“I killed Dietrichson. Me, Walter Neff, insurance salesmen, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars — till a while ago, that is. Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.” This confession is made by Neff (Fred MacMurray) to his Dictaphone, as he sits shrouded in his dark office while his fresh gunshot wounds bleed. Knowing the recording will reach his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), Neff proceeds to detail a sordid, sinister tale of murder, insurance fraud and double-crosses. He tells of smoldering, crafty housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who enlists Neff to help in a scheme to defraud the insurance company; and he tries to explain why and how he helped Phyllis dispatch her husband so they could collect on the “double indemnity” clause in an insurance contract they’d swindled him into signing.
Billy Wilder’s classic film adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is perhaps the quintessential film-noir thriller from the 1940s. The picture was deftly photographed by veteran cinematographer John Seitz, ASC (Sullivan’s Travels, This Gun for Hire), who, together with art directors Hans Dreier and Hal Pereira, created a now-legendary landscape of stark contrasts, dark corners and multi-layered shadows. Although film noir had roots in earlier films, many consider the visual texture of Double Indemnity to be the hallmark of the genre. The consistent use of sharply contrasting lighting, sparely decorated locations, bold shafts of light diffused through window blinds or cigarette smoke, and a generally expressive, darker slant on the proceedings was a stark departure from the highly saturated look that characterized the growing number of color films at the time. Seitz’s luminous, monochrome schematic, with a nearly infinite gray scale, perfectly suits and heightens the tension of Double Indemnity’s grim narrative. So effective was his work that it was nominated for an Academy Award and went on to influence dozens of films made in the noir tradition for another decade.
After postponing the release several times, Universal Home Entertainment has at last reissued Double Indemnity as a digitally remastered two-disc special edition that sports the Universal Legacy Series Moniker. Image/Universal Entertainment’s 1998 DVD of the film has become so scarce that no direct comparison to it could be made. However, this new picture transfer, despite occasional age-related inconsistencies, is generally accurate and very satisfying. Seitz’s work has been given close attention; the visible gray scale is very pleasing, and the image has a generally sharp, sometimes silvery sheen that echoes what the film might have looked like in the 1940s on silver nitrate stock. The monaural audio has been scrubbed of any age-induced distractions and is well pronounced.
Universal corralled quite a large number of scholars and critics to participate in the disc’s solid array of supplements. Before the feature begins, an unnecessary “curtain warmer” speech is delivered by Robert Osborne from Turner Classic Movies. Unfortunately, the only way to play the film is to start with this introductory segment. The disc also features two separate and worthwhile commentary tracks, one by film critic Richard Schickel, and the other by film historian Nick Redman and screenwriter/historian Lem Dobbs. Both tracks are full of interesting facts, conjecture and assessments, but the Redman/Dobbs track is a bit livelier and more engaging.
The disc also includes an original documentary, “Shadows of Suspense,” whose commentators repeat many of the points made in the audio commentaries. Additionally, several film scholars and filmmakers (including William Friedkin) make interesting remarks and praise Double Indemnity for its genuine daring. Finally, Universal also includes the film’s amusing theatrical trailer.
Curiously, Universal has included the alternately laughable and jaw-droppingly dull television remake of Double Indemnity (1973) on a second disc. It seems somewhat insulting to include this dubious retread, written by Stephen Bochco, with the original film.
Some 60 years after its release, Double Indemnity has lost little of its slick, black-hearted charm. The screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler crackles with some of film noir’s most sophisticated backtalk, delivered by MacMurray, Stanwyck and Robinson at the peak of their talents. This welcome new DVD of this milestone picture will intrigue fans and newcomers alike. One more time, we can accompany Phyllis and Walter on their dark, murderous path “straight down the line” to their terrible ends.