February 22, 2007

DVD Review: Double Indemnity

I admit, classic cinema is something of a weak point for me. For all of the movies I have seen, the majority of them have been of a more modern vintage. Now, do not take this as meaning I do not like, or do not watch the films of years past, just not nearly as much, something that I hope to rectify. So, I approached Double Indemnity with high hopes, due to its legendary status as one of the greatest noir films ever created. I was looking forward to seeing how well it stood up to the pedestal it has been placed on, and also to help expand my viewing of the classics.

Double Indemnity is a film that helped to define the noir films throughout the 40s and 50s. There is beautifully stark photography, odd angles, mysterious music, and at its heart were everyday people. The story is centered on people that you could come across in your everyday life, they were not larger than life, or iconic characters, they are regular people with their own weaknesses and strengths. The story takes those people and outs them in a situation that preys on their darker impulses. The resulting film is a movie that is totally unique, and so strong in its execution that you can still see the influence throughout today's films.

The story centers on Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray, an insurance salesman who is successful yet stagnant. His weakness is personified by Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a blonde bombshell with an absentee husband. As fate would have it, Neff calls on the Dietrichsons to renew some car insurance, but with the man of the house away, he is unable to. The trip is not without the upside, as he is almost immediately smitten with Phyllis, and vice versa. They awaken something in each other, Neff's weakness, and Phyllis' desire for something new.

Together, the two plot to murder Mr. Dietrichson and collect on an accident insurance policy. It is a stroy of greed and lust, where neither one really takes center stage, rather it is an infatuation with those things that ultimately seals their collective fate. He succombs to her, and she exerts her strength of will.

Voice over narration carries the movie along, meaning we know how the story ends. A bloody Walter Neff returns to his desk, where he proceeds to record a confession into a dictaphone. We know right away what he did, and what he is confessing to, what holds our attention is the how and the why of the crime.

The relationships that develop, and the ability for the actors to pull them off are fantastic. There are two that anchor the film. Of course, there is the murderous intent and forbidden love between Walter and Phyllis and the tragic way that it has to end, but it does not contain the largest emotional payoff. The stronger relationship is the secondary one between Walter Neff and Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson in an unusual for the time supporting role). Keyes is Walter's boss, and a strong father figure, and the relationship built between Keyes and Neff comes to a powerful head at the film's climax.

Double Indemnity is a striking film. I loved the dialogue, there is a lot of wit and wickedness built in. Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder (who also directed), working from the novel by James M. Cain, is just so strong, it has that distinctive noirish, hard boiled style that is just wonderful to listen to. Not only is that striking, but the look is just beautiful. Black and white film can be a beautiful thing. I have spoken to people who write off black and white because they "have a color TV." Well, they are missing out on some of the most gorgeously filmed movies ever. The use of shadows and contrast between light and dark just cannot be replicated in color, and this film pioneered some of the great uses of the light/dark interplay.

Audio/Video. Universal has done a wonderful job at restoring the film for its DVD presentation. The black and white photography plays across the screen perfectly, for a film that is over 60 years old, it looks fantastic with very little in the way of defects. Audio is 2.0 mono, and sounds very good with strong clean dialog and music. Nice work, Universal!

Extras. This two disk set may not be extensive in its supplements, but what it has are very good ones.
  • Disk 1. Sharing space with the main feature are:
  • Shadows of Suspense. This featurette runs for nearly 40 minutes. It contains interviews with directors, writers, cinematographers, and historians on the journey from pulp fiction to noir classic. It is a wonderful history on the film, filled with humorous anecdotes and tales of how hard it was to make, with the decidedly dark and subversive content. Very well produced extra.
  • Commentary. This track featres film historian Richard Schickel. It is filled with information on the film, with not much in terms of dead air. I only sampled the track, but it will be worth a revisit.
  • Commentary. This second track features historian/screenwriter Lem Dobbs (Dark City, The Limey) and film historian Nick Redman. Another nice track with lots of information and perspective on this classic.
  • Disk 2:
  • Double Indemnity (1973). Nearly 30 years later, a second attempt was made to film the story, this time for television. I have to be honest and say that I was not able to make it through, it lacks all of the beautiful cinematography, snappy dialogue, and intriguing performances of the original. It starred Richard Crenna, Samantha Eggar, and Lee J. Cobb, and was written by Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue, Over There), based on the original screenplay by Chandler and Wilder.

Bottomline. This film more than lives up to the legendary status that it has gained over the years. It is fascinating in content and execution. I was used to MacMurray as the family dad on My Three Sons, this offered up a different look at the sitcom styled characters he usually played. More than that, this is just an absolutely incredible film watching experience. If you have not seen it, do so. Soon.

Highly Recommended.


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