everyone, including (in theory anyway) the dictator, can be sacrificed in the name of a superhuman law, a law of nature or a law of history. [Quotes Arendt:] ‘Totalitarianism strives not toward despotic rule over men but toward a system in which men are superfluous.’


One could almost too easily see the actions of both George Stroud and Walter Neff as reactions to a system in which they feel superfluous: resigning their fates to the system of the American white-collar, salaried intellectual that has that has repeatedly reinforced the fact that they are not replaceable. In the case of Double Indemnity, Neff is playing a sort of highly dangerous, potentially fatal game with his job and his position within society. He is putting everything he owns on the line for the sake of a challenge, to pit his self against the system that he has come know intimately. We see evidence, perhaps, of his feeling of superfluousness in the opening scene when he attempts to sell insurance to Phyllis Dietrichson in a conversation loaded with sexual innuendo. By asserting his sexuality so forcefully, Neff is attempting to distinguish himself in a system that renders his personality superfluous.

The feeling of superfluousness in the white-collar office environment is more apparent in The Big Clock. Take, for example, Stroud’s thoughts on his fellow personnel:


What would it get me to conform? Newsways, Commerce, Crimeways, Personalities, The Sexes, Fashions, Futureways, the whole organization was full and overrunning with frustrated ex-artists, scientists, farmers, writers, explorers, poets, lawyers, doctors, musicians, all of whom spent their lives conforming, instead. And conforming to what? To a sort of overgrown, aimless, haphazard stenciling apparatus that kept them running to psychoanalysts, sent them to insane asylums, gave them high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, killed them off with cerebral hemorrhages and heart failure, sometimes suicide. Why should I pay still more tribute to this fatal machine? It would be easier and simpler to get squashed stripping its gears than to be crushed helping it along.[xxii]


The identities of its personnel are secondary, but even that is generous; truly, their individual lives irrelevant to their position within the company- all that matters is their ability to conform to the Janoth Enterprises model writer in order to produce a uniform Janoth Enterprises product. This is consistent with Arendt’s, among others, theory that the structure of totalitarianism forces its subjects to not only lose the qualities that made them individuals, but presses them together to the degree that they consolidate into one, mass identity: One Man. This highlights what Arendt identifies as the ultimate enemy of totalitarianism, the plurality of men, which slows down the ceaseless, furious motion that the structure relies on.

In the iron band of terror, which destroys the plurality of men and makes out of many the One who unfailingly will act as though he himself were part of the course of history or nature, a device has been found not only to liberate the historical and natural forces, but to accelerate them to a speed they never would reach if left to themselves. Practically speaking, this means that terror executes on the spot the death sentences which Nature is supposed to have pronounced on races or individuals who are ‘unfit to live,’ or History on ‘dying classes,’ without waiting for the slower and less efficient processes of nature or history themselves.[xxiii]



In The Big Clock we are given the impression that everyone, even the boss himself, Earl Janoth, is superfluous to the greater “organization. ” And when he attempts to actively deny this, and put his own interests above the interests of the organization by creating a search party that takes precedence over all other operations, Janoth not only ensures his own firing, but also his death at the hands of the big clock. His plunge was a result, not of any guilt about the crime that he committed, but rather a direct consequence of his being severed from the organization, the relationship that defined the way he thought about himself in the world. Without the organization, Janoth’s life becomes utterly meaningless and as long as the big clock is still ticking, his suicide is inevitable.

These bleak representations of the modern white collar working environment are consistent with a lot of social theory that emerged after the war, most notably perhaps, in work of C. Wright Mills White Collar– an investigation into the psychology of the suited, salaried, intellectual worker. From the start, Mills conceptions of the hopelessness of the modern intellectual are in tune with the powerlessness of Mass man as conceived by Fromm and Arendt. Following Marxian tradition, this feeling of powerlessness, Mill argues is in part derived from a lack of agency and personal interest in the work he is contributing to the world and the apparent futility of the political arena to change this. The work of the intellectual has become a commodity, engineered for the market and not based in any self-expression of the creator. It is with this in mind that Mills argues that perhaps the ghost-writer, the true author behind the “writing” of famous, non-literary men, is among the most honest of intellectuals- “in him alienation from work reaches the final point of complete lack of public responsibility.” [xxiv]

In his discussion of the market, Mills uses language strikingly similar to that of Arendt in her argument on the fabricated force of nature in totalitarian regimes to describe a logicality that governs all activity. Money, says Mills, in highly capitalized society keeps all intellectual activity in a sort of constant motion- towards more money. Thus, the spirit that is engaged to perform intellectual labor is in effect capitalized, and a man’s identity as an individual essentially becomes superfluous to his production and role in society.[xxv] This generates a directionless, profound feeling of being lost among the educated, white-collar worker. He understands his place in the world and is powerless to do anything about it, so he simply follows a routine, every day becoming more and more aware of his discontent and feelings of alienation- traits that are seen in both George Stroud and Walter Neff.



Perhaps the most conspicuous connection missing thus far is the actual link between the emphasis on crime that we see in both The Big Clock and Double Indemnity and totalitarianism. The answer may lie in Dennis Porter’s account of the history of crime literature in his 1981 study The Pursuit of Crime. In its earliest conception, before the 18th century, Porter argues that crime in literature was what he calls “mythic crime”: think Oedipus, Macbeth, Othello- crimes that have the “unexpungeable character of sins or of transgressions against a suprahuman order. The deeds represented are the work of legendary figures whose exemplary destinies are designed to illuminate human limits and hidden cosmic purposes.”[xxvi] Later, particularly with the advent of the 19th century, Porter argues that crime literature became an avenue for naturalists to comment on the social order, particularly on class systems.

But, it seems to me, by the 1940’s, with novels like The Big Clock and Double Indemnity, crime literature had come full circle, in a sense. The murders of The Big Clock and Double Indemnity are not supposed to be statements about murder in society; instead, they are supposed to function more in the fashion of Porter’s mythic crime, but almost in the negation: both crimes seem to be transgressions against a suprahuman order, but not one lorded over by a God in the sky, but rather a dominant and deadly political system of expectations ruled over by a fabricated account of the force of Nature like the one described in totalitarian theory. In this light, the destinies of the murderers in both works are meant to illuminate a lack of human limits when pressed by such an aggressive force in a world without hidden cosmic purposes, but instead a daily confrontation with the existential meaninglessness of life personified in the masses and the environment of the modern office building.

Whether or not the Wilder or Fearing specifically intended for their works to be so consistent with totalitarian theory, the consistency itself speaks to a much larger mood that seems to manifest itself in many of the works of the 1940’s, a mood that may have also been the inspiration for the writings on totalitarianism themselves. They reflect a deep concern with the place of the modern man in society, the activity and structure of that society, and deep fear of its potential after witnessing firsthand what this potential was turned into in Fascist Germany and Stalinist Russia. It could be a fear, like Alpers suggests, in the vulnerability of the American democracy, the fear that totalitarianism was not only possible in the US, but en route to becoming more and more dominant.[xxvii] But even that seems too specific. The mood that inspired the likes of Arendt, Fearing, and Wilder is one that in looking at the governments of Stalin and Hitler and then perhaps looking at their own government forced them to look into the spiritual abyss of modernity, the masses and see a both a distinctive powerlessness and an unprecedented potential for manipulation.



Main floor of Pacific Insurance Co, workplace of Walter Neff






End Notes

[i] Fearing, Kenneth. The Big Clock. 145

[ii] Robin, Corey. Fear: The History of a Political Idea. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 95-96.

[iii] Alpers, Benjamin. Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920’s-1950’s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

[iv] Menand, Louis. “The Devil’s Disciples,” The New Yorker, July 2003.

[v] Ryley, Robert M. “Kenneth Fearing’s Life.” Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois. May 2011

[vi] Terrall, Ben. “Kenneth Fearing: Poet of Noir.” Noir Sentinel (Winter 2010). Web. 15 May 2011

[vii] Armstrong, Richard. “Billy Wilder.” Senses of Cinema Issue 58: n. pag. Web. 15 May 2011. <

[viii] Fearing, 85.

[ix] Ibid, 90.

[x] Ibid 115

[xi] Ibid, 171.

[xii] Ibid, 174.

[xiii] Nicolaevsky, Boris. Power and the Soviet Elite. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965, 18-19.

[xiv] Canovan, Margaret. “Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism: a reassesment.” The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt. Ed. Dan Villa. Cambridge: Cambrdige University Press, 2000, 26.


[xv] Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1976.

[xvi] Fearing, 145

[xvii] Arendt, 466

[xviii] Fromm, Erich. Escape From Freedom. New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1941, 110.


[xix] Ibid, 152.

[xx] Menand, 3.

[xxi] Wilder, Billy, Dir. Double Indemnity. Paramount: 1944, Film.

[xxii] Fearing, 114.

[xxiii] Arendt, 466

[xxiv] Mills, C. Wright. White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956,  151.

[xxv] Mills, 156.

[xxvi] Porter, Dennis. The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.


[xxvii] Alpers, 271.

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