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Double Indemnity (The Criterion Collection)

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // May 31, 2022
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ryan Keefer | posted June 7, 2022 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Having never consciously entered watching noir films before, this seemed like a good time as any to get into the one that so many deem the one that started the genre, the one that showed the way for scores of films since. And with Double Indemnity, Raymond Chandler's (Strangers on a Train) adaptation of James Cain's novel, directed by Billy Wilder (The Apartment), it's an interesting film to consume.

Walter (Fred MacMurray, Caine Mutiny) is an insurance salesman who meets Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck, Ball of Fire), who he becomes enamored with. Phyllis gets a life insurance policy for her husband and convinces him to sign it, and eventually tries to get Walter to help stage an accidental death for her that would pay out more to her, and perhaps Walter could reap the rewards? So Walter has conflicts in his beliefs and tries to get one by Mr. Keyes, (Edward G. Robinson, Key Largo), in the hopes that Walter and Phyllis could be together for the rest of their lives.

I continue to remain impressed at how much a film continues to remain almost timeless decades after it came out; the first one I found that with was Network and seeing the poise and cynicism that Double Indemnity has at the time of its release in 1944 really shows a maturity that cinema at that time really seemed to lack; having MacMurray and Stanwyck play off of one another the way they do makes for wonderful viewing, to say nothing of Robinson's contribution as more of the viewer's mind, where Walter should probably be. He may get there, but will he have enough time to do so?

MacMurray's Walter is the kind of guy who you'd assume was perhaps is a little miscast on the surface; while 35 when he shot Indemnity he's always had the look of someone who's 10-15 years older. The kind of person who would be more Keyes that Walter. Nevertheless he handles Walter with a cockiness that you would expect from a thirtysomething. He's young and brash, and willing to play fast and loose with rules as he needs to. Stanwyck is mesmerizing as Phyllis, and while the two's chemistry isn't up to others of the era, it's enjoyable to watch.

Seeing how Chandler was able to take a simple scenario and have a decent man eventually compromise himself and how MacMurray is able to use this in Walter makes for a treat in Double Indemnity, and having gotten the chance to finally enjoy the noir film that started all the noir films was fun to watch.

The Blu-ray:
The Video:

The Blu-ray was created as part of the restoration work for the 4K that Criterion also released and the disc is fantastic. Shadow delineation and contrast is better than expected for a release of the age, and the blacks, greys and whites are generally consistent and look natural, with film grain being present through the film. The film looks several decades younger than it was released and its due to the work put in by Criterion.

The Sound:

The monaural soundtrack also brings a solid amount of goods for a near-80-year-old feature. Miklos Rozsa's score is as clear as can be, with dialogue balanced and consistent and more dynamic action from cars or gunfire getting a chance to be a little broader in the soundstage. Excellent technical work by Becker and company.

The Extras:

So this is not a complete port of the previous releases like Universal's 70th Anniversary Edition, which is good and bad. You don't get the 2nd commentary track with Lem Dobbs (bad!) but you also don't get the 1973 TV movie (good?). Criterion has also decided to make some new extras and spread everything over to a second disc.

The ported extras for Disc One start with the Richard Schickel commentary. It's an active, informative track as it gets into the significance of why it's the first noir, some trivia on the ensemble and production, and the impact of the dialogue and some of the scenes in it. It's quite good and a nice complement to the film, it as "Shadows of Suspense" (37:57), which examines the film and includes anecdotes, themes and its impact since its release, and has information on the making of the film and the visual innovations in it. Everything else is new; Noah Isenberg talks about the context of the film for the era and provides biographic information on Wilder, among other items (17:19), while Eddie Muller and Imogen Sara Smith get into why the film is so good, and on noir in general and the impact on the genre by the film. There are two radio plays with MacMurray and Stanwyck (1:25:41) where they reprise their roles, and the trailer (2:14) rounds out Disc One.

The sole extra on Disc Two is the multi-part series "Billy, How Did You Do It?", the 1992 production which includes loads of interview time with Wilder (you've probably seen parts of it in other films but you get the whole thing here). He talks about the things he learned from Lubitsch, philosophies on shots and things like pre-production, working with actors like Marilyn Monroe and others (it covers most of his body of work). He weaves his thoughts between German and English. He shares some poignant thoughts on William Holden and talks about the differences in writing and directing. Most of the feature shows the films, but the last legs of it shows him working with actors on set like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon for The Fortune Cookie. It's a comprehensive piece and provides another component to appreciating the film you may not have considered, and wonderful to have here.

Final Thoughts:

If you look at Criterion's mission statement, the first part says it's "…dedicated to publishing important classic and contemporary films from around the world in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements." Well it does the job and then some. It's not going to be a faithful port of past releases, but Criterion more than makes up for it with a variety of fun and entertaining pieces. I think this is about as good as it gets.

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