Universal // 1944 // 108 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // September 11th, 2006
"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."
One of the all-time great American films, and one of the very first in the film noir genre, Double Indemnity has been intriguing audiences for more than sixty years. Now, it finally gets a DVD presentation worthy of such a landmark picture.
Insurance salesman and ladies man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray, The Absent Minded Professor) stumbles into his boss' office, bleeding and broken. He lights a cigarette, and begins to record a dying man's confession. From the very beginning, we know Double Indemnity isn't going to end well.
Neff could never have predicted where he would end up when he first stops by the Dietrichson household to talk car insurance. While Mr. Dietrichson isn't home, the Mrs. (Barbara Stanwyck, Sorry, Wrong Number) entertains Neff, and a smoldering sexual tension builds as she bats back his incessant, smooth as polished chrome come-ons.
Later, Neff's gets a call from Mrs. Dietrichson. She wants him to stop by again, and he can't help but go. But she's got something on her mind he didn't expect: could a policy be taken out on him without his knowledge, since he would see it as bad luck to have, but his work is so dangerous? Neff sees right through her, knowing she's really talking about murder, and abruptly walks out.
Soon enough, though, his lust gets the better of him, and he takes over the planning of a devious scheme to get the man's signature on a life policy, then knock him off. Even better, he plans to exploit the double indemnity clause in the policy, where the payout is doubled in the case of certain kinds of death. He's got it all figured out -- what could go wrong?
Fred MacMurray is the man. If you get nothing else out of viewing this picture, it's that this guy must've been very popular with the ladies. The dialogue is heavily peppered with double entendre and tough-guy pronouncements, and it all sounds remarkably natural coming out of his mouth. A shocking choice for the role at the time, as MacMurray was known for playing nice guys in family-friendly films, I don't think the movie would have worked nearly as well with anyone else in the role. (For proof of this, see the 1973 made-for-TV version starring Richard Crenna, also included in this set. More on this later.)
Film noir, a phrase, meaning "black film," coined by French critics (who else?) to describe a series of films coming out of America in the '40s, is all about darkness: dark lighting schemes, dark endings, and dark intentions acted out by the main characters. While many consider 1941's The Maltese Falcon to be the first in the genre, some critics (including film historian Richard Schickel, who contributes a commentary track to this DVD) feel the first real noir is Double Indemnity. All the key elements we've come to associate with noir are present. Venetian blinds? Check. Femme Fatale? Check. Sinister, yet somewhat contrived plot? Check. Snappy, hard-boiled dialogue full of double meanings? Check. Bowling? Check (the connection between film noir and bowling is one of the key indicators of why The Big Lebowski is a modern-day example of the genre). If you're looking for one film to represent all of noir, you could do a lot worse than this one.
It was a tough movie to get made, to be sure: few in Hollywood wanted to touch such a seedy tale, filled with illicit sex (not that you see any, but it's sure implied), characters with few redeeming qualities, and a serious downer of a storyline. James M. Cain's novel caught the attention of famed director Billy Wilder (The Apartment, Some Like It Hot), and he set about adapting it to the screen with pulp novelist Raymond Chandler, whose books became famed film noir pictures in their own right, in a famously tumultuous collaborative relationship.
Satisfied with the script, Wilder cast the picture, starting with the startling choice of MacMurray (not that he was Wilder's first choice), attracting Stanwyck, and scoring a major coup by convincing Edward G. Robinson to play a supporting role as Neff's boss Keys. Robinson was a major star at the time, used to playing lead roles, most famously in the tragic gangster tale Little Caesar. The cast is dynamite, and engages the audience throughout, despite the opening scene telegraphing that the characters' best-laid plans will be obviated by fate.
The movie is a trove of riches, with layers of meaning available for the viewer to explore. The Hays Code, a set of self-censorship guidelines, developed in the 1930s and dictating what could and could not be shown in movies appearing on American screens, pushed Wilder to find creative ways to imply the more seedy elements of Cain's story. Therefore, as previously mentioned, the sex is non-existent but we know it's there, Neff's attempts to seduce Dietrichson are couched in seemingly innocuous turns of phrase, and the murder scene is played entirely on Barbara Stanwyck's face. It's precisely this forced use of subtext that makes this picture stand the test of time, as viewers are tasked with decoding what is really happening.
This new Legacy Series edition of Double Indemnity does justice to all aspects of the movie, and provides a decent amount of supplemental material for fans to enjoy. It begins with an introduction from Robert Osborne, film historian and host of Turner Classic Movies, which briefly puts the film in perspective and effectively tells the viewer, "You're in for a treat."
Use of shadow is key in noir films, and cinematographer John Seitz pushes the limits of how much of his frame is left dark -- there are scenes where very little can be seen at all. This new DVD transfer displays the high-contrast lighting scheme with a pleasing amount of detail and clarity. I was a little concerned with some dirt and scratches present in the film's opening few minutes, but that's as long as they last. The sound, while lacking dynamic range by today's standards, is clear and balanced in the original mono.
Disc One contains a nearly 40-minute documentary, "Shadows of Suspense," that provides plenty of fascinating background and tidbits of trivia about the film, its making, and its impact on Hollywood. Filmmakers such as the great William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) add their voices to various film professors and historians in expounding on the movie's important place the timeline of American cinema.
There are also two solid commentary tracks, one with film historian Richard Schickel, and the second with historian/screenwriter Lem Dobbs (whom you might know as the writer of Steven Soderbergh's The Limey) and film historian Nick Redman. Both tracks are jam packed with context and interpretation, and while they occasionally cover the same territory, they do so from different perspectives -- for example, Schickel discusses the reasons why Wilder couldn't have been thinking about World War II during the writing and production, while Dobbs theorizes that of course it was on Wilder's mind. Both are well worth the time of fans of the picture.
An original theatrical trailer is also provided, though not mentioned on the packaging.
Disc Two of the two-disc set features the aforementioned 1973 remake, with Richard Crenna (First Blood) and Samantha Eggar (The Astronaut's Wife). This is effectively a dinner theatre version of the piece, a half-hour shorter than the original and completely lacking in chemistry and tension. Not even a screenplay by Steven Bochco (creator of NYPD Blue, and many other gritty TV series) can make Crenna the least bit believable in the role of Neff: if nothing else, the inclusion of this version makes the original seem better. That said, I'm glad it's here, as it's a nice addition for completists, and is entertaining for how much is misses the mark.
Although it is briefly discussed in the documentary, the infamous original final scene of Neff facing death in the gas chamber is not included in this DVD set. I would have really liked to see it, and assumed, upon hearing of Double Indemnity being re-released as a special edition, that it would be included. Is this the harbinger of a Double Indemnity "Ultimate Edition," possibly in a tin case with a cyborg on the front? Only time will tell.
This is a no-brainer -- any self-respecting movie buff needs Double Indemnity in their collection. Highly recommended.
While the characters are guilty as sin, this DVD set is pure as the driven snow. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2006 Nominee
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1944
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Introduction by Turner Classic Movies host and film historian Robert Osborne
* Shadows of Suspense
* Feature Commentary with film historian Richard Schickel
* Feature Commentary with film historian/screenwriter Lem Dobbs and film historian Nick Redman
* Double Indemnity: 1973 made-for-television movie