If you were looking for a film to represent the definitive qualities of film-noir it would be ‘Double Indemnity’. It is the very quintessence of film-noir, a film so noir in fact you might ask how much more noir could this be, and the answer is none – none more noir. It checks every box in terms of plot, theme, structure, visual style, and would become one of the most (if not the most) influential American films in the genre.
Adapted from a novella by James M. Cain – the maestro of American hardboiled literature, with a script co-written by director Billy Wilder and legendary crime novelist Raymond Chandler, ‘Double Indemnity’ stars Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, a greedy and smooth-talking insurance salesman, who finds himself seduced by Barbara Stanwyck’s iconic femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, the wife of one his clients.
We first meet her wearing only a towel as she greets the gawping Neff whilst he waits for her husband to come home and sign some papers. Neff’s fate is sealed before she’s even gone and got dressed. Phyllis wants to off her husband and collect on his life policy. Who better to help her than an infatuated insurance man?
Neff and Dietrichson formulate an ingenious plan, but if they’re going to pull it off they’ll need to outsmart Neff’s colleague, Barton Keyes, a dogged insurance investigator brilliantly performed by Edward G. Robinson. His only apparent blind spot is his friendship with Neff, who coolly lights all of Keyes’ cigars throughout the film by flicking a match with his thumb. A gesture which is heartbreakingly reciprocated in the film’s tragic final scene.
‘Double Indemnity’ is a thrilling, razor sharp, and deliciously dark voyage into the depths of human desire and depravity. Gorgeously lit by John F. Seitz, taking influence from the German expressionist films of the 1920s, and featuring some of the most evocative dialogue ever written – “it was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” – this is a film as close to perfect as you are ever going to find.
There’s been a terrific blu-ray release of ‘Double Indemnity’ on the market since 2012, courtesy of the Eureka Masters of Cinema label. This latest 2-disc special edition from Criterion may just have the edge, but it comes with a bumper price tag for not a whole lot extra in comparison. It doesn’t detract from this being an essential purchase, but it’s worth noting that there are alternatives out there if you know where to look.
Disc One of this release comes with a commentary track recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2006 by film critic Richard Schickel. There is also a brand-new interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, and an exclusive conversation between film scholars Eddie Muller and Sara Smith, discussing why Double Indemnity is the definitive noir.
Also on the disc is ‘Shadows of Suspense’, an excellent 2006 documentary about the making of ‘Double Indemnity’ which is also on the Eureka release. This documentary features authors, filmmakers, and film historians discussing this classic film. The disc also comes with two radio play adaptations of the film, one by the Screen Guild Theater, and one by the Lux Radio Theater. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck reprise their roles in both production. The Screen Guild production is also included on the Eureka release.
Disc Two features the three hour-long documentaries on Billy Wilder produced for the BBC Arena series, directed by Volker Schlöndorff and Gisela Grischow. The three episodes feature extensive interviews with Billy Wilder from the late 80s and early 90s. Now, this isn’t on the Eureka release for ‘Double Indemnity’, but it is included on the Eureka blu-ray release for ‘The Lost Weekend’, another Billy Wilder classic.
Make no mistake, this is the definitive edition of ‘Double Indemnity’ currently available on the market. But I, like a lot of other physical media collectors was quite disappointed to see that my £26 only bought me a regular clamshell case release, and not the deluxe digipack that sort of price usually affords. Where you spend your money is up to you, but you can get ‘Double Indemnity’ and ‘The Lost Weekend’ on the Eureka label, which will give you pretty much every special feature on the Criterion disc, and still leave you with a fiver to spare.
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson Director: Billy Wilder Writer: Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler Released By: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Certificate: 15 Duration: 107 mins Release Date: 30th May 2022