Film Noir UK: Double Indemnity (1944): The Criterion Collection
Updated: May 24
When putting together a list of the all time top ten classic film noirs it is pretty hard not to include. In fact, you’d be hard pressed not to include it in the top two even. That’s how important Double Indemnity is to film noir. Noir just couldn’t live without it. But why? I’m being serious now; what has Double Indemnity ever done for us?! How come we continue to love it (I’m speaking of cinephiles here, not just regular film noir followers) as it passes its 75th anniversary and is well on its way to marking its 80th anniversary?
Is it Cain’s disturbing and menacing characters or Wilder’s witty storytelling infused with Raymond Chandler’s fast talking and lean dialogue? Most certainly the cast knew every aspect of what both writers and director needed to express. All three key stars play their roles perfectly; especially Robinson, who somehow missed out on an Academy Award nomination for, what I would say, is probably one of the best supporting performances in the history of Hollywood. And yet Robinson, still remembered for playing cold and cunning Rico in Little Caesar (1931), has to play up against the real murderous monsters in this film in the shape of two very popular stars better known for light comedies and humorous performances in the run up to Double Indemnity. Fred MacMurray had recently headlined screwball romantic comedies like The Lady Is Willing (1942), Take a Letter, Darling (1942), No Time for Love (1943) and And the Angels Sing (1944). While Barbara Stanwyck had starred in some key studio comedies in recent years including You Belong to Me (1941), Ball of Fire (1941) (written by Wilder), Lady of Burlesque (1943) and of course Preston Sturges's classic The Lady Eve (1941). Wilder deliberately cast two stars best known for their lighter side of their careers, stating that even good people can murder for lust and money.
Everyone in this film is truly fantastic to be honest. Stanwyck particularly stands out in fact and thanks to her past powerful women performances in so many great pre-code films such as Baby Face (1933), The Purchase Price (1932), Night Nurse (1931) and Ladies of Leisure (1930) she had the perfect track record to play the smouldering Phyllis Dietrichson. In fact, Stanwyck hesitated at first if she could or even want to actually play Physlisis. But Wilder knew how key Stanwyck was to the film and twisted her arm and even challenged her to prove that she was actually able to act. And yet some of the greatest lines (and to be honest there are so many in Double Indemnity) come from Stanwyck, a mix of pure evil and humour all in a couple of lines.
Maybe I’ve answered my own question already, maybe it’s down to the great balance of darkness and light entertainment, within comedy that makes this film perfect. Maybe it’s a Wilder thing? Do we continue to love Wilder because he started where Ernest Lubitsch left of? Wilder loved Lubitsch. But, unlike Lubitsch who, for many anyway, consider him to be a comedy writer and director (for me there is most certainly more to Lubitsch than just that) Billy Wilder took the comedy and let darkness seep into it. I have always wanted, and will hopefully in the future, put on a day event called ‘The Wild Side of Wilder’ where we see three key titles which work hand in hand for film noir fans; The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulvard (1950) and Double Indemnity. All three films highlight the dark side of humanity and yet, there are hints of comedy throughout; or could that comedy just be… well… cleverness. Is Wilder laughing at us, the audience?! He most certainly is when it comes to deliberately making Stanwyck wear that truly awful and totally false wig in Double Indemnity. And her I am, rambling about comedy, murder, humanity and hairpieces. I’m beginning to question my own sanity now, just like Walter Neff does in both novel and film! Damn you Mr Wilder!
So if I haven’t sold this totally incredible film, then Criterion’s release will tip you over the age to actually get a copy. The landmark BBC Arena documentary on Wilder is worth the price alone to be honest let alone the great commentary by the late Richard Schickel. It’s also great to see a new interview with Noah Isenberg (don’t forget to get a copy of Noah's Billy Wilder on Assignment book by the way) and it wouldn’t be film noir without having the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller and Imogen Sara Smith involved (don’t forget about Muller’s new Dark City book by the way) and their recorded conversation is very fun and (as always) informative.
If anything, Double Indemnity is not just a masterpiece of film noir, it was, and still is, after nearly 80 years, one of the key films in the history of cinema! And this release by Criterion showcases this! Go and get yourself a copy!
Thanks to our friends at Criterion we have a brand new copy of Double Indemnity (1944) up for grabs! But we're going a little bit further this time and we're going to throw in a Criterion T-shirt as well as a copy of James M. Cain's book as well!
So just send us your answer to the question below via our contact page by mid-night on Sunday 12th June 2022 to be in with a chance. Don't forget to say what size you would like your T-shirt by the way! Good Luck!
Question: Which Billy Wilder film did Welsh actor Ray Milland win his Academy Award for?