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Double Indemnity is ground zero for Film Noir, plain and simple. The real breakthrough title for the American style, it opened the floodgates for all kinds of previously taboo subject material that subverted both censor and studio ideas of what constituted suitable movie subject matter: Adultery, premeditated murder for profit, and cynical characters that gave the audience vicarious thrills as they defied the law and took "the trolley car to the cemetery." Billy Wilder scored in the thriller genre as Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang never had, making the audience feel the attraction of sin and wrongdoing, and holding out just enough hope for a humane finish to leave audiences in hushed suspense.
Although a scant ten years earlier Billy Wilder knew little more English than what he heard in pop song titles, Double Indemnity crackles with authentic hardboiled dialogue and sharp-tongued narration as only James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler can dish it out. Modern audiences familiar with Wilder's comedies often see little difference between the sometimes overdone smart-talk ("Sometimes honeysuckle can smell like murder") and respond with approving laughter. But Double Indemnity never fails to deliver the sickly allure of California greed and treachery.
Although noir films certainly pre-existed Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder was the genius that somehow got an un-filmable story filmed, without surrendering fully to censor interference. Hollywood immediately rushed out with hot James M. Cain properties that had been held up for years: Mildred Pierce, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Suddenly there was a new style of B&W dramas with a cohesive look that went against the high-key glamour perfected by Hollywood. Shadows, darkened rooms and sinister silhouettes ushered in thrillers with cynical and pessimistic themes, about anti-social characters entangled in sordid intrigues and sexually charged behaviors.
Double Indemnity breezes by on a steady stream of slick dialogue. Although its best lines are read by 30s gangster icon Edward G. Robinson (especially his machine-gun delivery of long speeches a la Wilder's later comedy, One, Two, Three), the tone is mid-way between the crisp street patter of 30s Warners' pictures and the laid-back beat-talk later made popular by Robert Mitchum. Exchanges between 'intimate' buddies Neff and Keyes are stylized to the point that every question is a smart remark, and every answer is another smart-remark question. "How would you like a $50 cut in pay?" says Keyes, and Neff answers "Do I laugh now or wait until it gets funny?" On the other hand, Phyllis Dietrichson's purred come-ons and breathy objections all come under the heading of pure femme fatale deception.
The movie is (for 1944) amazingly cold-blooded when it comes to the actual murder, an act that plays out over Phyllis' face as she revels in her own capacity for erotic destruction. But Phyllis and Walter are humanized as they discover the real people behind the masks of seduction and manipulation. Walter is horrified to learn more about Phyllis' background, how she came to be Mrs. Dietrichson. Phyllis is (in one interpretation) impressed to discover that she does have feelings for Walter, and traumatized by the knowledge that her games have gone too far to ask him for his trust. Double Indemnity is insurance terminology but also refers to the peculiar jeopardy of murderers: They must trust each other, but as each knows the other is capable of murder, trust is impossible. They're trapped on Barton Keyes' figurative trolley car to the graveyard.
Wilder and Chandler humanize Cain's cold-blooded story. Co-workers Keyes and Neff have the movie's special relationship, at least until Keyes' ultimate disillusion. The interesting thing is that Keyes is more interested in murder, fraud and skullduggery than Neff is, and wallows happily in a paperwork flood of petty larceny -- he has a ghoulish delight in getting the goods on chiselers like Fortunio Bonanova's crooked truck driver. Keyes' crusade is so liberating, he isn't interested in money and women, the things that interest Walter. Keyes is definitely attracted to Walter, an affection that has become a shared, cynical joke. Opportunist Walter lacks Keyes' fundamental morality; he likes the seductive riches around him and is a prime candidate to bite when the right apple comes along.
The screenplay also offers hope from an unusual direction. Lola Dietrichson (Jean Heather), the sad daughter in a murderous household, has a miserable romance with a bitter hothead, Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr). They're a perfect pair of patsies. Walter keeps Lola from telling what she knows, while Phyllis independently sets Zachetti up for a complicated murder double-cross. Phyllis has a suicidal last-minute flash of decency, while Walter is so sick of himself that he saves Nino from a frame-up and confesses all. It's a perverse and romantic kind of suicide, but it keeps us from hating Walter Neff at the fade-out. Walter is just decent enough that we might be able to perceive ourselves making the same mistakes.
Double Indemnity crashes to life with Miklos Rozsa's doom-laden score (that he'd recycle, with variations, in a dozen more noirs) and a title image of a dark shadow of a man on crutches looming toward the camera, a ghost come back to haunt the guilty. The movie so impressed the industry that Wilder became a top director, with even Alfred Hitchcock taking out a trade ad to praise his accomplishment. 1
Universal's double-disc Special Edition of Double Indemnity explains why the popular film hasn't been included on earlier noir release lists -- the studio was saving it for the fancy-package treatment reserved for its top titles, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Deer Hunter. It comes in a sturdy book-like case, with two discs inside.
The transfer looks exemplary, with only a few visible scratches, the immediate benefit of Universal's royal treatment. The B&W image can't really sing with the silver-screen clarity of old nitrate prints (boy, did Double Indemnity look good back at UCLA!) but it does a fine job of replicating the film's various moods -- the dusty decay of the Dietrichson hom and, the efficiency of the grand office set, which predicts Wilder's The Crowd-like insurance company in The Apartment 16 years later.
The extras will be welcomed by newbies to film noir and old hands will be impressed by some of the participants. New Wave's handsome long-form docu makes good use of a slick graphic treatment involving Venetian blinds and lines up a stellar cast of suspects to dissect Wilder's masterpiece: Familiar faces Eddie Muller and Alain Silver share space with James Ellroy (who has to swear, it seems, to make a statement) and other later Hollywood notables. Cameraman Caleb Deschanel offers the terrific observation that B&W films became more artful in the 1940s as a way of competing with color. And we finally see noir critic and author Elizabeth Ward as an on-camera participant; Ms. Ward was a major contributor to and editor of the Film Noir Encyclopedia and can be seen in its back-cover illustration, posing in Peggy Cummins' sweater and beret from Gun Crazy.
The first disc finishes with two commentaries. Richard Shickel's authoritative track is more detailed and enthusiastic than some of his other disc work, while Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman's take on the film is somewhat redundant but better researched.
Double Indemnity becomes a two-disc offering with the inclusion of the 1973 TV remake, starring Richard Crenna, Lee J. Cobb and Samantha Eggar. Jack Smight was the director. It isn't much of a film, especially in comparison to Wilder's original, and only the most curious need check it out. As reported in the disc docu, Wilder called Stanwyck after it was aired in 1973 and said, "They just didn't get it, did they?" Double Indemnity influenced so many thrillers and spawned so many copycats (many of them very good, like Pushover and Body Heat) that reviving this turkey seems a waste of disc space. Then again, why deny Samantha Eggar fans a good time?
As for Wilder, he returned to the world of noir for the Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend and the superb Sunset Blvd.. Major studios like to imply that they release critical favorites like Double Indemnity because they're enthusiastic about great pictures as great art. If that's the case, it's high time that Paramount releases Wilder's most uncompromising noir classic, Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival). It's so hard-boiled and cynical, it makes Double Indemnity look like your proverbial Sunday school picnic.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Double Indemnity rates:
1. The good docu on the disc recounts Hitchcock's ad as the third in a string of 'battling ads', as sometimes happened in the trades. David O. Selznick touted his new movie in a pompous page in Variety, which prompted Wilder to respond with a lampoon version that Selznick reportedly resented. The featurette documents Hitchcock's ad praising Wilder, but fails to mention that Hitchcock at the time was a Selznick contractee. Hitchcock may have been complimenting Wilder, but he was also delivering a stealthy slight to his stingy boss David O.!
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