Judge Michael Nazarewycz wonders what kind of double indemnity clause Heidi Klum has on the insurance for her legs.
"How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?"
I'm not very fond of lists that carry the scent of ultimatum because unless a list is based specifically in fact (a list of Martin Scorsese's 1980s films, for example), it is subjective. These aren't harmless "My Top 10" types of subjective lists, but rather they are lists whose headers might include words and phrases like "definitive" and "of all time." I also loathe the "desert island list" (If you were trapped on a desert island, what 10 movies would you want to have with you as the only movies you will ever watch again?) because it forces an ultimatum on the list maker. ("And once you choose, you can never change your mind because you are on a desert island.")
However, there are films are so universally well-regarded they have a greater chance of making many or most lists, regardless of how casual or threatening the subjectivity might be. Lists of the best films ever, the best films of the 1940s, the best film noir films, the best films from their respective stars and/or directors, and even the best films for a Saturday night screening by the coconut tree on your island might all include Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity.
Facts of the Case
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray, The Apartment) is the star salesman at the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company. During a day of routine sales calls, he stops by the home of a client whose auto insurance has lapsed. Mr. Dietrichson isn't home, but his sexy wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck, The Lady Eve) is happy to talk with Walter. Their flirtation is relentless—he with his words (ever the salesman) and she with her sexuality. Walter eventually leaves Phyllis home, but she never leaves his mind.
Another meeting without Mr. Dietrichson leads to talk about two subjects: how unhappy she is in her marriage and the possibility of obtaining accident insurance for her husband without him knowing it. Walter resists. She might make him weak, but not weak enough to kill. Not yet, at least. When Phyllis unexpectedly shows up at Walter's apartment, almost inconsolably distraught about her marriage, Walter finally breaks. He is consumed by her—by her face and her hair and her body and her smell—and it is all too much for the bachelor. Like a puppet on her string, Walter agrees to falsify the accident insurance policy—with a double indemnity clause if Mr. Dietrichson were to die on a train. Walter also agrees to…murder.
There is so much greatness in Double Indemnity, and it starts with the screenplay. Based on the novel by James M. Cain (Mildred Pierce), co-screenwriters Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) take the sordid story of greed, desire, and manipulation, and fill it with staccato dialogue that leaves the listener breathless. Despite the volume of words, every one of them is important. It's a meaty screenplay, but an incredibly efficient one.
Unforgettable characters help bring that screenplay to life, and each actor—particularly MacMurray, Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar) as Keyes, Walter's manager—comes not only to play, but to sell. In this film, everybody has something to sell. Walter not only sells insurance to others, he sells lies to himself that he can actually pull of the murder/fraud. Keyes initially sells the idea that Phyllis had nothing to do with her husband's death, but later, when his gut won't let the matter rest, he sells the idea that she had everything to do with her husband's death. Lola (Jean Heather, Going My Way), Mr. Dietrichson's daughter from his first marriage, sells the notion that Phyllis played an active role in her mother's death.
But Salesperson of the Year honors go to Phyllis, for using the perfect combination of sex, greed, and (alleged) misery to lure Walter into her web and do her bidding, or at least help her close the deal on her husband. She is the ultimate femme fatale, and once you've seen her in action, you'll never look at an anklet the same way again.
And the dichotomy of who sells to whom is just fantastic. Walter is the salesman of the lot, yet all of his actions are dictated by the suggestions (read: sales pitches) of others. As Keyes gets closer to the truth, Walter reacts; as Lola cries on Walter's shoulder, Walter reacts; as Phyllis spins her web, Walter reacts. Not once is Walter in control of his own situation, which is a mortal sin in the world of sales.
It's amazing what MacMurray and Stanwyck do with simple facial expressions. For MacMurray, the changes to his face gradually degrade throughout the course of the film. He starts as a cocky salesman who meets a sexy woman, and his leer is so seedy that it's hard to believe the man played the title role in The Absent-Minded Professor. He evolves from sleazy salesman to horny lecher to criminal mastermind to nervous murderer to paranoid man to desperate criminal. On the other side of the gender line, Stanwyck's looks continuously morph from sexpot to repressed housewife to gracious lover to cold-blooded killer to calculating backstabber. Unlike Walter's changes, though, her's are always under control.
As for Wilder's direction, it's magnificent. He had only two major releases prior to this under his belt, but here he shows the patience of a seasoned Hollywood helmer. Most critical to his success is how he understands the pace of the subplots within the overall story, how they work with the pace of the other subplots and with the overall film, and how each must have its own time to spark, build, and climax. This is just as much orchestration as it is direction, with each subplot a critical section of a greater orchestra. Wilder conducts that orchestra like a maestro.
And if you think Wilder isn't selling something too, consider what he lets us see onscreen and what he only allows us to hear offscreen, as if being unable to see something will only make us want to watch more. We always want to watch more—at least with this film.
Universal's 1.35:1/1080p HD transfer is breathtaking. Unlike most Blu-rays that give their films a restored look, this one offers what I would call a clean look. That is to say the film retains all of the originality of a 1940s print absent nearly all of the visual wear that time and screenings cause these things. The same applies to the DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track. Dialogue, ambient noise, natural sound and foley work, and the film's score are all blended beautifully, with wonderful clarity throughout, especially in the quieter scenes. Simply put, watching the Double Indemnity (Blu-ray) 70th Anniversary Edition is like watching the film for the first time.
There is a fine collection of extras with this set…
* Commentaries—one from film historian Richard Schickel, the other from historian Nick Redman and screenwriter Lem Dobbs (The Limey).
* Introduction—a two-minute introduction to the film by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne. He offers his brief thoughts on the warm TCM set that he is most associated with.
* Shadows of Suspense—a hearty and well-shot 38-minute documentary about the making of the film, covering everything from the impact of World War II on film noir and the challenges of the Hayes Code, to the casting (hits and misses) of the film and its alternate endings.
* Theatrical trailer
* Theatrical poster
* Three lobby cards
* A still photo from an alternate ending that was never preserved (and the gem of the postcard bunch)
* The 1973 made-for-TV remake of Double Indemnity—the most fascinating bonus feature, and one of the most interesting I've seen included with any set. It stars Richard Crenna as Walter, Lee J. Cobb as Keyes, and Samantha Eggar as Phyllis, and it really is a tale of two teledramas. On the positive side (and I won't kid you, "positive" is both relative and generous), it plays like a typical '70s made-for-TV dramatic film. Everything from the direction to the score to the aesthetics to the stars themselves (and some recognizable supporting character actors) all scream ABC Movie of the Week. (It originally aired on ABC in 1973 as part of their Movie of the Week brand.) However, when compared to the original, its inferiority is immeasurable. It's as if teleplay writer Steven Bochco (yes, THAT Steven Bochco, creator of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, and many others) had two choices. His first choice would have been to modernize the entire film and keep only the core elements, like the modernization of a Shakespeare work. He didn't go with that choice. Instead, Bochco took the original Chandler/Wilder script, cut out 40 minutes of drama and suspense, made changes to some of the language (not all), made changes to some of the details (not all), and mailed it in. The result is Moreau-like: a hideous combination of 1970s teledrama and 1940s film noir.
I still hate all of those "Best-of" lists, but I love that Double Indemnity is on them. If you have not upgraded your existing copy to this Blu-ray, do it. If you don't own a studio-produced copy of this film in the first place (I'm talking to you, DVR space-hoarders), buy it. If you want to introduce or re-introduce yourself and others to one of the greatest films in any genre, look no further.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• 1973 Version
Review content copyright © 2014 Michael Nazarewycz; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.