Double Indemnity Review
It helps to go to a very dark place for Double Indemnity. It's centered around a guy with a decent, stable job who ends up murdering a man and later also killing his accomplice. He has no obvious streak of violence, derangement or sociopathy. His initial killing was, as he confesses in a recording to his boss, for money and a woman. "I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman," he says. That pretty much epitomizes film noir. So many of these pictures involve a chump, and Walter Neff is a Grade-A example, undone by either money or a woman or, as in Neff's case, both. Film noir, which carries with it darkness virtually by definition, can be traced back prior to Double Indemnity but there's arguably no better model of the style than Billy Wilder's 1944 feature. With its voiceover narration, Venetian blinds lighting, and perfect blend of cold and hard, Double Indemnity is the archetype.
James M. Cain, who also penned the books which later inspired The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce and Slightly Scarlet, came up with the story told in the film. In it, Walter Neff, an insurance salesman played by Fred MacMurray, happens upon the Dietrichson house one sunny afternoon in Los Angeles. Neff is interested in getting Mr. Dietrichson to renew his automobile policy but Mr. Dietrichson isn't home on this particular day. He's instead greeted by a maid and, upon entering the house, Mrs. Dietrichson, who's at the top of the staircase covered, partially, in a towel. Neff is a little smitten. He's intrigued, at the very least. The anklet she sports after getting dressed and coming down the stairs to see him further gets his attention. You almost get the feeling that all of Neff's actions, all of the horrible things he finds himself doing over the course of the film, spring from that anklet.
Wilder asked his director of photography John F. Seitz to capture the particles of dust in the air as it's emphasized by the sun's rays for this scene. It's barely visible but it's there, and MacMurray's voiceover even mentions how the sunshine coming in through the blinds shows the dust in the air. This blend of what's dirty and what's cleansing is kind of perfectly emblematic of film noir. The style is rarely if ever about pure pessimism or a complete lack of hope. It's built around possibility. The men, and it's almost always men, who succumb to those terrible desires for money and women do so because they're lured by the promise of an improved life. It's a gamble, typically caused by desperation, but it's one with a payoff thought to be so perfect as to warrant any number of ill-advised actions.
While the director must be the chief salesman behind the scenes, he needs his actors to really close the deal. Part of why Double Indemnity works so well is its two leads. MacMurray - tall, decent-looking, no visible scars - is an ideal sucker and, indeed, he fell for a similar ruse on film a decade later in Richard Quine's Pushover. From a distance, it can be a little tough to buy into why Neff, an insurance man, would risk so much. But what's not there in anklet can be found in Barbara Stanwyck's blonde wig and watery eyes. Phyllis Dietrichson is a funny sort of dame. It's difficult to think of a single other Stanwyck role which resembles her turn as Dietrichson. Though not traditionally beautiful at this point in her career, the actress had been more than capable of playing sexy in things like The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire. The feel is different in Double Indemnity though. Stanwyck is not only alluring, she's dangerous. She's a femme fatale in the truest, most disturbing sense.
The level of sexuality Stanwyck brings to the part is rather striking even now so it's especially remarkable to think of how it must have played to audiences during the height of the Hollywood Production Code. A sexual element charges most every move she makes. It comes into play when she meets Neff and when he returns but never more so than when she pays a visit to his apartment and they sort of clearly consummate their affair. Wilder does it with a dissolve and a cut. We go to Neff in present-day recording his story and then back to Phyllis in her Angora sweater, seen reapplying her makeup as Neff enjoys a cigarette. The two have now moved to opposite sides of the couch. A thrill of getting caught, of planning or having shared in something exciting yet awful, lingers between the two each time they appear together. When Neff chokes her husband to death as she sits unnervingly still just beside him in the car, Stanwyck's eyes register a tiny orgasmic thrill.
Any sexual excitement that can be perceived at the time of the killing doesn't lessen the absolutely ice-cold reaction we see from her. One wonders if there are gender-based explanations in how these two characters are viewed. Can Neff be the basically likable narrator and protagonist while Phyllis is the manipulative catalyst who deserves the bulk of the blame to all viewers? Or is that a predominantly male take? Shouldn't they really be assigned almost equal degrees of guilt? Phyllis has nonetheless always seemed to be the one taking advantage of Neff, of using her sexuality and his vulnerabilities to pull the almost perfect con. As we learn, it's in her nature. The overt falseness of so much about her, from the blonde wig to most everything she says (or at least how she says it), creates a strong feeling of distrust, if never disinterest. After their initial few conversations, so much of what is said between Neff and Phyllis comes across as forced. They keep professing their love for one another and Neff insists on calling her "baby" but doing so minus any real affection in his voice.
There is no sense of love at all when they're together. There's lust, a strong feeling of sexual energy and desire, and, finally, a weight they carry together like a jointly experienced trauma, but it's all a lightning bolt. Had Neff gotten the carnal desire out of his system sooner he probably wouldn't have killed her husband. Had he not been an insurance salesman with a solution to a nagging problem, Phyllis might have been disinterested from the start. The position of chance and its cousins fate and luck all become unavoidably intertwined with film noir. It's so often about this or that one particular incident and the resulting mushroom effect it has on the protagonist's life. The variables are endless just for Neff to have ever become involved here. His profound ordinariness is part of why Double Indemnity becomes that perfect example of film noir. If this stuff could happen to him then it could, conceivably, happen to any of us.
There's actually a triangle of sorts at play here which also includes Edward G. Robinson's character Barton Keyes. It initially feels like a supporting part, even with Robinson's above-the-title credit, but Keyes plays a crucial role in the film following the Dietrichson murder. He also becomes one of the most decent figures to prominently appear in any Billy Wilder movie. He's the conscience in a film that's otherwise rotten to its core. The way Robinson plays it, or maybe it's a consequence of the script, Keyes never comes across as a crusader. He's just a guy doing his job who's also dedicated to the truth. The little man inside of him that he's always referring to is an inspired construct because it allows the character to appear more passive than meddling. It's not him who won't let the Dietrichson case rest, it's the little man nagging him from inside. Robinson probably doesn't receive enough praise but he's easily the glue that holds everything together in the picture.
Some have commented that Robinson seems to be essentially playing Wilder here, or at least acting as a stand-in. Regardless, the director's fingerprints do feel like they're all over the picture and you really can't overdo the praise. This was only the third feature he directed in Hollywood. He'd made a couple of very good pictures in The Major and the Minor and Five Graves to Cairo and co-written numerous others, but nothing really like this. There was always darkness and even a little dash of the sordid at times in many a Wilder script. As much as he admired Ernst Lubitsch, Wilder's interests came with more bite; he had that "mind full of razor blades" as William Holden later said. Still, the scripts Wilder had attached his name to previously were never as bleakly uncompromising as Double Indemnity. After reading Cain's source story, Charles Brackett, a longtime writing partner of Wilder's, decided it wasn't for him. His replacement ended up being arguably the greatest writer of American noir fiction - Raymond Chandler, here making his debut in Hollywood.
Wilder and Chandler didn't get along, and the stories about their toxic working relationship are well-known. Still, together they birthed a beauty of a screenplay which deviated as needed from Cain's original text. Neff's voiceover narration, the early exchanges he shares with Phyllis and some of Edward G. Robinson's long sections of dialogue are all sharp and brilliant. The Chandler influence comes across as clear and invaluable. This was a world he would have known and had an ear for better than Wilder. The film likely wouldn't have had that same oomph behind some of its words and rhythms of dialogue if Brackett had again partnered with him.
Also key to the picture's success, and probably just as invaluable in his own right, was Wilder's frequent director of photography John Seitz, paired again after his Oscar-nominated work on Five Graves to Cairo. Seitz is truly one of the unsung heroes of the film noir style and here he created a virtual template of how to balance darkness, light and shadows to fit the mood of the scene. From his visible dust achieved with aluminum filings during Neff's initial visit to the Dietrichson house to how he lit the apartment encounter between Phyllis and her new lover, Seitz again and again proved himself to be an innovative artist who pushed the boundaries of his craft.
There's ample more available to discuss, including the oft-neglected character of Lola Dietrichson played by Jean Heather, but I think it's particularly important to return to the idea of Double Indemnity as the truest expression of film noir. This is a concept which can perhaps be taken for granted due to how influential the film became. There's even a danger in filtering certain elements as bordering on parody. But it's precisely because so many of the classic noir staples are presented as sincere and matter-of-fact that they register with a straight face. While other films before it bring to mind key attributes of noir, none combine so many as well and definitively as Double Indemnity. Under the studio system and in the midst of the Code's potentially smothering strength, Billy Wilder helmed an unapologetically adult tale of sex and murder, cloaked in dim lighting and the shadows of Venetian blinds.
Double Indemnity has been rescued by Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series for this Region B Blu-ray edition. The film, a Universal property, is presented on a dual-layered BD for this release, which is spine number 44 in the MoC line. It's been put out alongside Billy Wilder's follow-up picture The Lost Weekend, which I reviewed previously.
The proper Academy ratio, listed as 1.37:1 here, has been respected in this high definition transfer. The film looks quite impressive to me. There is some mild flickering at times but the greyscale overall is superior to what was seen with MoC's The Lost Weekend release. The cinematography by John Seitz is an almost fragile thing to observe given the significant variations in light and shadows, and this is probably the finest representation of that yet available. The amount of detail on display is impressive throughout but especially so when the level of light has been intentionally minimized by Seitz and Wilder. You can see more of what's going on here than in, for example, the previous DVD edition issued by Universal in 2006. Grain registers well but is far from suffocating. It also doesn't look too smoothed over as we might expect from a release handled entirely by Universal, given the studio's recent track record. There's no damage of note here at all.
MoC has included some "Notes on the Restoration" in the booklet and this makes mention of additional restoration work done to Universal's HD master, which originated from a 35mm dupe negative, specifically for this release. The Restoration Supervisor is listed as James White, a name that might be familiar to admirers of some of the BFI's highly impressive Blu-ray releases from the past.
An English language DTS-HD Master Audio track spreads the mono audio across the two front channels. It all sounds balanced and true. Dialogue can be heard absent any struggle or difficulty, and at a consistent volume. The track carries no apparent instances of hissing or popping. Miklós Rózsa's score is inserted ably into the mix. Nothing necessarily dynamic to be heard here but distractions are pleasingly absent as well. There are optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired, which are white in color.
A music and effects track is also present.
Wilder's film is such a canonical classic that continues to have enormous, widespread appeal that it would seem to demand a healthy assortment of supplements on this its first Blu-ray release in the English language market. From, perhaps, another perspective, something I've always found to be admirable about Masters of Cinema editions is that they resist the superfluous extras often thrown onto major studio releases. So I suppose the goal would be to find a balance there and I think that's more or less what has occurred here. MoC took one of the commentaries and the half-hour featurette found on Universal's Legacy Series DVD release from 2006, leaving behind Richard Schickel's track and the television movie remake, and added one of its typically valuable booklets. Even with the also-included theatrical trailer and Screen Guild Theater radio adaptation, I'm not sure this entirely feels like enough but these features do at least supplement the film ably without overdoing it.
The commentary track, with input by Nick Redman and Lem Dobbs, is a good listen. Redman mostly defers to Dobbs, the screenwriter of The Limey and Haywire who spent some time with Wilder. But it's not memory lane rambling here at all. Dobbs talks about Chandler, Wilder, film noir and Double Indemnity's place in the cycle, and manages to stay fiercely on topic without ever really mentioning what's occurring on the screen at any specific point.
The "Shadows of Suspense" (37:57) featurette, too taken from the Universal DVD, gathers at least a dozen faces and voices which should be familiar to those viewers seasoned in other noir discs. It covers some basics about the production from start to end, but it does so at a snappy pace that doesn't feel dumbed down. I found it to be a very entertaining piece. That said, I think the commentary and the featurette both are unduly harsh on Fred MacMurray's film career, which certainly has its gems beyond his two pictures with Billy Wilder.
The Screen Guild Theater radio play for Double Indemnity available on this disc was recorded in March of 1945 and reunites Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. It goes for about half an hour. The film's theatrical trailer (2:15) looks beat-up and rough quality-wise. Like the featurette, it's presented in standard definition.
The 40-page booklet begins with "Double Indemnity: A Policy that Paid Off" by John Allyn, taken from the spring 1978 issue of Literature/Film Quarterly. It derives from a February 1976 interview conducted with Billy Wilder and basically lets the director speak in his own words across parts of nine pages of text, with prompting by Allyn. Three paragraphs by James M. Cain, applauding the film version of his work, follow. A few more from Raymond Chandler, originating in the November 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, find the novelist and co-screenwriter complaining how there is "little magic of word or emotion or situation which can remain alive after the incessant bone-scraping revisions imposed on the Hollywood writer by the process of rule by decree."
There's also a lengthy exploration of the famous alternate ending, which Wilder shot but opted not to include in the final film. The scene as described in the screenplay is outlined across six pages.
Notes on the restoration work done for this release, as well as generous stills and credits for the film and disc, fill out the remainder of the booklet.