Judge Paul Pritchard isn't smarter; he's just a little taller.
Our review of Double Indemnity: Universal Legacy Series, published September 11th, 2006, is also available.
"Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money—and a woman—and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?"
One of the most celebrated films of all time—despite failing to pick up any of the seven Oscars it was nominated for—Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity gets a new release with Eureka's Region B Blu-ray.
Facts of the Case
Successful insurance Salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is called to the house of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to oversee the renewal of her husband's car insurance policy. Neff is immediately taken aback on first meeting Dietrichson, as she greets him with nothing but a towel to hide her modesty.
The two share a mutual attraction and begin a little lighthearted flirtation. However, things take a more sinister turn when Dietrichson inquires about taking out an insurance policy on her wealthy husband's life, which he mustn't know about. Neff—too long in the game to be duped—smells a rat immediately and storms out, telling her he has no intention of being involved in murdering her husband. However, it's too late, and Neff finds his attraction to Dietrichson, allied to his undeniable urge to beat the system he knows inside out, is too strong to resist.
Using his knowledge of the insurance business, Neff concocts a plan to murder Dietrichson's husband that he is confident will be mistaken for an accident, which in turn will trigger the double indemnity clause in his insurance policy.
With Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder not only proved himself to be a remarkably accomplished director (he's arguably amongst the greats), but in many ways he set the standard against which other film noir would be judged. Pushing boundaries, for the time at least, Wilder (working with Raymond Chandler) crafted a screenplay that reveled in sleaze, and cast two amoral characters as its leads. While this unusual step could easily have led to a disconnect between the characters and the viewer, the depth they are given, along with the plot's ability to maintain a viselike grip, means that Double Indemnity has lost none of its power to enthrall.
Yet, as undoubtedly entertaining as Double Indemnity is, it is a film whose strengths are remarkably few. Take away the acting, snappy dialogue, and sharp looks, and there's surprisingly little else to this much-celebrated film. Perhaps that last sentence is a touch unfair. The film oozes atmosphere, thanks in no small part to the chemistry between leading man Fred MacMurray and femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck, and there is undeniable tension as the two meticulously plan, then execute, their crime. Still, those coming to the film for the first time may rightly be taken aback by how straightforward the story is as it plays out. The fact that the opening robs the film of any mystery it may have possessed, as Neff confesses his crime barely moments into the picture, means that one's initial viewing of Double Indemnity could prove a deflating experience.
What soon begins to consume one's thoughts as the film progresses, however, is the motivation that drives both Dietrichson and, in particular, Neff. This is really the crux of the film, and it is what makes it stand out against its peers. Dietrichson delivers a speech on how her husband mistreats her, but something about her story doesn't ring quite true. Sure, her marriage isn't a bed of roses, but there is little to really back up her claims, and hers is a crime that appears to be born almost exclusively out of boredom. Neff's reasoning is even more interesting. His attraction to Dietrichson is as obvious as it is immediate, yet that alone doesn't prove sufficient reasoning for his willingness to commit a crime he is so quick to walk away from when the proposition is first put to him. Instead, Neff is a victim of his own cleverness, as he attempts to beat the system he is a part of. The relationship the two share is also questionable. Beyond their physical attraction, and, of course, the fact that each is reliant on the other once they commit the murder, their frequent claims of love ring somewhat hollow. Lust? Definitely. But love? Not so much. In fact, the word "love" is thrown around far too casually throughout the film, so much so that it seems to want the viewer to analyze their relationship.
The acting is truly first-rate. In what was an early example of film noir, Stanwyck and MacMurray deliver performances that set the standard that others tried (largely in vain) to emulate. Yet, for all their excellent work it is the contribution of Edward G. Robinson (The Ten Commandments) as Neff's superior, Barton Keyes, that stands out. Keyes is the film's moral compass, and the human touch that Robinson brings to the role is vital as, with the two leads being murderers, the audience needs someone to whom they can more readily relate.
Considering the viewer knows full well how events will ultimately unfold, Wilder still manages the trick of engaging them for the film's entirety. A standout scene sees Stanwyck's Dietrichson arrange to meet Neff at his apartment. Mere moments before she is due to arrive, Keyes unexpectedly turns up at Neff's doorstep to discuss his suspicions over her insurance claim, leading to a rapid escalation in tension. Common sense tells us how the scene must play out, yet so invested are we in the story that it is still nerve-shredding.
Eureka brings Double Indemnity to Blu-ray with a near-flawless 1.37:1 black-and-white high definition transfer. Barring a handful of soft shots, the picture is sharp and exhibits very little sign of damage to the print. As should be expected, there is a noticeable layer of grain. The picture is remarkably detailed, even during darker scenes. The DTS-HD Master Audio track, while hardly serving as demo material, features crisp dialogue in an unfussy mix.
The special features may be lacking in quantity, but make up for this in their quality. Film historian Nick Redman is joined by screenwriter, and fellow film historian, Lem Dobbs (Dark City) for a commentary track. The track is jam-packed with information on the film, as it discusses both its making and its impact. In "Shadows of Suspense," a selection of filmmakers and critics discuss Double Indemnity, with the focus on the making of the film. The alleged clashes between Wilder and Chandler, whilst writing the screenplay, are fascinating to hear about, as is the apparent reluctance of anyone to actually accept the starring roles. The Screen Guild Theater offers an audio track featuring Stanwyck and MacMurray reprising their iconic roles for the Screen Guild Theater radio program. Finally, the film's theatrical trailer is included.
It can be quite daunting approaching a film as revered as Double Indemnity for the first time, as its reputation casts a huge shadow over it. Yet I urge anyone even remotely interested in the movie (or film noir in general) to pick up this Blu-ray release at the earliest given opportunity. Deceptively simple, yet completely engrossing, this is a film whose standing is well-earned.
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