Mike Sutton takes a look at the new Region 2 release of Billy Wilder’s exceptional Double Indemnity. A classic film gets a release which, while acceptable, could have been better. Please note that this review contains plot spoilers.
This review contains spoilers
Double Indemnity is a jewel, dipped in poison and glittering with malice. Although correctly seen as a prototype Film Noir, it’s just as much a jet-black comedy in which human venality and arrogance are the pratfalls and the venom which the characters spit at each other is charged with a comic spin which reminds us that the director, Billy Wilder, was much better known for laughs than thrills. That said, it’s also a great Noir, an example of the style at its most luxuriantly dark and the classic theme of all Noir is placed right at the centre of the film – the world is turning to shit much faster than we can shovel.
Like many great noirs – The Big Clock, Out of the Past, Laura – the film is told in flashback. Walter Neff (MacMurray) is an insurance salesman who staggers desolately into his office one night and begins to narrate (into a tape recorder) the long story of how he came to the point of desperation. Bored with his job and eager for a challenge, he comes into contact with Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), an equally bored housewife whose husband’s automobile policy is due for renewal. He flirts outrageously with her and, on a second meeting, she flirts back, revealing the tedium of her life with an uninterested husband and wondering, idly, whether she might be able to take out a life insurance policy on him. Suspecting her motives, Walter explains that if she intends to do away with her husband and take the money then she needs the help of someone who knows how claims investigators work, someone who can offer her a far better life than the one she currently endures. But Walter’s eagerness to create his own happy ending leads him to overlook the whole picture and to forget that Phyllis may not entirely share his view of things. He also has to reckon with Keyes (Robinson), a brilliant claims investigator who prides himself on never paying a false claim. The ‘double indemnity’ of the title refers to a clause in an insurance policy which allows a double claim to be paid in the event of an unusual death.
Although Double Indemnity can’t lay claim to being the first Film Noir – the style was in evidence back at the beginning of the decade with Huston’s The Maltese Falcon – it’s certainly a film which was hugely influential on those which followed. For one thing, it’s gloriously, overwhelmingly cynical. This was something which Billy Wilder turned into a personal style in films ranging from Stalag 17 to The Fortune Cookie, but it’s remarkable to find it in a film dating from the mid-1940s, the year of D-Day when patriotic pride in the moral strength of the ordinary American was at its zenith. There are no heroes in this snake-pit of a movie. Walter Neff is a dumb sap who is all the more stupid for thinking he’s got it all figured out. Phyllis Dietrichson is manipulative and misanthropic, albeit partially redeemed by an awareness of her own nature. Even Keyes, the one character who unambiguously holds up the law, is arrogant, cold and selfish, not caring who he hurts in his relentless drive to seek out deceit. We’re told that he once had his intended bride investigated and ditched her when the results turned out to be less than pristine. This man, in some ways avuncular and wise, is just as enmeshed in the darkness of this world as anyone else, As for his intellectual overreaching, while different from Walter’s, it leads him down the wrong path and it’s largely chance that leads him to the truth at the end of the film.
The performances are an enormous advantage to the cynical nature of the film. Wilder uses actors with a skill that few other directors match. Fred MacMurray was an actor who tended to be typecast as the all-American family and he developed an unbearably smug demeanour that made him a pain to watch, particularly in the Disney films to which he was confined in later years. Naturally, Wilder knew that it was this quality which made him the perfect fall guy – MacMurray’s screen persona is of the man who seems to know exactly what the score is and it’s the fatal chasm between this subjective view and the truth of the matter which is his downfall. Barbara Stanwyck was best known as a light comedienne in screwball classics such as The Lady Eve but Wilder uses her glassy beauty as a screen behind which a calculating, nasty mind is constantly whirring. In this sense, Phyllis is an ideal match for Walter – they’re both small minded and vicious by nature, both obsessed with the idea that life has somehow passed them over but not sure in what way they have been overlooked or what they actually want. They don’t seem particularly interested in the money, nor does their lust seem out of control – unlike that of Lana Turner and John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Indeed, when Lawrence Kasdan paid homage to Wilder’s film in Body Heat, he added a sense of Turner/Garfield passion to heat up the movie. There’s not much erotic heat or even chemistry between Stanwyck and MacMurray – they simply seem to despise each other less than they hate everyone else. The one exception, at least for Walter, is his fondness for Keyes. You will note that the last line of the film – “I love you too” – is addressed from Walter to his nemesis and it seems to me that it’s only partially ironic. Walter ‘loves’ Keyes, if only so much as he can ever love anybody. This links with the feelings of the audience for Edward G. Robinson, an actor who is so skilled that he makes Keyes very funny while at the same time making him insufferable. If we end up liking Keyes more than anyone else, maybe that’s because we also love Eddie Robinson, no matter who he’s playing.
The cynicism – that everyone is out for themselves and that people will do terrible things to each other because they’re basically creatures of irrational, stupid impulse – is quite overwhelming. It’s leavened by a brilliant screenplay which is at least as funny as any other film of the 1940s. How much of this was Wilder and how much was Raymond Chandler – the co-writer – is debatable but there’s both the flip, tough humour of Wilder and the wry, reflective irony of Chandler. Consider dialogue such as this – “Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty isn’t it”. It could come straight out of a Marlowe novel – although then it might well have come out of the mouth of the hero himself. On the other hand, there’s a lot of swift, light comedy too in some of the exchanges between MacMurray and Stanwyck; their first meeting is a particular classic. Few Noirs were ever quite this witty. Indeed, sometimes you get the feeling that in defining the screen conventions of the stupid sap and the femme fatale, after James M. Cain’s novel at least, Wilder and Chandler are also guying them for all they’re worth. This particular plot – trusting man kills cunning woman’s husband for the money, all hell breaks loose when things don’t go to plan – has been used time and time again by Hollywood. But Wilder and Chandler aren’t interested in conventional plotting. If Phyllis is a femme fatale, she’s not a very bright one. If Walter is a stupid sap, he’s one who has done pretty well for himself so far. The writers are saying; look, this isn’t a tragedy, these people deserve each other. Hence the chill which Double Indemnity leaves you with.
The look of the film was equally influential. The high contrast cinematography which defined Noir goes back to the Expressionist era but John Seitz’s work as DP on this film brought it right into the mainstream of Hollywood. He repeated the trick in films such as The Long Weekend, The Big Clock and, most brilliantly in that mix of Noir and poisoned nostalgia Sunset Boulevard but his career then dribbled away into low-budget programmers and he doesn’t seem to have gained the same reputation among Noir enthusiasts as John Alton. The melodrama which hovers around the edge of most Noir is the inspiration of Miklos Rosza’s florid but enjoyable music score, one which clearly signposts the way to his great work the following year on Hitchcock’s Spellbound.
Double Indemnity has aged very well indeed. Its remarkable negativity about human beings was not particularly well received in 1944 but looks a lot more realistic now than most films of its era. It’s also far from traditional in its tone, which is as much dark comedy as tragic nightmare. This is a vicious, unsentimental world full of sleazy and arrogant people – even Keyes, the man who uses mathematical order as a bulwark against the untidiness of the world, alienating himself from it in the process – and the time seems to perpetually be three minutes to midnight. In fact, it goes further than most contemporary noir. Not only is no-one trying to shovel the shit, they’re all wallowing in it.
This wonderful film was originally released on R1 back in 1998 by Image. That disc has long been out of print and wasn’t much good in any case. This new Region 2 release of the film from Universal is an improvement. The film looks and sounds better than it has done for some time. It’s doesn’t represent the much-needed full restoration but it’s pretty good to be going on with.
The film is presented in its original fullscreen format at a ratio of roughly 1.37:1. The transfer looks better than the R1 disc. It’s crisp with well defined shadows and reasonably deep blacks. The latter do vary throughout the film however and sometimes you end up with a dark grey at best. There’s some print damage throughout although nothing disastrous. The level of grain is, in my judgement, faithful to the original film and is entirely satisfactory although this may well be a matter of personal taste. There is, unfortunately, some artifacting present throughout.
The Mono soundtrack presents no problems at all and is crisp and clear without any noticeable hiss.
There are no extras apart from a dispensable ‘Collector’s Booklet’. Considering the importance and quality of the film, this is a missed opportunity. The same could be said of the lack of subtitles.
I think that Double Indemnity is a great movie because it’s completely uncompromising in presenting a vision of the world. It’s a vision which Billy Wilder was to present time and again and one which is true to the original James M. Cain novel while managing to top it for outright misanthropy. This DVD looks quite good and sounds fine but could have been rather better, especially considering how long we’ve had to wait for it.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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