If somebody were to ask you what “film noir” meant, the easiest answer would be to show them Double Indemnity. If any movie could so perfectly define a genre, it would be Double Indemnity. All the familiar elements are present: the everyman falling under the spell of a scheming siren and plunged into a world of sex, shadows, and crime. However, the film’s trip to the big screen was just as tumultuous as the relationship between its lead characters.
Author James M. Cain struck gold with his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, which had its own rocky journey to the movie theaters. Cain’s sophomore effort, Double Indemnity, was originally published in eight parts for Liberty Magazine. Both works stirred up controversy due to the dark and racy content, which made it difficult to adapt due to the Hays Code of censorship. Then, along came Billy Wilder, who was already well known as a screenwriter and had just gotten his directing career underway. Wilder’s first films in the director’s seat weren’t all that memorable, but he knew he could blow people’s minds with Double Indemnity.
Wilder’s frequent collaborator, Charles Brackett, refused to work on the adaptation because of the subject matter. Wilder had hoped to work with Cain himself, but he was busy with another project. So, Wilder turned to another author of hard-boiled crime, Raymond Chandler, after reading Chandler’s classic, The Big Sleep. Wilder and Chandler absolutely hated each other, yet somehow survived long enough to put together one of the greatest films ever made.
Double Indemnity famously begins with the silhouette of a man on crutches walking towards the foreground during the opening credits. From there, we meet Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman dying of a gunshot wound. Neff arrives at the office late during the night to record his confession for friend and colleague, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson).
Looking to renew a policy, Neff heads to an affluent Beverly Hills home for a fateful meeting with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Phyllis appears to him at the top of the staircase (a symbolic position of power), wrapped in a towel. She immediately has him hook, line, and sinker. From there, Phyllis seduces Neff into killing her husband (Tom Powers) and collecting the insurance money. Neff uses his knowledge of the business to create a foolproof plan for murdering him and getting away with it.
What’s next is an intricate series of events to set up a seemingly perfect crime. Neff knows when to be seen and when not to be seen. It certainly looks like he’s thought of everything and one bait-and-switch later; Mr. Dietrichson is dead with a hefty sum on its way. But, there’s no such thing as a perfect crime and Neff’s biggest concern, Keyes, comes back to haunt him. Keyes’s job is to weed out phony claims and he’s got a “little man” living inside who tells him when something is fishy. And there is definitely something fishy about this one. With Keyes putting together the pieces and more light shed on Phyllis’s past, Neff’s sense of self-preservation begins to win out against lust and greed.
Perennial nice guy, Fred MacMurray, decided to take a walk on the wild side with the role of Walter Neff. Not surprisingly, MacMurray wasn’t even close to the first choice to play the part. The role was shopped around Hollywood and turned down by a number of actors, including George Raft. It wasn’t until later that Wilder changed his mind about who the character should be that led him to the wholesome, clean-cut MacMurray. He really shines in the role and it’s hard to imagine anyone else as Neff. He’s a far departure from the man who would best be known for family-friendly fare such as, The Absent Minded Professor and the sitcom, My Three Sons. A decade and a half later, MacMurray would play another seedy character for Billy Wilder in another classic, The Apartment.
At the time, Barbara Stanwyck wasn’t just the highest paid actress in the country; she was the highest paid woman, period. She had already done melodramas (Stella Dallas) and screwball comedies (The Lady Eve) and really showed off her range as Phyllis Dietrichson. Of course, like many others, she was a bit reluctant to take the part until Wilder laid down the challenge, “Are you an actress or a mouse?” Needless to say, she was anything but mousy.
Next, we come to Edward G. Robinson, who well be most remembered for playing gangsters in films like, Little Caesar and Key Largo. If MacMurray took a side trip off the beaten path, so did Robinson as Barton Keyes, the pseudo-father figure to Neff. He comes off as a loveable pitbull, even to wannabe scam artists. In one scene, Keyes easily sniffs out some poor schmuck’s con then, instructs him on how to open the door. The con just looks dumbfounded and thanks him. Keyes’s witty, fast-talking manner is based off Wilder himself.
As great as the actors are, they are made even better by the wonderful dialogue written by Chandler and Wilder, two masters of gab. Everybody gets some great lines; especially memorable is the snappy banter between Neff and Phyllis.
Phyllis: “I think you’re rotten.”
Neff: “I think you’re swell, so long as I’m not your husband.”
Phyllis: “There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.”
Neff: “How fast was I going, officer?”
Phyllis: “I’d say around ninety.”
Following the release of Double Indemnity, Alfred Hitchcock took out an ad saying, “The two most important words in Hollywood are, ‘Billy Wilder.'” It’s easy to see why and there’s certainly a heavy Hitchcock influence on Wilder’s approach to the film. There’s that moment of thick tension when Phyllis can’t get her car started and the succinct ending. A scene of Neff going to the gas chamber was shot, but never used as Wilder (like Hitchcock) knew when to end the film without any superfluous resolutions. While the relationship between Neff and Phyllis is the main focus, it is the friendship between Neff and Keyes, and Neff’s subsequent betrayal that carries the main emotional weight. The two of them sharing a cigarette in the doorway was the right moment to precede those two words, “The End.”
The video is presented in 1080p with its original fullscreen aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The Blu-ray doesn’t feature the stunningly restored transfer cinephiles would hope. There’s some noticeable grain and murkiness to a few scenes. The picture quality still looks great for a majority of the movie with the stark lighting and dark shadows captured beautifully.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono. The sound is evenly distributed with dialogue coming in crisp and clear.
This new 70th anniversary Blu-ray features all the bonus material from the previously released Universal Legacy Series DVD.
First up is an introduction (2:30) by Turner Classics host, Robert Osborne, and is on par with what you’d see on TCM.
Shadows of Suspense (37:56) features a series of clips and interviews from various scholars and filmmakers as they discuss the making of the film.
If you’re thirsting for more, there are two audio commentaries. The first features film historian Richard Schickel as he discusses the history and background of the film. It’s interesting, although it does repeat a few things from Shadows of Suspense. The second commentary track features film historian Nick Redman quizzing screenwriter Lem Dobbs (Dark City, The Limey, The Score). Their track is more varied as they also discuss film noir, Billy Wilder, and other relevant topics.
The BD also features the made-for-TV remake from 1973 that stars Richard Crenna as Walter Neff, Samantha Eggar as Phyllis Dietrichson, and Lee J. Cobb as Barton Keyes. To say the remake doesn’t live up to the original would be an understatement. Crenna and Eggar try their best, but they just don’t have the chemistry that MacMurray and Stanwyck had. Also, their line readings are a bit more awkward and don’t have the snap their predecessors had. Cobb was an interesting choice for Keyes and he brings a gruff edge to the character, but he’s not as energetic as Robinson and it sometimes feels he’s sleepwalking through the role.
Finally, you’ll get the theatrical trailer.
The Blu-ray comes with a nice gold-bordered slipcover and an envelope containing lobby cards with vintage poster art.