Double Indemnity (Blu-ray Review)5 May, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Stars Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson.
Others have already made the point about the dust, but I go way back with one of the most satisfying of all ’40s Hollywood classics, so listen up. I first saw this increasingly durable version of James M. Cain’s novel at age 11 in early 1960 on the late show (with my mother, who made it clear that this was one not to miss). More viewings followed (for a few years I had frequent access to a 16mm TV copy), and I later showed it many times at the AFI Theater in Washington, usually courtesy of the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s 35mm safety print. Since then, of course, there’ve been sundry home market releases in all formats — but never until now have I have seen what a lousy housekeeper Barbara Stanwyck’s noir queen Phyllis Dietrichson (or her maid) had to have been, what with all the dust in the house. I think this Blu-ray is the visually darkest rendering I’ve ever seen of the picture, but the image clarity is as sharp as a warehouse of Gillettes, and those dust particles are really floating around.
Similarly sharp were Billy Wilder’s casting instincts over many years, and as good as the script is (Raymond Chandler was co-writer, though the union was stormy), it is tough to imagine the definitive insurance-fraud movie being as revered as it is were the choice of players not so distinctive. Stanwyck didn’t want to wear the slatternly Ms. Dietrichson’s blonde wig (probably the single thing everyone remembers about the film), and Fred MacMurray was only able to deliver on his brilliant against-type hiring after other actors rejected the role of a too-slick-for-his-own-good insurance salesman — among them George Raft, whose ability to turn down subsequently immortal ‘A’-list projects (The Maltese Falcon for another one) was uncanny. Edward G. Robinson has relatively few scenes as MacMurray’s nose-for-clues colleague and fraud investigator, but he hits it out of the park in all of them, justifying his willingness to take a supporting role. Both actors should have had Oscar nominations here, and the fact that Robinson never even got one in his long career was one of the academy’s more egregious bungles of many. And though he never got to capitalize on it too many more times, Indemnity also made it clear that comic specialist MacMurray’s true calling may have been playing chumps or heels — as in Pushover, The Caine Mutiny and The Apartment (for Wilder again). He’s also spot-on, opposite Stanwyck again, in Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow — in my view, the director’s most underrated movie and one of the few Hollywood soapers taken from the male point of view.
Indemnity is so exceptionally sordid for its day that Wilder’s usual writing partner (southern gentleman Charles Brackett) passed on participating. Certainly, this was not the normal stuff of academy nominations, though it did get seven (including one for best picture and another for Stanwyck). One thing I’ve always noticed is how little even fleeting sexual excitement the conspiring murderers get out of their bump-off of her husband — and this goes beyond the limitations imposed by the smothering Production Code of the day. One of many things I’ve always really liked about Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat is its portrayal of the carnal motivation that leads to some hard-‘R’ rock-and-roll by the also adulterous/murderous William Hurt-Kathleen Turner characters (The Accidental Tourist it is not). But there can be nothing of that here. Stifling the Indemnity duo’s gamier instincts is the fact that MacMurray is working with in-house sleuth Robinson just about everyday, and the latter is almost instantly suspicious about the most unusual demise of Mr. Phyllis. As a result (and also because Stanwyck’s cold-blooded type is transparently in it for herself), most of the couple’s subsequent social intercourse occurs during covert meet-ups at a drab grocery no one will ever mistake for one of today’s super stores where they sell a couple hundred types of mustards. One of the first reviews I ever read of Indemnity characterized the market as the kind of place where the lettuce has already begun to wilt, and you don’t need Blu-ray to sense this.
People use Idemnity as a weapon with which to bludgeon the same year’s Oscar winner Going My Way — utilizing, as history-ignorant myopics always do, the 20-20 hindsight that overlooks the fact that Paramount made both pictures and was certainly going to get behind what was merely the most popular and beloved Hollywood movie made during the entire World War II era. In fact, ’44 was a spectacular year all around despite the fact that so many top filmmakers were in the war: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero (also from Paramount), Meet Me in St. Louis, Laura and To Have and Have Not. It was, in fact, one of those years that makes me say, “Don’t even bring up 1939; I don’t want to hear about it.”
Two separate commentaries and some featurettes have been imported from the best DVD version, but there’s also the addition here of a 1973 TV remake, which starred Richard Crenna (the targeted victim in Body Heat), Samantha Eggar and Lee J. Cobb. Despite the built-in personal advantage of Eggar being one of my all-time hotties of choice, it is DOA from the get-go, when the opening narration is bungled as badly as Julia Ormond’s voiceover of dialogue that Audrey Hepburn simply nailed in Wilder’s Sabrina (also just out on Blu-ray, by the way).