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  • Writer's pictureAndy Ross

Double Indemnity

Writer-Director Billy Wilder’s 1944 film “Double Indemnity” is considered by many to be the definitive example of that style known as Film Noir. Cynicism, femme Fatales, dark, shadowy images. These are all the things that make up the style of film which was made in America during the 1940s and 1950s. The term wasn’t used by Hollywood and didn’t gain a great deal of traction until the 1970s. French film critics coined it noticing a certain similarity in many crime films.

Based on James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, “Double Indemnity” is the story of insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), whose been in the game a long time and is slicker than an iced-over road. Neff pays a call to the Dietrichson household to check in about a car claim that’s past due. Neff meets Mrs. Dietrichson, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck). Phylis is a bored and dissatisfied housewife, almost immediately sparks fly between the two.

Phyllis works on Neff to come up with a scheme to convince her husband to sign up for a life insurance policy. Neff, using his knowledge of the company, works out a way to murder Mr. Dietchrsion in a way that won’t be questioned by anyone at the company. Neff’s biggest fear is his boss, claims manager Barton Keys, played fantastically by Edward G. Robinson. Keys has a sort of “second sight” about these things and it’s almost impossible to pull the wool over his eyes in any combination.

“Double Indemnity” is, rightfully, considered one of the greatest American movies ever made. The script, which Wilder co-wrote along with famed Noir novelist Raymond Chandler, cracks with the kind of snappy dialogue that’s been parodied ten times over in every Noir spoof ever made. Wilder, who was very fond of biting the hand that fed him, took a novel that everyone in Hollywood said could never be filmed and turned it into a crackerjack of a movie.

Billy Wilder is one of my favorite directors and “Double Indemnity” is one of his best films. To those who may only know Noir through cliques, you may see this movie and feel like it’s full of them. That’s because so many things took inspiration from this movie. A lot of the Noir stereotypes that are the backbone of the genre can be found in this movie. This was one of the first movies ever made where the protagonists are the bad guys.

The Criterion Collection releases “Double Indemnity” this week for the first time in 4K Ultra HD, and for the first time an edition from them. The original negative for the film is long gone, so this new 4K digital restoration was sourced from a 35mm nitrate composite fine-grain held by the British Film Institute. A 35mm lately film duplicate negative made in 1986 from a now-gone nitrate element was used to replace missing frames from the BFI fine-grain.

The results are truly outstanding. I’ve never seen “Double Indemnity” look so dark. The shadows are deep and rich, it’s hard to imagine the film looking better than it does here. This is noir turned to 11. The image can be a touch soft here and there, but considering no original negatives still exist that’s not a problem. Overall, this is a very impressive image. The sound is uncompressed mono audio taken from the nitrate fine-grain’s optical track. It sounds clear and sharp.

Criterion has loaded down this edition of “Double Indemnity,” first off it’s a three-disc collection. One UHD disc and two regular blu-ray discs. The UHD disc features the movie and the commentary track by film critic Richard Schickel which dates back to the first DVD release from Universal in 2006, the documentary from that release is also ported over here, but you won’t find that edition's inclusion of the 1973 TV movie of the week remake—not a loss.

New features include an interview with scholar Noah Isenberg and a conversation between TCM host and noir expert Eddie Muller with historian Imogen Sara Smith. Two radio adaptations and a trailer round out the bonus material on the first blu-ray, which also has the full movie and commentary track. The second blu-ray features the 1992 film “Billy, How Did you Do It?” That features interviews with Wilder.

Criterion has, unsurprisingly, knocked it out of the park and made the best home edition of “Double Indemnity” to date. The film is an important landmark in American cinema and the development of Film Noir. It’s well worth owning and this new edition would fit home nicely in your collection. Absolutely recommended. See you next week.


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