“From the moment they met, it was murder,” and from the moment you lay eyes on Criterion’s 4K UHD presentation of Double Indemnity, it’s love at first sight. A brand new restoration and Dolby Vision transfer enhance the shadowy visuals and nefarious mood of writer-director Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece and make the performances of Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson more magnetic than ever before. The timeless tale of an adulterous couple’s plot to bump off the woman’s husband, collect the insurance payout, and live happily ever after (if they don’t kill each other first) still packs a potent punch, and this Criterion edition scores a knockout. Must Own.
Alfred Hitchcock may hold the title of Master of Suspense, but many credit writer-director Billy Wilder with developing one of Hollywood's most popular and distinctive genres: film noir. Though classic noir elements like deep shadows, stark contrast, swirling cigarette smoke, hard-boiled heroes, and duplicitous Femme Fatales permeate several early 1940s movies (The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca among them), Wilder masterfully ties them all together in 1944's Double Indemnity, a smoldering adaptation of James M. Cain's terse crime novel about an adulterous couple who plot to bump off the sexy wife's gruff, abusive husband and collect the sizable insurance payout.
The seductive, suspenseful drama wowed the public upon its release, earned seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and gave birth to a new genre that would spawn dozens of tough yet elegant, coarse yet lyrical movies that continue to dazzle, fascinate, and entertain to this day. Not all cinematic forms endure, but noir remains timeless, and Double Indemnity stands as the quintessential noir specimen, a flawlessly directed, impeccably written, exquisitely photographed, and superbly performed portrait of ruthless greed, twisted longings, and inevitable retribution that crackles with a unique brand of kinetic energy and passion. Any noir worth its salt owes this classic picture a tremendous debt, and most shamelessly copy it to a fare-thee-well.
Cain wrote Double Indemnity after his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, incited a firestorm of controversy over its frank and lascivious depictions of sex and violence. Both stories chronicle the systematic and cold-blooded execution of a hapless husband by a pair of illicit lovers, but while the breathlessly paced Postman examines the reckless actions of two crazy, naïve kids in lust, Double Indemnity takes a more measured approach as it provides a meticulous tutorial on crafting the perfect crime and (almost) getting away with it.
Fred MacMurray portrays Walter Neff, a savvy, seemingly straight-arrow insurance agent who's willingly led astray by sultry, bleached blonde housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Stuck in an oppressive, loveless marriage, the antsy Phyllis desperately looks to get out and sees the accidental death policy Walter is peddling as her ticket to both freedom and financial security. Soon, she ensnares the smitten Walter in her deadly web and the two hatch a plot to murder her hubby, collect the spoils, and live as happily ever after as two vicious killers could hope.
Walter even ups the ante, crafting a scheme that puts into play the policy's double indemnity clause, which increases the payoff...as well as the risk. The only obstacle standing in their way is the never-to-be-outsmarted Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the insurance company's diligent watchdog and Walter's boss and mentor, a pedantic workaholic who can smell fraud a mile away and lives to expose those who dare to file a bogus claim. Though the killer is right under his nose, will Keyes be able to sniff him out, or will Walter and Phyllis throw him off the scent?
Double Indemnity cemented Wilder's reputation as a first-class director, even engendering praise from the normally circumspect Hitchcock, who lauded the film's originality and flair. Though banking on such an unpleasant story and unsavory "hero" and "heroine" was a dicey proposition for Paramount Studios - and for MacMurray and Stanwyck, both of whom worried their roles would tarnish their carefully crafted positive images - Wilder fervently believed in the project and assembled a stellar creative team to realize it.
First, he hired one of literature's foremost suspense writers, Raymond Chandler, to collaborate on the script (his arguments with Wilder were reportedly legendary), then secured the services of an uncertain Stanwyck, one of Hollywood's most esteemed stars, with the baiting question, "Are you an actress or a mouse?" The affable MacMurray, known mostly for lightweight romantic roles, was also cast against type, and Robinson, who heretofore had only played leads, embraced the colorful part of Keyes, despite its supporting nature. John Seitz, who would go on to photograph Wilder's other iconic noir classic, Sunset Boulevard, would handle the cinematography chores, and Miklós Rósza (Ben-Hur) was signed to compose the foreboding music score.
Like an ethereal symphony, all the components perfectly gel, creating an intoxicating atmosphere of tension and doom. Wilder cut his teeth on screwball comedies, and wisely infuses the screenplay with a snappy wit that balances the incendiary exchanges and humanizes the characters, lending them a dimensionality they lack in the original novel. The director's only misstep was insisting the brunette Stanwyck don a cheap blonde wig to emphasize Phyllis' tawdry, shallow nature. Stanwyck is so talented, she doesn't need such obvious accouterments to define the women she portrays, and the wig quickly becomes a distraction, emphasizing the role's artificiality. Sure, we get past it easily enough (Stanwyck's mesmerizing portrayal makes sure of that), but it's the one sour note that disrupts this otherwise exquisitely constructed motion picture.
Stanwyck, who would star in several more acclaimed noir melodramas, including The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Sorry, Wrong Number, and The File on Thelma Jordan, received a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination for her uncompromisingly icy performance. Her throaty contralto drips with mellifluous venom and her fiery eyes light up the screen. (Her expression of brazen relish after her husband is clubbed by MacMurray is a sight to behold and one of the most famous images in all of noir.) Of course, it would be years before the Academy would recognize such unapologetic villainy (Ingrid Bergman took home the 1944 Oscar instead as a highly sympathetic, victimized wife in Gaslight), but Stanwyck's performance proved it was okay - even desirable - for a leading actress to embrace evil, and several of her colleagues (Joan Crawford chief among them) lined up to follow in her footsteps. Her chemistry with the too often unsung MacMurray, who files by far his finest portrayal as the willingly duped everyman (and impresses me more every time I see the film), isn't sizzling, but it's potent enough to make the story believable.
Though it stands strongly on its own, the far-reaching influence of Double Indemnity cannot be overstated. Not only is Wilder's film responsible for inspiring a wave of thrilling features throughout the 1940s and 1950s, but it also shaped countless modern movies, such as Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat (a respectful homage punctuated by a number of delicious, post-censorship twists) and Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential, which, like its 1944 ancestor, also celebrates the gritty and glamorous locations of the City of Angels. Yet despite its advanced age and the moral parameters to which it was forced to adhere, Double Indemnity remains one of Hollywood's finest film noirs, a tough, uncompromising, terrifically entertaining drama that continues to live up to its lofty reputation. Trends come and go, but thankfully, classics like this never go out of style.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Double Indemnity arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard Criterion case. Also included are two standard Blu-ray discs - one houses a 1080p copy of the movie as well as several supplements and the other contains a three-part BBC documentary on Billy Wilder - are tucked inside, along with a 12-page, fold-out booklet that features an essay by critic Angelica Jade Bastién, a couple of photographs, a cast and crew listing, and transfer notes. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
All gussied up with Dolby Vision HDR, Double Indemnity looks dark, lush, and delicious in 4K UHD. The liner notes state the 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer was struck from a "new 4K digital restoration...created from a 35 mm nitrate composite fine-grain held by the British Film Institute, which was scanned in 4K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner, in painless/archival mode due to shrinkage of the film. A 35 mm safety duplicate negative, created in 1986 from a fine-grain that no longer exists, was used to replace frames missing from the BFI's element."
John Seitz’s arrestingly stark, shadowy, Oscar-nominated cinematography has always been tricky to properly render on various home video platforms, but this transfer faithfully honors it. Terrific clarity and contrast combine with inky blacks, bright whites, and perfectly varied grays to produce a stunning image that brims with detail and depth. Grain is evident, but blends nicely into the film’s fabric while maintaining the feel of celluloid. A bit of noise on the solid gray background against the opening credits initially concerned me, but once Walter settles into his office and the narrative begins, the snowiness evaporates, the grain stabilizes, and - a few brief fluctuations notwithstanding - remains pleasingly consistent throughout. Exceptional shadow delineation in the nighttime scenes captures all the atmosphere at the railroad depot, aboard the train, and in Phyllis’ darkened living room, but one of the most impressive shots occurs during the day when Walter peruses Phyllis’ home and shafts of hazy, diffused sunlight stream through the Venetian blinds. Never has this shot looked as authentic and vivid as it does here.
The ratty rug and worn upholstery in the Dietrichson house, the patterns on the neckties of Walter and Keyes, the textured ceiling and walls in the insurance office building, the fish swimming in the cloudy fishbowl water, the canned goods in the market, and Phyllis’ glossy lipstick are all marvelously distinct, and Stanwyck’s blonde wig looks more natural and less brassy than ever before. Crystalline close-ups highlight the glistening sweat on MacMurray's face as Walter records his confession, Robinson’s rubbery jowls, and Stanwyck’s peaches-and-cream complexion, and no apparent nicks or marks dot the pristine source print. If you’re a Double Indemnity fan, you’ll be dazzled by this 4K UHD upgrade that maintains the film’s integrity while producing the best possible picture. The 2014 Universal Blu-ray transfer was - and still is - top-notch, but this new restoration lifts the movie to another level and is well worth an upgrade.
According to the liner notes, "the original monaural track was remastered from the nitrate fine grain." Though it seems the remastering was performed expressly for this Criterion release, the LPCM mono track sounds practically identical to the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track that graces the 2014 Universal Blu-ray. That's not at all a bad thing, as both tracks supply clear, well-modulated sound with excellent levels of detail. Though all pops and crackle have been scrubbed away, the LPCM track possesses the same level of hiss during quiet scenes as the 2014 track.
Fine fidelity and tonal depth distinguish the vibrant audio that beautifully showcases the memorable, Oscar-nominated Miklós Rósza score. A wide dynamic scale handles all of its highs and lows without any distortion, and sonic accents like the stalled car engine, shoe soles brushing across the pavement, gunfire, and the strike of a match against a fingernail, are crisp and distinct. The track's most important element is, of course, the brilliant dialogue, and I'm happy to report it's well prioritized and crystal clear. Though this track occasionally betrays its age, it still sounds great and nicely complements the stunning visuals.
A couple of the extras from the 2014 Blu-ray have been ported over to this Criterion edition, but if you care about the introduction by Robert Osborne, the audio commentary with Lemm Dobbs and Nick Redman, and the 1973 made-for-television remake with Richard Crenna and Samantha Eggar, you'll have to hang onto the old Universal release.
Audio Commentary - The late critic and historian Richard Schickel, who terms Double Indemnity the first "true" film noir, sat down for this absorbing commentary in 2014. Though he spends too much time analyzing the plot, Schickel makes a number of cogent points and relays plenty of interesting information. He provides essential background on Wilder, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler, discusses the genesis of film noir, notes several differences between Cain's novel and the Chandler-Wilder screenplay, points out places where the story strains credulity, and evaluates both the critical and popular reactions to the movie, which weren't as enthusiastic in 1944 as they are today. Schickel also shares a few colorful anecdotes, talks about the expansion of the Robinson role, and examines how the film significantly improves upon Cain's original story in both overt and subtle ways.
NEW Featurette: "Words, Words, Words: Noah Isenberg on Billy Wilder" (HD, 17 minutes) - Film scholar Noah Isenberg examines the American influences that helped shape the young Billy Wilder during his formative European years and how he later applied them to his films. He also chronicles Wilder's journey from Poland to Austria to Germany and finally to the United States in this interesting piece that features several rare photos.
NEW Featurette: "Imogen Sara Smith and Eddie Muller on Double Indemnity" (HD, 31 minutes) - The two esteemed noir experts debate whether or not Double Indemnity is the greatest film noir of all time in this absorbing featurette. They discuss the James M. Cain novel and real-life case upon which the movie is based; analyze the characters, their motivations, and the system in which they live; point out the changes Wilder made that improve the story (as well as a clever inside joke); praise the performances of Stanwyck and MacMurray; laud the language of noir and how Raymond Chandler gave it lyricism; dissect the tempestuous relationship between Wilder and Chandler; and honor the stunning cinematography by John Seitz. This is a terrific dialogue between two intelligent, affable historians that's well worth watching.
Documentary: Billy, How Did You Do It? (SD, 183 minutes) - This three-part 1992 documentary that aired as part of the BBC series Arena celebrates writer-director Billy Wilder and his vast canon of classic films. German director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum) interviews Wilder, who talks about his directorial and screenwriting technique and reminisces about the production of many of his films and the stars who acted in them. (The examination of Double Indemnity occurs in the first episode of the three-part film and contains marvelous stories and insights from Wilder, many of which are peppered with his trademark rapier wit.) Particularly affecting is footage from Wilder's 1945 short film Death Mills, which documents the horror and devastation of the German death camps in World War II. Photos and film clips abound in this fascinating three-hour salute to one of Hollywood's most influential artists and larger-than-life personalities. This is a must for every Wilder fan, and though snippets from this film have been included on other Wilder Blu-ray discs, Criterion deserves kudos for including this documentary in its entirety on this release.
Documentary: Shadows of Suspense (SD, 38 minutes) - This fascinating, intelligent 2014 documentary celebrates multiple aspects of Double Indemnity, including its seductive noir style, superior script and performances, lush photography, extensive location shooting, and costumes and makeup. A host of film scholars and noir experts, including novelist James Ellroy, historian Richard Schickel, and director William Friedkin analyze the movie from various angles and share several absorbing anecdotes. We learn about the background of the film's production, director Billy Wilder's driving ambition, the volatile, antagonistic collaboration between Wilder and screenwriter Raymond Chandler, an alternate ending, and how many feel censorship actually improved the film's story. Peppered with clips and rare photos, this exceptional documentary probes the depths of both Double Indemnity and film noir, and is essential viewing for aficionados of the movie and its genre.
Vintage Radio Adaptations (85 minutes) - Two radio adaptations are included and both feature Stanwyck and MacMurray reprising their roles. The first was broadcast on March 5, 1945 on The Screen Guild Theater and runs a mere 29 minutes. Walter Abel takes over for Edward G. Robinson, and though the severely truncated story deletes many key scenes and characters, the narrative still hangs together. Five years later, on October 30, 1950, Stanwyck and MacMurray reunited for the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation, which runs 56 minutes and tells a more fleshed out tale. In the six years since the movie's release, Stanwyck's voice dropped a register or two, which lends this interpretation of Phyllis a harder edge. Her experience playing other femme fatales also contributes to a performance that's bolder and more evil than her film portrayal. The audio quality of both programs is excellent, although rewinding and fast-forwarding are not permitted, so if you miss a line you can't go back, nor can you jump ahead to a specific portion of the broadcast. I couldn't make out a bit of banter between Stanwyck and MacMurray at the end of the Lux Radio Theatre show, but I certainly wasn't going to listen to the entire hour-long program again just to catch a few words.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The original Double Indemnity preview completes the extras package.
Often imitated, but never equaled, Double Indemnity stands as one of the blackest of all film noirs, and it’s just as deliciously nasty today as it was when it first premiered almost 80 years ago. The pitch-perfect script by Wilder and Chandler, Wilder’s impeccable direction, John Seitz’s stunning cinematography, Miklós Rósza’s foreboding score, and Stanwyck’s icy performance, all of which earned well-deserved Oscar nominations, loft this Best Picture nominee into the realm of Hollywood’s all-time greats, and Criterion properly honors it with a dazzling 4K UHD presentation with Dolby Vision. Excellent audio complements the five-star video transfer and a massive supplemental package that includes a must-watch three-hour Wilder documentary help make this Criterion edition an essential upgrade for anyone who appreciates the art of film. Must Own.