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Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck star in the gripping film noir classic, Double Indemnity, directed by Academy Award winner Billy Wilder. A calculating wife (Stanwyck) encourages her wealthy husband to sign a double indemnity policy proposed by smitten insurance agent Walter Neff (MacMurray). As the would-be lovers plot the unsuspecting husband’s murder, they are pursued by a suspicious claims manager (Edward G. Robinson). It’s a race against time to get away with the perfect crime in this suspenseful masterpiece that was nominated for 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture.
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While many consider Double Indemnity to be the first in the series of bleak movies made in the 1940s and 1950s that became known as film noir, others insist that it’s The Maltese Falcon, which was released in 1941. However, that argument matters little because Billy Wilder, who directed and wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, author of The Big Sleep, created one of the best in Double Indemnity.
The familiar storyline of a corruptible man drawn into nefarious activities by an alluring femme fatale and kept from escaping by his obsession with her rarely was executed as brilliantly as in this film. Despite their contentious relationship, Wilder and Chandler crafted a fascinating and taut script that dripped with the sharp dialogue, such as the line above, which was Chandler’s trademark.
A fabulous cast brought Wilder and Chandler’s vision to life. Fred MacMurray, well-known at the time as the star of light comedies and later to Baby Boomers as a TV dad on My Three Sons, wanted nothing to do with this sordid tale. Wilder wore him down until MacMurray finally signed on and turned in an excellent performance as Walter Neff, who records the tale of his downfall on a dictating machine in his office at All-Risk Insurance and serves as the narrator.
Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson, brandishing a cheap blond wig, an anklet that mesmerized Walter and an irresistible urge to kill her husband for money, staked her claim as the queen of the femmes fatale. Few are as ruthless or have pulled the strings on their men as deftly as Phyllis does. Edward G. Robinson’s portrayal of wily insurance investigator Barton Keyes was a tour de force. Keyes’ hunches unnerve Walter and drive much of the action.
The role played by veteran cinematographer John Seitz can’t be overlooked. A mainstay at Paramount since the days of silent film legend Rudolph Valentino, Seitz was a master of the shadows and light that was prevalent in later films noir. He also employed “venetian blind” lighting, which throws shadows akin to prison bars on guilty characters and became a cliche through overuse. Seitz also worked with Wilder on Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend.
It might be going too far to call it a masterpiece, but few films depicting people brought to ruin by greed and lust can match Double Indemnity.
Having this stereopticon view might be of interest, not only to aspiring actors and cinematographers, but to general audiences as well. There might be valuable life-lessons in the contrast between the two versions of "Double Indemnity." First of all, the re-make is in color, so all the original film noir atmosphere is lost as the characters play second-fiddle to their vividly glossy settings. Whatever play of menace and motive might cross their faces is trumped by the shiny surfaces of this recreated LA life. Maybe that's some of what's gone wrong with modern life in general. Human beings take back-seat to all their shiny techno surroundings. But there's more to consider than just that detail.
According to the commentary on the first disc, when Billy Wilder and Barbara Stanwyck viewed this bad re-make of their classic creation, Wilder shook his head and said, "They just don't get it." Maybe it's as simple as that.
If you want to save money though and just have the original in your collection, you could find a single-disc edition of the Fred MacMurray version along with all the bonus features you get on Disc One here. These extras include two separate commentaries, both of which are worthwhile. I found I never got tired of re-viewing the MacMurray/Stanwyck original as background to the commentaries. In fact, the more often I saw "Double Indemnity," the more I became intrigued by it and the more I could appreciate both the mastery and serendipity of the way all its elements came together.
One commentary is given by film historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman. Dobbs sort of monopolizes this set with especially loquacious reminiscences of Billy Wilder. It would have been good to hear more from Redman. The few interjections he manages are interesting and intelligent. The second commentary, given by film historian Richard Schickel, is also heavy on biographical material about Wilder, the film's Director and one of its screenplay writers.
The commentators generally agree about how to interpret the film's plot and on the fact that the real heart of the film, its real love story, is the affection between the insurance salesman played by MacMurray and the insurance investigator played by Edward G. Robinson. However, there is some disagreement about the degree to which the MacMurray character was manipulated by Stanwyck's femme fatale.
Listening to these two extras, you'll also learn a lot about James Cain, the author of the original serialized novella on which this story is based, as well a lot about Raymond Chandler, who co-wrote the screenplay. You're carried back into the LA of the 1930's-1940's, with its hard-boiled edge and its fake blondes whose allure starts with their shiny thin ankle bracelets, and travels up from there.
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