Criterion’s 4K UHD of a Billy Wilder crown jewel looks and sounds beautiful enough to get away with murder
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity follows smooth-talking insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) as he’s seduced into a hardboiled, ruthless murder scheme by the alluring Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Using Walter’s position as a claims adjuster, he helps Phyllis murder her wealthy husband after devising a lucrative secret insurance policy that pays out double in the event of an accidental death. But the scheme starts to fray the moment Phyllis’ husband shrugs off the mortal coil, from the nagging suspicions of Phyllis’ stepdaughter Lola (Jean Heather) to the determined investigative spirit of Walter’s shrewd best friend and coworker Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). As Walter and Phyllis’ innocent façades start cracking, the toxic pair of lovers quickly have no one left to turn against but one another.
Double Indemnity remains a crown jewel in Billy Wilder’s filmography, standing amongst films like Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole as another pitch-perfect and reverential condemnation of the worst of human behavior. It’s a film that eases addictive amounts of chemistry and sleaze from its central duo, both known for playing amicable if envelope-pushing leads; here, MacMurray and Stanwyck’s devilishly charming personas are used to mask truly diabolical motives. Throughout, Wilder draws in his audience via the characters’ usually repulsive behavior with witty repartee and sudden, drawn-out tension, creating characters you can’t help but root for no matter how deep they dig their own inevitable graves.
From the mysterious boyfriend from the wrong side of the tracks to the moralistic innocent with a heart of gold, Double Indemnity’s supporting cast is rounded out by stock film noir types that are infused with their own vitality under Wilder’s direction and co-writer Raymond Chandler’s electric screenplay. While Lola’s trust is frequently crushed throughout the film, she’s far from an innocent teenager. Combative with her parents and harboring a forbidden romance, Lola is a far more realistic depiction of teenagers, contrary to the model youths championed in films of the time. On the opposite side of things, Zachetti (Byron Barr) plays so deep into the stereotype of the bitter greaser teenager that he risks feeling like a complete caricature–but it’s in how much he remains oblivious to the larger schemes of the film that his cocky nature only serves to undercut how innocent and naive he really is.
The standout of the supporting cast, though, is Robinson’s Keyes. He’s a belligerent bulldog of a man for whom the truth is both an unalterable fact to be enshrined as well as a vicious weapon to be wielded at all costs. He’d easily make a compelling main character in another story where Good naturally triumphs over the themes of Evil. By placing him as the antagonist dead-set on exposing Phyllis’ scheme, however, there’s a deliciously ironic inevitably putting him at life-or-death odds with the man Keyes trusts most–and suspects least of all.
Double Indemnity remains as compelling today due to how eagerly and earnestly Wilder and Chandler tease out these seductive and compelling moral dilemmas. They know that we all wish we could get away with murder–and that we all hope against all odds that we could still find a way out of our plights even as the noose gets tighter. It’s the fatalistic foibles of film noir leads that are such a gold mine for rich if morally askew characters–the ones whose inner complexity effortlessly reflects (and mocks) our own.
Created from a vivid new 4K restoration and jam-packed with new, archival, and feature-length special features, Criterion’s UHD package of Double Indemnity preserves and champions a film noir classic.
Criterion presents Double Indemnity in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio in both Dolby Vision 4K UHD and 1080p HD on an accompanying Blu-ray transfer, created from a new 4K restoration sourced from a 35mm nitrate composite fine-grain by the BFI. The transfer is augmented by a 35mm safety duplicate negative, which was created in 1986 using another fine-grain print that no longer exists. Further coloring and restoration work was performed in-house by Criterion. The film’s monaural audio track was sourced from the nitrate fine-grain print used for the video restoration.
John Seitz’s stark, contrast-heavy cinematography is lustrously rendered in 4K, with sharp shadows and muddled diffused sunlight creating a rich palette of black and gray throughout–with bright whites only popping to accent the inky darkness that permeates the nights and days of Double Indemnity’s duplicitous cast. Textures are well-represented here, from the wood and glass of Walter and Keyes’ insurance office, to the stucco walls of Phyllis’ mansion, to the beads of sweat that begin to dot the leads’ nervous faces. A standout set is a cookie-cutter supermarket where Phyllis and Walter plot each step of their scheme, full of vibrant yet nondescript pyramids of labeled dry goods and cans.
For a 2.0 Mono track, the sound design of Double Indemnity is impressively layered. A sonic premium is placed on Wilder and Chandler’s dialogue, which remains crackling only in energy–and has any real crackles or pops judiciously removed. The bombastic strings and timpani drums of Miklós Rózsa’s score thrum throughout, creating a suffocating yet arresting vibe across the picture.
Note: Most of the package’s special features are on the film’s accompanying Blu-ray Discs.
4K UHD Disc:
- Audio Commentary: A 2006 archival commentary track hosted by film critic Richard Schickel, placing Double Indemnity’s original novel and film adaptation within the context of film noir at large, as well as noting the differences between the adaptation by Raymond Chandler and its source material by James M. Cain.
Blu-ray Disc One:
- Audio Commentary with film critic Richard Schickel.
- Noah Isenberg: A new interview with film scholar and editor Noah Isenberg, known for the documentary Billy Wilder on Assignment.
- Eddie Muller & Imogen Sarah Smith: A new interview with film critics and scholars Eddie Muller and Imogen Sarah Smith, discussing Double Indemnity’s lasting legacy in regards to film noir, Billy Wilder’s filmography, and classic Hollywood filmmaking overall.
- Shadows of Suspense: A 37-minute archival documentary from 2006 recapping the production and legacy of Double Indemnity, featuring interviews with Muller, author Phil Cousineau, and director William Friedkin.
- Radio Plays from 1945 and 1950 adapting Double Indemnity for the airwaves.
- Theatrical Trailer
- Billy, How Did You Do It?: A 3-part, 3-hour documentary on the life and films of Billy Wilder by filmmakers Volker Schlöndorff and Gisela Grischow, featuring interviews with Wilder and other contemporaries.
- Essay by critic Angelica Jade Bastién contextualizing Double Indemnity among the recurring themes of Billy Wilder’s work, notably Wilder’s uniquely cynical and black-humor view of American ambition and unrelenting desire, as well as its usage and subversion of classic film noir tropes.
Double Indemnity is now available on 4K UHD and Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection.