The likes of The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Night Of The Hunter and other films have claims to being the greatest film noir, but for me it’s Double Indemnity. It’s a true masterpiece of a film, which truly grasps all the things that made noir great (indeed it created many of them, as this was a very early entry to the ‘genre’), from fast-paced hard-boiled dialogue and femme fatales to chiaroscuro lighting, a duplicitous protagonist and wry narration.
Fred MacMurray (who other than this is largely synonymous with comedy) plays insurance salesman Walter Neff, who turns up on the doorstep of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), hoping to sign up her husband for some protection. However Phyllis has other ideas. After an initial flirtation, she slowly reveals a plan to sign her hubby up for a massive life insurance policy that pays double if he dies on a train, and then kill him. Using her highly sexual feminine wiles, she hooks Walter in to help her with her scheme. It’s a complicated plan, but Walter believes they can pull it off and then he and Phyllis can be together, but things get ever more difficult.
Double Indemnity is a wonderful film full of brilliant dialogue, incredible cinematography and an ever tightening plot as Walter gets himself deeper and deeper into trouble, only realising too late that there’s no way out. Billy Wilder’s film drags you into this seedy world through its everyman protagonist, so that it’s only when things get serious that you realise you’re actually rooting for Walter to get away with murder.
Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and particularly Edward G. Robinson are absolutely perfect, ensuring the film isn’t just crime and double-dealing, but packs an emotional wallop too. Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is the archetypal femme fatale, brilliantly nailing a woman who is cold and scheming, but who knows exactly how to use her sexuality to get men to do whatever she wants.
Of course we shouldn’t forget writer/director Billy Wilder (and co-screenwriter Raymond Chandler), who really showed what he could do with the 1944 film. Double Indemnity helped pave the way for The Lost Weekend (also out on Blu-ray on June 25th), Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. However he never made another film where he managed to make the audience feel quite so grubby for going along with it, or which managed to be so deeply and darkly sexual without showing any skin at all.
The brand new HD transfer looks great. While there’s a bit of grain (as there should be), the new master does wonderful things with the movie’s lighting, which often has huge amounts of black with only pools of light dotted around. Double Indemnity’s shadows, venetian blinds (you’ll understand what I mean about venetian blinds being important to the look of the film if you watch it) and silhouettes have never looked better. The film’s style is as important as the plot, and this is a great way to see that.
This Masters Of Cinema release also includes a very good 2006 documentary about the film, ‘Shadows Of Suspense’, in which various writers, directors and academics dissect the film and talk about everything from its genesis to Billy Wilder’s slightly juvenile reaction to losing out at the Oscars. It’s a great watch, especially for fans of noir. Also included is a 1945 radio adaptation of the story, the trailer, an interesting commentary and a booklet. It’s a good selection of features that manages to go deep into this brilliant film without getting dull.
Overall Verdict: For my money, the wonderfully dark and beautifully constructed Double Indemnity is one of the greatest movies ever made, and this Blu-ray release really underlines that.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac