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With: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers, Byron Barr, Richard Gaines, Fortunio Bonanova, John Philliber
Written by: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler, based on the novel by James M. Cain
Directed by: Billy Wilder
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 107
Date: 04/23/1944

Double Indemnity (1944)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Walk of a Dead Man

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Even though the earlier comedy The Major and the Minor is pretty enjoyable, Double Indemnity is director Billy Wilder's first great movie. It's quite unlike anything else the director ever made, a hard, smooth, crime film full of cynicism and lust and constantly alive and tingling. Fred MacMurray plays insurance salesman Walter Neff. During a housecall he meets the sultry Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), and after some verbal flirting and some smoldering, they begin plotting the death of Phyllis' husband. But first Phyllis will take out a life insurance policy. Walter, an expert on the subject, will cook up a death that looks like an accident and pays double on the policy. What could go wrong?

Well, everything, since the film memorably begins with the wounded, dying Walter narrating his tale into a tape recorder for the benefit of his intrepid boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Stanwyck is especially great here, but I have no idea why Robinson did not win an Oscar (or even get a nomination) for his delightful role.

Double Indemnity is regarded by some as the first "official" film noir, a genre that did not exist at the time and did not find a name until decades later when the French film critics began cataloguing it. Some give the honor to The Maltese Falcon (1941), but others argue that the genre could not properly exist until WWII had been underway for some time, giving the United States an alien feel; when men returned home from abroad, they returned to a new, uncertain place where nothing was the same anymore.

Yet, for me, Double Indemnity is sometimes a bit too slick. Subsequent films noir had a grittier, lower-budget look, with a deeper use of shadows, and I tend to prefer them; though, for some viewers, the more polished look of Double Indemnity makes it seem more important. One of the movie's best scenes has Walter and Phyllis discussing their plans in a brightly-lit market, among shelves of food, suggesting that evil can exist in the most mundane and common of American places. The real power of the movie is in the performances and the writing; the legendary screenplay was adapted from the James M. Cain novel by another great mystery writer, Raymond Chandler (along with Wilder).

In 2022, the Criterion Collection released the film on both Blu-ray and 4K. The Blu-ray is gorgeous, with just the right touch of film grain, and an uncompressed monaural audio track. It includes a 2006 commentary track by film critic Richard Schickel; an archival documentary on the history of film noir, "Shadows of Suspense,"; a new featurette in which film scholar Noah Isenberg discusses Billy Wilder; a new discussion between critics/historians Eddie Muller and Imogen Sara Smith, two radio plays, and a trailer. A second disc comes with a three-part, three-hour TV documentary on Wilder, co-produced by German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff. Highly Recommended.

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