Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck star in the gripping film noir classic Double Indemnity, directed by Academy Award winner Billy Wilder. A calculating wife (Stanwyck) encourages her wealthy husband to sign a double indemnity policy proposed by smitten insurance agent Walter Neff (MacMurray). As the would-be lovers plot the unsuspecting husband's murder, they are pursued by a suspicious claims manager (Edward G. Robinson). It's a race against time to get away with the perfect crime in this suspenseful masterpiece that was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Alfred Hitchcock may be the Master of Suspense, but many credit Billy Wilder with developing one of Hollywood's most popular and distinctive styles: film noir. Though classic noir elements, such as deep shadows, stark contrast, swirling cigarette smoke, hard-boiled heroes, and duplicitous femme fatales, permeate several early 1940s movies ('The Maltese Falcon' and 'Casablanca' among them), Wilder masterfully ties them all together in 1944's 'Double Indemnity,' a smoldering adaptation of James M. Cain's terse crime novel. The seductive, suspenseful drama wowed the public upon its release, earned seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and most importantly, gave birth to a new genre that would spawn dozens of tough yet elegant, coarse yet lyrical movies that continue to dazzle, fascinate, and entertain more than a half century later. Not all cinematic forms endure, but noir remains timeless, and 'Double Indemnity' stands as the quintessential noir specimen, a flawlessly directed, impeccably written, exquisitely photographed, and superbly performed portrait of ruthless greed, twisted longings, and inevitable retribution that crackles with a unique brand of kinetic energy and passion. Any noir worth its salt owes this classic picture a tremendous debt, and most shamelessly copy it to a fare-thee-well.
Cain wrote 'Double Indemnity' after his first novel, 'The Postman Always Rings Twice,' incited a firestorm of controversy over its frank and lascivious depictions of sex and violence. Both stories chronicle the systematic and cold-blooded execution of a hapless husband by a pair of adulterous lovers, but whereas the breathlessly paced 'Postman' examines the reckless actions of two crazy, naive kids in lust, 'Double Indemnity' takes a more measured approach as it provides a meticulous tutorial on crafting the perfect crime and (almost) getting away with it. Fred MacMurray portrays Walter Neff, a savvy, straight-arrow insurance agent who's willingly led astray by sultry, bleached blonde housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Stuck in an oppressive, loveless marriage, the antsy Phyllis desperately looks to get out, and sees the accidental death policy Walter is peddling as her ticket to both freedom and financial security. Soon, she ensnares the smitten Walter in her deadly web, and the two hatch a plot to bump off her hubby, collect the spoils, and live as happily ever after as two vicious murderers could hope. Walter even ups the ante, crafting a scheme that puts the policy's double indemnity clause into play, which increases the payoff...as well as the risk. The only obstacle standing in their way is the never-to-be-outsmarted Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the insurance company's diligent watchdog and Walter's boss and mentor, a pedantic workaholic who can smell fraud a mile away and lives to expose those who dare to file a bogus claim.
'Double Indemnity' cemented Wilder's reputation as a first-class director, even engendering praise from the normally circumspect Hitchcock, who lauded the film's originality and flair. Though banking on such an unpleasant story and unsavory "hero" and "heroine" was a dicey proposition for Paramount Studios - and for MacMurray and Stanwyck, both of whom worried their roles would tarnish their carefully crafted images - Wilder fervently believed in the project and assembled a stellar creative team to realize it. First, he hired one of literature's foremost suspense writers, Raymond Chandler, to collaborate on the script (his arguments with Wilder were reportedly legendary), then secured the services of an uncertain Stanwyck, one of Hollywood's most esteemed stars, with the baiting question, "Are you an actress or a mouse?" The affable MacMurray, known mostly for lightweight romantic roles, was also cast against type, and Robinson, who heretofore had only played leads, embraced the colorful part of Keyes, despite its supporting nature. John Seitz, who would go on to photograph Wilder's other iconic noir classic, 'Sunset Boulevard,' would handle the cinematography chores, and Miklós Rósza ('Ben-Hur') was signed to compose the foreboding music score.
Like an ethereal symphony, all the components perfectly gel, creating an intoxicating atmosphere of tension and doom. Wilder cut his teeth on screwball comedies, and wisely infuses the screenplay with a snappy wit that balances the incendiary exchanges and humanizes the characters, lending them a dimensionality they lack in the original novel. The director's only misstep was insisting the brunette Stanwyck don a cheap blonde wig to emphasize Phyllis' tawdry, shallow nature. Stanwyck is so talented, she doesn't need such obvious accoutrements to define the women she portrays, and the wig quickly becomes a distraction, emphasizing the role's artificiality. Sure, we get past it easily enough (Stanwyck's mesmerizing portrayal makes sure of that), but it's the one sour note that disrupts this otherwise exquisitely constructed motion picture.
Stanwyck, who would star in several more acclaimed noir melodramas including 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,' 'Sorry, Wrong Number,' and 'The File on Thelma Jordan,' received a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination for her uncompromisingly icy performance. Her throaty contralto drips with mellifluous venom and her fiery eyes light up the screen. (Her expression of brazen relish after her husband is clubbed by MacMurray is a sight to behold and one of the most famous images in all of noir.) Of course, it would be years before the Academy would recognize such unapologetic villainy (Ingrid Bergman took home the 1944 Oscar instead as a highly sympathetic, victimized wife in 'Gaslight'), but Stanwyck's performance proved it was okay - even desirable - for a leading actress to embrace evil, and several of her colleagues (Joan Crawford chief among them) lined up to follow in her footsteps. Her chemistry with MacMurray, who files by far his finest portrayal as the willingly duped everyman, isn't sizzling, but it's potent enough to make the story believable.
Though it stands strongly on its own, the far-reaching influence of 'Double Indemnity' cannot be overstated. Not only is Wilder's film responsible for inspiring a wave of thrilling features throughout the 1940s and 1950s, but it also has shaped countless modern movies, such as Lawrence Kasdan's 'Body Heat' (a respectful homage punctuated by a number of delicious, post-censorship twists) and Curtis Hansen's 'L.A. Confidential,' which, like its 1944 ancestor, also celebrates the gritty and glamorous locations of the City of Angels. Yet despite its advanced age and the moral parameters to which it was forced to adhere, 'Double Indemnity' remains one of Hollywood's finest film noirs, a tough, uncompromising, terrifically entertaining drama that continues to live up to its lofty reputation. Trends come and go, but thankfully, classics like this never go out of style.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Double Indemnity' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve with raised lettering. An envelope containing three full-color lobby card reproductions, a full-color poster reproduction, and a black-and-white still photo from the film's cut-before-release gas chamber alternate ending - all sized at 5"-x-6-1/2" and printed on heavy card stock - is included inside the sleeve, and a leaflet outlining instructions for downloading the Digital HD Ultraviolet copy is tucked inside the case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the movie begins immediately; the menu can be accessed either via the remote or at the conclusion of the film.
Absolutely sublime is the only way to describe this stunningly gorgeous 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Universal that's been "digitally remastered and fully restored from high resolurion 35mm original film elements." Though the 2006 DVD edition of 'Double Indemnity' featured a superbly remastered picture, this Blu-ray release completely surpasses it, making subtle yet notable improvements that draw us deeper into the action and inspire a greater appreciation for the film's artistry. From the moment the stark opening credits - superimposed over the shadowy figure of a man on crutches methodically marching toward the camera - hit the screen, we know we're in for a visual feast. Exceptional clarity and breathtaking contrast distinguish almost every frame of this beautifully photographed film, which earned cinematograhper John Seitz a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Grain is evident, but has been reduced enough to allow details to pop and shadow lines to sport a marvelous crispness. A few errant nicks dot the print, but only eagle eyes can spot them, and they never detract from the film's seductively silky appearance.
Film noir requires pitch-perfect black levels, and these are flat-out luscious, exuding a richness that resembles pools of ink. And though crush is unavoidable in such a shadowy film, occurrences here are rare. Whites are bright and vibrant, nicely showing off Stanwyck's blonde wig and tight-fitting sweater, yet they never bloom, and stand up well even in harsh lighting, while superior gray scale gradation beautifully highlights textures, such as the stitching in MacMurray's suit and the delicacy of Stanwyck's black veil. Background elements are easy to discern, and dazzling close-ups showcase beads of sweat and fine facial features with astonishing clarity, especially for a film of this vintage.
No noise or pixelation disrupt the image and any digital enhancements have been judiciously applied, so they escape notice. When properly balanced, black-and-white movies can rival their color counterparts, exhibiting a unique brand of beauty, and this one does just that. Simply put, this is a fantastic transfer that significantly enhances this classic film and will thrill anyone who appreciates the art of cinema.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound with excellent levels of detail. Though some hiss can be heard during quiet scenes, all pops and crackles have been scrubbed away, leaving a largely clean, vibrant track that showcases the memorable Miklós Rósza score especially well. Though all the sound is, of course, front-based, the music possesses plenty of presence and tonal depth, filling the room as well as many multi-channel scores. Sonic accents, such as the stalling car engine, shoe soles brushing across the pavement, and the strike of a match against a fingernail, are crisp and distinct, and the all-important dialogue is always easy to comprehend. For a 70-year-old film, 'Double Indemnity' sounds terrific, and though the audio quality can't match the video, it still nicely complements the glorious images on the screen.
All the extras from the 2006 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release. It's a nice selection of supplements that examine this classic film from many perspectives.
Introduction by Robert Osborne (SD, 3 minutes) - The long-time host of Turner Classic Movies provides an affable introduction to this iconic film noir, informing us it took eight years to bring James M. Cain's incendiary novel to the screen, and that such esteemed leading men as Alan Ladd and George Raft turned the project down. He also cites some of the censorship issues the hard-boiled story faced before shooting commenced.
Documentary: "Shadows of Suspense" (SD, 38 minutes) - This fascinating, intelligent documentary celebrates multiple aspects of 'Double Indemnity,' including its seductive noir style, superior script and performances, lush photography, extensive location shooting, and costumes and makeup. A host of film scholars and noir experts, including novelist James Ellroy, historian Richard Schickel, and director William Friedkin analyze the movie from various angles and share several absorbing anecdotes. We learn about the background of the film's production, director Billy Wilder's driving ambition, the volatile, antagonistic collaboration between Wilder and screenwriter Raymond Chandler, an alternate ending, and how many feel that censorship actually improved the film's story. Peppered with clips and rare photos, this exceptional documentary probes the depths of both 'Double Indemnity' and film noir, and is essential viewing for aficionados of the movie and its genre.
Audio Commentaries - Two audio commentaries are included. The first is a solo track featuring critic and historian Richard Schickel, who terms 'Double Indemnity' the first "true" film noir. Though Schickel spends too much time analyzing the plot, he makes a number of cogent points and relays plenty of interesting information. He provides essential background on Wilder, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler, discusses the genesis of film noir, notes several differences between Cain's novel and the Chandler-Wilder screenplay, points out places where the story strains credulity, and evaluates both the critical and popular reactions to the movie, which weren't as enthusiastic in 1944 as they are today. Schickel also shares a few colorful anecdotes, talks about the expansion of the Robinson role, and examines how the film significantly improves upon Cain's original story in both overt and subtle ways. The second commentary allows historian and screenwriter Lem Dobbs and historian Nick Redman to expound upon the merits of 'Double Indemnity,' and though they traverse some of the same territory as Schickel, there's enough fresh insight to merit a listen. The two men compare and contrast the writing of Cain and Chandler, analyze the relationship between Keyes and Neff, discuss how the Holocaust influenced Wilder and this movie, link a Jewish and European sensibility to film noir, and examine such vital components as Miklós Rósza's harsh, dissonant music score, the picture's sordid, sexual themes, and its potent sense of place. Dobbs also recalls his personal interactions with Wilder, and cites similarities to the 1970s noir film, 'Chinatown.' Though two commentaries aren't particularly necessary, both are good efforts and worth sampling.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - The film's no-nonsense preview gets right to the heart of the story, and emphasizes its dark, suspenseful nature.
1973 Made-for-Television Remake (SD, 73 minutes) - Like many vintage radio adaptations of yore, this misguided redo of the classic film noir truncates the story by a good half hour, contains subpar performances, and can't hold a candle to the iconic original. Much of the teleplay is lifted word-for-word from the 1944 script, but the dialogue sounds stilted in the 1970s milieu, and the lack of any visual artistry (nothing remotely resembling noir finds its way onto the screen) keeps the story mired in mediocrity. A too-old Richard Crenna tackles the MacMurray role without much panache and the veddy-veddy British Samantha Eggar is far too refined and ladylike to make a believable femme fatale. The chemistry between the two is about as tepid as yesterday's bathwater, and both file robotic performances devoid of any spirit. Lee J. Cobb is a bit more lively, but remains rooted in Robinson's shadow, and Jack Smight's lazy, by-the-numbers direction copies many of Wilder's shots verbatim. The whole enterprise seems rushed and cheap, and only makes us want to revisit the original to erase this travesty from our memory banks. Watch a few minutes and you'll know what I mean...or better yet, don't.
"From the moment they met, it was murder," and from the instant you begin watching this exquisitely constructed film noir, you'll be transfixed. Such is the power of 'Double Indemnity,' Billy Wilder's classic adaptation of James M. Cain's sexy, violent thriller. Oozing style and atmosphere, and featuring memorable performances from Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, this hard-boiled tale of homocide, deceit, and an oh-so-fatal attraction continues to enrapture audiences 70 years after its initial release. Not only is 'Double Indemnity' a top-notch film noir, but it also will be forever regarded as one of Hollywood's finest motion pictures. (The American Film Institute ranked it #38 on its list of the 100 Best American Films in 1998 and bumped it up to #29 on its 10th anniversary list in 2007). Universal's long-overdue Blu-ray presentation improves upon the previous stellar DVD with an impeccable video transfer, excellent audio, and a comprehensive spate of supplements, all of which make this disc an indisputable must own for any serious film aficionado.