Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler
Based on a novel by: James M. Cain
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Jean Heather
Producer: Joseph Sistrom
Running Time: 107 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Following on from my review of The Lost Weekend earlier this week I’m casting my eye on the other Billy Wilder classic recently released on Blu-Ray through Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series, Double Indemnity. Differently to The Lost Weekend this was not a first time watch. I saw the film when I was youngster and kind of liked it, but didn’t see what the fuss was about. I watched it again maybe a year or two ago and enjoyed it much more, but it wasn’t until this third viewing that I realised quite how much of a masterpiece it is. Why it took so long for me to recognise this I don’t know as it’s got all the ingredients I love – as mentioned in my previous review I hold a couple of Billy Wilder’s films in the highest regard, I’m a big fan of the film noir genre and I adore the literary work of hard-boiled fiction authors such as Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, both of whom were involved in the writing of Double Indemnity (Cain provided the novel and Chandler co-wrote the screenplay).
If you’re not aware of the film (shame on you), Double Indemnity is thought to be the benchmark for classic film noir. Some call it the first true film noir, but there were many films before that which could take the title. I guess more accurately, this was the first film to notably and successfully fill all of the stereotypical noir ‘criteria’ and set the style for hundreds to subsequently follow. These ‘criteria’ include a killer femme fatale, moody low-key lighting and a seedy plot full of murder, sex and plenty of twists and turns.
The story surrounds Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman who is seduced by bored housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). She wants Neff to set up a life insurance policy and get her insufferable husband killed so that she can reap the rewards and live the life she always wanted. Neff is easily roped into this ploy and the pair pull off the murder, only to run into trouble against Neff’s friend and colleague, claims-adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), who has a knack for detecting a stitch-up with his intuitive ‘little man’. Keyes’ snooping and further complications from Dietrichson’s daughter-in-law Lola (Jean Heather) cause the couple’s perfect plan to turn into a disastrous web of deception.
I don’t think there’s a lot I can add to what has already been said about Double Indemnity. In my eyes it’s pretty much cinematic perfection. It’s exciting, engrossing and expertly made. The script is often cited as its strongest asset and it’s hard to argue with that. With three masters of hard-talking dialogue and witticisms behind it it’s hard to say who’s responsible for the machine-gun fire of classic lines. It’s Wilder’s direction though that makes this work to produce a film that is immensely satisfying beyond its quotability. Coming before the raft of Hollywood noir that would follow, Wilder got his actors to nail the appropriate tone from the offset. Mixing a hardened to the point of stiff and almost emotionless male lead with a highly sexualised, powerfully manipulative female performance is what noir became synonymous with. It works brilliantly here with MacMurray effectively portraying an easy going ladies-man that becomes a villainous anti-hero with just enough humanity to make you root for him despite his actions. MacMurray isn’t mind-blowing in the role, but it works. Stanwyck is the real star here. She dominates the screen from the moment she steps into frame in her towel and wafts down the stairs, drawing Neff to her ‘anklet’. Few actresses have managed to match this, perhaps the quintessential femme fatale role. Almost equally as attention grabbing is the great Edward G. Robinson. His character’s relationship with Neff forms the emotional crux of the finale and throughout he is a ball of energy that ignites even the darkest of scenes.
It’s the narrative drive and direction that keeps you truly hooked to the film though. From the opening frames we are sucked into the story as an out-of-control car rips down the LA streets only to deposit a stumbling and wounded Neff into his office late at night. Our attention is grabbed from that action and mystery, and Wilder never lets it wane. He’s a master of economic story-telling with no superfluous scenes added to pad things out and his control of tension and energy is close, if not equal, to Hitchcock’s. His use of sexuality and handling of riskier material is especially strong. The early scenes between Neff and Dietrichson are filled with double entendres that remain quite dirty without falling into Roger Moore eyebrow-raising territory. Scenes that require the actual physical acts of more ‘controversial’ activities are successfully handled with much restraint. Perhaps the Motion Picture Production Code is the cause for this, but in Wilder not showing Neff and Dietrichson have sex or killing Mr. Dietrichson on screen, the scenes where they clearly do become more powerful in being suggestive about their intercourse and in the latter case, showing Mrs. Dietrichson’s subtly evil reaction to her husband being murdered beside her.
I could go on and on about how good this film is. I’ve not even touched on the stunning photography for instance, but I imagine most film fans are aware that Double Indemnity is a deserved classic. Hopefully this review will remind people of that and get them to pick up this fantastically remastered and finely packaged release and rediscover it.
Double Indemnity is out on now on Blu-Ray (as well as a steelbook edition) as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series. Picture and sound are pristine as to be expected.
The special features are excellent. We get a half hour documentary called Shadows of Suspense which looks at the film and the start of the noir genre and is filled with interviews with big-name fans of the film such as William Friedkin and James Ellroy. This is a great watch, very interesting and insightful, but still entertaining. Added to this is a feature commentary by film historian Nick Redman and screenwriter Lem Dobbs which is wonderful. Both contributors are clearly very knowledgable about the film and one has slight personal connections with Wilder so on top of insightful looks at the production and influence of the film you get plenty of anecdotes to keep things enjoyable. It’s a must-listen for anyone with so much as a passing interest in the film.
You also get a music and sound effects track, a radio adaptation of the story featuring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and the original theatrical trailer as well as the usual information-packed booklet.