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Double Indemnity Blu-ray review: Dir. Billy Wilder [Criterion Collection]

“I did it for the money, and a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman… pretty isn’t it”

Billy Wilder is my favourite director of all time. There’s no-one else who can so deftly jump between genres, going from comedy to drama to war films to film noir with such consistency (Give or take a Howard Hawks). Double Indemnity was only his third film, but it proved to be one of the most seminal, genre-defining film noirs of all time.

Based on the James M Cain novel, the plot follows cynical insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) who gets embroiled in a plot involving insurance fraud and murder, thanks to the charms of the seductive Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), all the while trying to stay one step ahead of his boss, dogged insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G Robinson).

The script by Wilder and Raymond Chandler remains slick, vital and genuinely funny today, and received the highest praise from Cain himself who said Double Indemnity was “the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of”. Chandler and Wilder brought out the best in each other, with Wilder contributing lines that matched Chandler’s pulpy style, and Chandler learning about writing for film along the way.

It helps that the three leads have electric chemistry together. Stanwyck is incredible as potentially the first genuine femme fatale in film noir. From the moment she first appears on her balcony clad only in a towel, she uses her low, breathy voice and sultry expressions to devastating effect.

Her most memorable moment comes during the central murder – to get around the production code, Wilder simply keeps the camera on Stanwyck’s face as her husband is murdered next to her. Her expression is intentionally ambiguous; is that shock, satisfaction, or even arousal on her face? It’s infinitely more suggestive, and effective than simply showing the murder.

MacMurray plays on the everyman persona he’d established in romantic comedies to make a disarming antihero – he’s a smooth-talking heel, but there’s a hint of humanity below his measured exterior, most apparent in his scenes with Robinson, who in turn gives the most congenial, warm performance of his career. The most surprising thing when watching the film for the first time is the realisation that actually the more important relationship is the one between Neff and Keyes. Wilder himself called it “a love story between two men” and it’s true that they have the warmest relationship in the film – Neff’s repeated line of “I love you too” sounds ironic, but in the final scene we can see just how much they mean to each other.

So many elements of film noir that we now take for granted were established in this film. It’s not the first in the genre, but the existing film noirs tended to have detectives in the lead roles – in The Maltese Falcon or Murder My Sweet – this was the first to feature protagonists who are genuine villains.

Wilder isn’t remembered for any particular visual style, placing more importance on story and dialogue, but here, the cinematography by John F Seitz is beautifully subtle, and has never looked better than this 4K restoration by Criterion. It’s full of the visual motifs we now associate with noir, from the light streaming through venetian blinds, to the use of high contrast shadows, but it never feels overly stylised or overwhelms the story.

I’ve seen Double Indemnity so many times over the years and I never get tired of watching it. It’s Wilder’s most enduring film, and as close to perfect as it’s possible to be, with career best performances from the three leads. It’s the quintessential film noir and essential viewing.

Special Features

Audio commentary from film critic Richard Schickel; interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, Shadows of Suspense, a 2006 documentary on the making of Double Indemnity. An incisive, engaging conversation between Eddie Muller and Imogen Sara Smith about the film, while the most impressive is a three part documentary: Billy, How Did You Do It? featuring numerous interviews with Wilder.

Double Indemnity is released on 30th May from the Criterion Collection, order here: https://amzn.co/B09TWVS2XQ

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