June 11, 2014


Movie or Blu-ray? Movie or Blu-ray? That’s a tricky question when reviewing the new version of Double Indemnity, unquestionably one of Hollywood’s great masterpieces and an absolute must-have for any serious film fans’ collection. You can’t do any better… despite the fact that the new Blu-ray is about as lazy and uninspired a product as one could hope for. Universal put together a terrific DVD package for the film a few years ago, then apparently decided that that was enough. Hit the jump for my Double Indemnity Blu-ray review.

double-indemnity-blu-ray-reviewFirst the movie itself, penned by the great Raymond Chandler from a novel by James M. Cain and directed by Billy Wilder as a highlight of his storied career. It epitomizes the noir movement at its height, conceived by two of the genre’s great geniuses and helmed by an auteur coming to grips with the depths of human evil. Wilder arrived in Hollywood in the 1930s after fleeing from Eastern Europe, an Austrian Jew who saw the writing on the wall when Hitler came to power. The Final Solution was crystalizing when he started work on Double Indemnity, and as the film went through development, he learned of relatives back home disappearing without a trace. That took an already dark project to surprising inky depths: an ode to human greed and the lethal folly it creates.

On a more mundane front, Wilder’s tug of war with Chandler over the script has become the stuff of legend, and various other bits of production-based sturm und drang all fed into the drama onscreen. Seduced by a bewitching blonde (Barbara Stanwyck) with an inconvenient husband, insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) helps her conceive of a sure-fire plan for murder. The title refers to a new clause in the hubby’s insurance policy, ensuring that the two lovers will be filthy rich if they plan it out right. They do… and naturally, it all goes wrong anyway, as Neff’s terrier of a colleague (Edward G. Robinson) smells a rat that not even the police could parse.

double-indemnity-blu-ray-reviewFrom first frame to last, it’s a thing of unparalleled beauty: the hard-boiled dialogue, the seamy subject matter, the cinematography that finds the shadowy heart of film noir Los Angeles. It provided fascinating wrinkles on the expected image of the hard-boiled detective – focusing on the culprits rather than the legal authorities pursuing them – and their eventual fate speaks more to despair and waste than any true feelings of justice. Numerous other components seem to simultaneously defy and reinforce the genre conventions, like the femme fatale with the cheap wig and banal domestic life no less irresistible than any high-end underworld siren. It was Wilder’s unparalleled cinematic gifts that brought it all together, conceived during the apex of one of history’s darkest moments and spilling forth from a city and a nation that seemed immune from the horrors engulfing the rest of the world.

It goes without saying then, that such a masterful film deserves better for this Blu-ray. It’s a hastily repackaged version of the 2006 DVD edition, with only a quick digital updating to differentiate from its predecessor. In and of itself, it’s a great package. The film looks and sounds better than ever, and the disc is chock full of great extras: ad materials, a terrific documentary, commentary for several film historians and a 1973 TV movie version of the film (starring Richard Crenna as Neff) that epitomizes the term “playing the notes without hearing the music.” If you already own the DVD, you’re not getting anything new here save an improved image, and that isn’t enough to justify the cost. (The packaging on the DVD was much sturdier than this one as well.) I’m sure the decision was a no-brainer and if you’re going to reissue the film, you may as well do it in Blu-ray. But long-time fans who own the DVD should think twice before double dipping. This is far more rehash than re-issue, ill befitting the masterpiece at its heart.

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