What is there to be said about Double Indemnity that has not been said already? Not much—so sorry in advance for repeating stuff that you may know already. It’s not the first film noir, as it’s sometimes erroneously referred to, as there had already been plenty by the time the film came out in 1944. However, it was the film where many of the trademarks of film noir fell into place. Is it the definitive noir? Quite possibly, even most likely, but so are a dozen other films. And it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day.
Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote Double Indemnity with hard-boiled fiction author Raymond Chandler, but their script was based on a short novel by another hard-boiled writer, James M. Cain. Chandler rewrote most of Cain’s dialogue, which didn’t have the right rhythm to translate to the screen. Wilder brought his subversive streak to the script, and knew he was getting away with something by making a film where the killers were the protagonists, and the audience even roots for them. The biggest legacy of Double Indemnity may be that before this film, you couldn’t have the “bad guys” as the protagonists, but after it, you could.
Much of the greatness of Double Indemnity is down to the script, which is airtight. It’s one of those scripts that if you were a teaching screenwriting, you would cite as a perfect model. Everything in the script is also enhanced by Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray’s performances, and by cinematography from John F. Seitz. The story finds Walter Neff (MacMurray) meeting the bored housewife turned femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck). She intends to sell her insurance on her husband, but they plot something far more sinister. It’s so well executed that it’s no wonder that rip-offs instantly sprung up. The most notorious example is Single Indemnity, which was later renamed Apology for Murder after a lawsuit from Paramount. However, there is noir before and after Double Indemnity, and even some of the later Barbara Stanwyck noirs featured clear homages to the way she is killed in Double Indemnity.
Is Double Indemnity Billy Wilder’s best film? That’s absolutely impossible to decide, because he had at least five masterpieces in his long and varied career. It was certainly the film that gave him the power he needed in Hollywood. Wilder went on to be one of the most subversive filmmakers Hollywood would ever have, able to slip in things that might even make Alfred Hitchcock blush. Who else could get away with the final scene of Some Like It Hot or the horror noir of Sunset Blvd. other than Wilder? Double Indemnity‘s immediate sense of desperation and fatalism that stems from MacMurray’s character may be down to the fact that Wilder was a Austro-Hungarian Jew whose family was stuck in Europe, so while he was making the film he was also frantically trying to locate them, to no avail. Around the time that the film was made, the first credible reports of the genocide going on at the concentration camps were emerging. Unfortunately, all of Wilder’s family would be killed in the camps, and his next film would actually be a documentary made to educate Germans about the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
The Blu-Ray from Criterion is a solid upgrade from the Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray that came out a decade ago. All of the extras from that (minus the commentary from film historian Nick Redman and screenwriter Lem Dobbs) are included, such as the Shadows of Suspense 2006 documentary and a 1945 radio adaptation. The added extras are a commentary with film historian Richard Schickel (which was on an older Universal Blu-Ray in the States, as was the Redman-Dobbs commentary); a “conversation” between film historians Eddie Muller and Imogen Sara Smith (clearly recorded separately and spliced together, which gives it a slightly jarring feeling—although all the information is insightful and valuable from both); an interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, editor of Billy Wilder on Assignment, which offers an overview of Wilder’s career, especially before Double Indemnity; and another radio adaptation, this time from 1950. The final big extra on the disc besides the trailer is the Billy, How Did You Do It? documentary directed by Gisela Grischow and Volker Schlöndorff. This was previously available on the Masters of Cinema release of Lost Weekend, but here it’s cut into three episodes, which is how it was broadcast on the BBC. The essay in the booklet is from critic Angelica Jade Bastién.