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DOUBLE INDEMNITY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
Director:  Billy Wilder
Audio:  Dolby 2.0 Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  108 Minutes
Release Date:  August 22, 2006

“I couldn’t hear my own footsteps…it was the walk of a dead man.”

Film ****

While many say film noir began with The Maltese Falcon, they also tend to say it was perfected with Double Indemnity.  It took many years of wishing, but now this quintessential classic is finally available on DVD, looking better than ever.  More on that further down.

Based on the novella by James M. Cain, Double Indemnity was at once both the hottest property in Hollywood and the most untouchable.  Despite a great story and characters, the sordidness of the subject matter and depictions caused the book to languish for a decade under the oppressive Hays Code.  It took a director with the courage of Billy Wilder to really turn it into the picture it could be…even if casting proved a little more difficult.

Wilder wanted Barbara Stanwyck to play Phyllis Dietrichson, but it took some convincing for the highest paid actress in Hollywood to accept the role of such a femme fatale.  Many actors passed on the role of Walter Neff before Wilder’s stroke of genius led him to cast the most unlikely of noir leading men in Fred MacMurray.  And Edward G. Robinson almost passed because he was used to being the star and having top billing…but like his character Keyes and his little voice inside, Robinson eventually realized it was too good to give up.

The screenplay was penned by Wilder himself along with another master of mystery, Raymond Chandler.  Though the two were as different as night and day and reportedly couldn’t stand one another, Wilder’s gift for story and Chandler’s knack for dialogue helped to craft one of cinema’s juiciest and most quotable screenplays.  Throw in superb black and white cinematography from John Seitz, and you had the right DP, writers, directors and stars to ensure an indelible classic.

The story begins at the end, as a weakening Neff returns to his insurance office in the wee hours of the morning to use a Dictaphone to record a confession to his claims examiner boss, Keyes.  Then in flashback, we see the tale unfold:  how affable insurance salesman Neff paid a call on the Dietrichson household to find the husband, but instead finds the wife.

There’s a steamy attraction at first sight, but this couple consummates their love in an unusual way:  murder.  The idea?  Neff gets Mr. Dietrichson to unwittingly buy an accident insurance policy with a high paying double indemnity clause.  Then he and Phyllis arrange for said accident.  It’s tightly constructed, well thought-out, and flawlessly executed.

But is there really such a thing as the perfect murder?  Not with Keyes on the case.  Despite an almost fatherly liking to Neff, Keyes is an experienced investigator whose gut has never been wrong when it comes to sniffing out fraud.  And his gut begins working overtime on the Dietrichson case.

The rest of the movie is taut and suspenseful, as we wonder along with Neff how much longer the charade can go on.  And what about Phyllis, anyway?  Is she really the suffering, dutiful wife who simply sought a way out?  Or are her designs on Neff much deeper and much more dangerous?

Because we see the ending of the story up front, there isn’t a lot of guesswork.  This isn’t a picture so much about the process of a mystery but of actions and consequences.  Noir is not necessarily a world of good guys and bad, but of average people who make bad choices and then never seem to stop paying for them.  It’s a shady world of sin, but where every sin has a price attached.

The three stars are all superb.  Fred MacMurray had built an early career playing the saxophone and making comedies, but he proved his mettle for all time with his portrayal of Neff.  And Edward G. Robinson demonstrated an ability to go from marquee superstar to solid and reliable character actor with grace and dignity.  But not enough could be said about the luminous Barbara Stanwyck.  She was perfect in every movie she appeared in, in my opinion, but her sultry, smoldering take on Phyllis might just be what she’ll remain most remembered for.

And what about the genius of Billy Wilder?  The man could do anything.  He made perhaps the quintessential Hollywood drama, screwball comedy, and film noir in his career with Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot and Double Indemnity respectively.  It was a happy day for DVD fans when each of the first two made their way to the medium. 

Now, with Double Indemnity, the trifecta is complete. 

Video ***1/2

This new restored transfer is superb, and quite worth the wait, even if it is a little odd to see Universal’s logo at the head of a Paramount production!  The stunning, moody and expressive black and white photography by John Seitz looks sharper and crisper than ever, with clean images, strong contrast, and effective rendering of the light against shadow play in the frames.  Only a dark patch here and there exhibit any belying of the movie’s age…overall, a decidedly outstanding effort.

Audio ***

The audio works well, too…this is impressive for an older mono track.  It sounds clean, with Wilder and Chandler’s dialogue clicking along crisper than ever and the moody music adding just the right touch.

Features ****

Disc One kicks off with an introduction from Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne.  Then there are two solid commentary tracks you can opt for:  one by Time critic and avid film fan Richard Schickel, and a second with film historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman.  It’s too bad Roger Ebert has been in the hospital; I bet he would have leapt at the chance to participate.  There is also a good 40 minute documentary “Shadows of Suspense”.

Disc Two boasts the most intriguing feature…the complete 1793 television movie remake.  It’s a pretty faithful adaptation, with teleplay by TV great Steven Bochco, even if the look and feel does enjoyable scream ‘70s television’.  Richard Crenna is a fine actor taking over the lead, but suffice to say Samantha Eggar is no Barbara Stanwyck.  The venerable Lee J. Cobb rounds out the threesome.  It runs 74 minutes and looks great for a decades-old television production.

Summary:

If you look up film noir in the dictionary, it should simply read “see: Double Indemnity”.  Billy Wilder’s classic take on murder, adultery and the insurance business is one no cinema fan should miss, and no DVD lover should fail to have in his or her collection.  Highest recommendation.

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