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Double Indemnity: Legacy Series

When Billy Wilder was informed in 1952 that George Axlerod's hit Broadway play The Seven Year Itch was essentially unfilmable, due to Hollywood's Production Code — which frowned upon such things as adulterous lust played for laughs — he barely paid attention, negotiated for the film rights, and put the project in his production queue. After all, the bawdy, libertine German émigré had gone up against the Hays Office before. In fact, he built his career on it a decade earlier with Double Indemnity (1944). Well before Wilder got ahold if it, several studios showed interest in James M. Cain's novella of adultery and murder, first serialized in Liberty magazine in 1935. But just one year earlier, the Catholic Legion of Decency began publicly condemning certain films, causing the Hays Office to enforce the Production Code in earnest. Indemnity was shelved for years afterward, until Billy Wilder — a screenwriter who had directed just two Hollywood films — was determined to see it made. For this, he temporarily lost his longtime writing partner Charles Brackett, who wanted nothing to do with what he regarded as tabloid fodder. But Wilder gained two collaborators in his place: Raymond Chandler, who was just making a name for himself in magazines such as Black Mask, and James M. Cain himself, who participated in story meetings. Wilder and Chandler got along terribly during four months of writing (at one point Chandler tried to quit), but they delivered a piece of Hollywood history in the process. Double Indemnity may not have drawn the elements of film noir out of thin air, but it combined the public's appetites for detective fiction and true crime into the first definitive example of the genre — even though it wouldn't be called noir for a few years hence, when French film critics began analyzing new trends American postwar cinema. Furthermore, as with John Ford's Stagecoach (1939), Double Indemnity took B-film pulp and molded it into an A-film artistic statement, earning seven Oscar nominations and launching countless imitators in its wake.

James M. Cain's source-novella Double Indemnity was drawn from true events, specifically a 1928 New York murder case concerning a married woman, her lover, and her husband — who wound up getting his skull crushed. Here, the fundamental elements are relocated to 1938 Los Angeles, where insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) drops by the palatial Spanish-style home of oil executive Dietrichson (Tom Powers) to follow up on a lapsed auto policy. He's not home, but his much younger wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) is, and bachelor Walter can't help but flirt with her. However, when he returns to the house the next day, Phyllis begins asking about accident policies, and if she can take one out on her husband without his knowledge. Walter immediately knows what she's implying, but even though he's certain she wants to murder her husband, he finds himself drawn into a plot that she can perhaps imagine, but which he actually knows how to pull off. After an elaborate ruse to get Dietrichson to sign a $50,000 accident policy — with "double indemnity" that will pay $100,000 for certain types of misfortune — Walter and Phyllis execute their scheme, which involves killing her husband and then having Walter impersonate him up to the point where they want his body to be found. But Walter can't anticipate everything. For starters, Phyllis's stepdaughter Lola (Jean Heather) is convinced that her father's death was not an accident. Even worse, the insurance company's claims manager, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), doesn't buy the official story as presented by the cops and the morgue. And Walter has known all along that the police won't pursue a criminal angle. If anyone will, it will be Barton Keyes, who suffers severe indigestion when the facts of any case don't line up — particularly one that pays out $100,000 on a brand-new policy.

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Most film historians will agree that there were films noir before Double Indemnity — in particular, John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), adapted from Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel. Like Raymond Chandler and his fictional Philip Marlowe, Hammett surveyed an American criminal underclass via gumshoe protagonists such as Sam Spade and Nick & Nora Charles — and the very criminality found in the heart of America's dark, labyrinthine cities is a hallmark of the noir style. But the introduction of James M. Cain to the canon is what marks noir at its fullest measure, for in both Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), the narrative focus is placed squarely on the criminals themselves — scheming, charming, sexually driven antiheroes who violate society's norms in order to satiate the innate, barely concealed lust and greed that exists in every human heart. The femme fatale had been seen before in detective fiction (and Stanwyck must be regarded as definitive of the type here). But Double Indemnity gives us a look at an entirely new noir male: The Chump, the man who walks into the femme's scheme with everything to offer, and coming out with nothing in the end. Wilder matched this new convention with one of Hollywood's most daring bits of against-type casting, convincing Paramount's all-American, square-joe contract player Fred MacMurry to take on the role of Walter Neff (first choice George Raft declined, and this just three years after turning down The Maltese Falcon, earning himself two of the most ignominious footnotes in film history). It's to Wilder's credit that Indemnity seems an impossible achievement today without MacMurray's presence, with his slick salesman's patter and cheap come-ons, which soon devolve into a single, murderous impulse. Double Indemnity never hits a false note, and Chandler's dialogue fills the ears with sensuous pleasure ("I wonder if I know what you mean," Phyllis says as Walter flirts. "I wonder if you wonder," he replies.) Edgar G. Robinson, in what amounts to the third leading role, is particularly impressive and he rolls off lists of suicide statistics, stunning the agency's president into silence. However, despite the successful collaboration, Wilder and Chandler would not work together again. Perhaps it was James M. Cain who would regret it the most, noting that Double Indemnity was "the only picture I ever saw from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of."

Universal's two-disc edition of Double Indemnity — part of their "Legacy Series" imprint — returns the film to DVD in 2006 after a long absence; the previous release, under license from Image Entertainment, featured a barely acceptable source-print and no extra features. Thankfully, the wait has been worth it — Indemnity arrives in a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1) from a restored black-and-white source-print that is rich and enjoyable. It isn't pristine, and there is slight evidence of collateral wear throughout, but it looks better than it has in decades, and with an appropriate amount of film grain. The monaural Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is clear and intelligible, with no evidence of ambient noise. Along with English, French, and Spanish subtitles, extras on Disc One include two commentary tracks from film historians — one featuring Richard Shickel, the second with Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman. Also included is an introduction by Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies, the retrospective documentary "Shadows of Suspense" (37 min.), and a theatrical trailer, while Disc Two includes the 1973 made-for-TV remake starring Richard Crenna, Lee J. Cobb, and Samantha Eggar, which substitute's Wilder & Chandler's snappy pacing with soporific line-readings best suited for a high school drama department. However, not included is the ultimate Indemnity curio — the film's original gas-chamber conclusion, which Wilder shot but did not include in the final cut, and not seen since the film's earliest test-screenings. Dual-DVD book-style digipak.
—JJB



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