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Classic ‘Indemnity’ gets double treatment on DVD

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A man bleeding from a gunshot wound stumbles into his office, turns on a dictating machine and tersely admits he is a murderer.

So begins “Double Indemnity,” Billy Wilder’s 1944 film noir masterpiece, and a cornerstone of American cinema. “Double Indemnity” arrived near the height of film noir’s popularity and success, standing alongside (and some would argue above) noir classics like “Laura,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “The Big Sleep.” The film has been a long time coming on DVD, and has finally arrived in a respectable package that pays homage to the considerable influence it has had on Hollywood.

“Double Indemnity,” based on James M. Cain’s 1943 novella “Three of a Kind,” follows insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who is seduced by femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) into killing her husband to collect the insurance money. Unfortunately for Neff, after the hit goes as planned, his boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) takes over the murder investigation.

Is there a more under-appreciated director in Hollywood history than Billy Wilder? “Double Indemnity” was his first masterpiece, but the filmmaker would go on to helm such classics as “The Lost Weekend,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Stalag 17,” “The Seven Year Itch,” “The Spirit of St. Louis,” “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment” over the course of a several decade career.

What makes “Double Indemnity” so effective is Wilder’s inventive and atmospheric use of lighting and his moody sense of purpose, which drives the film throughout. He also gets some of the best work out of veteran actors like MacMurray, Stanwyck and Robinson, all of whom ignite the picture with a creeping sense of paranoia.

It’s also interesting to think that this seedy tale of adultery, murder and greed was released in 1944, a time when Hollywood was still regulated by the Hays Code – its gleeful immorality is one of the most alluring aspects of “Double Indemnity,” even 60 years later.

“Double Indemnity,” along with the original 1933 “King Kong” and “The African Queen,” is one of the last of the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Films to come to DVD. Universal finally rectified this at the end of last year, releasing the film in a two-disc special edition with a re-mastered print and sound. “Double Indemnity” certainly looks good on DVD, with relatively clean picture, especially considering that the film is over 60 years old. There is a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono audio track, and a pair of commentaries, one from Richard Shickel and one from Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman.

There are only two special features, but they’re both pretty interesting. The first is a new documentary, “Shadows of Suspense,” which explores the film and its impact. The other is the 1973 “Double Indemnity” TV movie, which really proves just how powerful Wilder’s film is.

“Double Indemnity” is one of the great film noirs, and some would argue it is the greatest. Critic Roger Ebert once claimed that film noir is not a genre of detectives and mysteries, but of ordinary people who find within themselves the capacity for great evil. In that respect, “Double Indemnity” is the prototypical film noir. Neff commits horrific crimes, but it ends on an oddly sympathetic note. As if to say that yes, man has the capacity for great evil, but the capacity for great dignity as well.