Has dialogue ever been more perfectly hard-boiled? Has a femme fatale ever been as deliciously evil as Barbara Stanwyck? And has 1940s Los Angeles ever looked so seductively sordid? Working with cowriter Raymond Chandler, director Billy Wilder launched himself onto the Hollywood A-list with this paragon of film-noir fatalism from James M. Cain’s pulp novel. When slick salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) walks into the swank home of dissatisfied housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), he intends to sell her insurance, but he winds up becoming entangled with her in a far more sinister way. Featuring scene-stealing supporting work from Edward G. Robinson and the chiaroscuro of cinematographer John F. Seitz, Double Indemnity is one of the most wickedly perverse stories ever told and the cynical standard by which all noir must be measured.
The Criterion Collection presents Billy Wilder’s defining noir Double Indemnity on 4K UHD, presenting it in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer, BD-66 disc. Delivered with Dolby Vision, the 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition encode is sourced from a new 4K restoration coming from a scan of a 35mm nitrate composite fine-grain. This edition also includes a standard dual-layer Blu-ray disc offering a 1080p/24hz presentation of the film.
Though it may not come immediately to mind for some that a black-and-white film would be an ideal candidate for the UHD format (despite the sharp looking presentations for the likes of Sony's releases for Dr. Strangelove and Anatomy of a Murder) Double Indemnity ends up proving to be a prime candidate, if mostly for the benefits of the improved dynamic range courtesy of HDR and Dolby Vision. The film is famously known for its dark photography and use of shadows, and while that has always come through well enough on video it’s never been able to live up to its full potential. This is typically due to limitations of the many home video formats through the years, something I was further reminded of after visiting the 1080 high-definition presentation in this release, where brightness and contrast must be adjusted to make sure viewers can still see the picture and not have it appear as some sort of dark gray mess. This is all well and good, and the previous Blu-rays all look fine (as does the one in this release), but the lighting just isn’t as effective as it could be.
Well, that’s all changed. The image is now a good deal darker a lot of the time, but that’s all for the better in the end. The improved range delivers solid whites opposite rich, deep blacks with a wide assortment of grays in between. This of course helps in rendering all of the details in the moderately and brightly lit sequences, but it especially helps in the darker scenes where one or multiple light sources illuminate a dark room or setting, helping to cleanly pick out the details as the light dissipates into the shadows, the grays shifting gradually and naturally into the blacks of the backgrounds. A stand-out sequence is one closer to the end where Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) cross paths for a final time in her darkened living room. It’s almost pitch black, but the available light sources, which includes, at one point, a lit cigarette, nicely highlight and bounce off of objects. It’s dark, but details are still present, you can still see everything in the setting, and there’s still a good sense of depth within the scene.
The improved range also helps the brighter sequences in the film, including when Neff first drives up to Phyllis’ house during the day, the sky looking less blown out and showing wider range in the grays compared to the Blu-ray presentation, with Neff’s black hat showing more detail and texture as he arrives at the door, that hat looking more of a flat black in the Blu-ray presentation. Even the white shirt of a child playing in the street manages to show more minor details compared to the high-def presentation, where the shirt a flat white. The lighting also bounces beautifully off of the smoke in some of the film’s interiors, particularly in that sequence in the living room following Neff’s arrival, with the sunlight comes in through the window. It all looks incredibly clean, blends wonderfully, and has a purely photographic look. This aspect of the film has never looked as good on video as it does here.
This would be all for naught if the base restoration and presentation were less than stellar but thankfully the base presentation also looks excellent. The film is encoded wonderfully, rendering the grain naturally and further aiding in that photographic look. Though there are times where a soft focus is applied or the film elements may be a wee-bit limited, the image is incredibly sharp on the whole, fine details and textures rendered perfectly. The restoration has also further cleaned things up, getting most of the damage that remained on the Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray presentation (I haven’t seen Universal’s disc), except for a few instances where some minor wear appears on the side of the frame and the occasional scratch that appears here and there. The pulses and some of the fluctuations that were also present on that previous edition are now gone as well.
In all, thanks to the new restoration and the improved dynamic range, this is the best the film has ever looked on home video and I’d say the only way to see it, short of going to a theatrical screening. It looks just fantastic.
[SDR screen grabs have been taken from the source disc and converted to JPG files. They are presented in full resolution and may not properly fit some monitors. While the screen grabs should offer a general idea of quality, they should not be used for reference purposes.]
Criterion includes a lossless PCM single-channel monaural soundtrack. For the period I thought this sounded very sharp and clean, no distortion present, and it doesn’t sound as though things have been filtered to a ridiculous degree. Range isn’t terribly wide, the Miklós Rózsa score sounding a bit limited, but it’s never harsh or edgy.
Criterion packs a wealth of material over the release’s three discs, starting everything off with an audio commentary featuring critic Richard Schickel, originally recorded for Universal’s 2006 DVD edition. Missing here but also found on the DVD was an audio commentary featuring Nick Redman and Lem Dobbs, the screenwriter behind The Limey. Masters of Cinema’s region B edition for the film (using the older Universal master) included that track over Schickel’s.
I can’t say why neither Criterion nor Eureka included both tracks, though I was surprised Criterion ended up choosing the Schickel track as I was always under the impression that the Redmond/Dobbs track was considered the better of the two. I’ve had my reservations with Schickel’s commentaries, his track alongside former child actor Daryl Hammond for Leave Her to Heaven being one of the worst things I have ever listened to, but I did enjoy this one when I originally listened to it, and I still find it holds up well now. Schickel dedicates most of his time explaining how the film can be considered the first real noir, in that it has all the elements associated with the genre. This leads to him talking about what generally constitutes a noir film, how the term was coined by Cahiers du cinema, and other notable films, including films released prior to Wilder’s that do set up some of the tropes of the genre. Schickel also expands this out to cover “pulp fiction,” which of course ties into the two writers around the film: James M. Cain, who wrote the novella on which the film is based, and Raymond Chandler, who co-wrote the screenplay. I found these portions probably the most interesting since Schickel manages to then cover the two authors’ different writing styles and points of view, and how they more than likely conflicted here (despite this fact, Cain apparently loved the film).
There is some dead space here and there, but he does manage to spread the topics out and keep it interesting, and for those only somewhat familiar with noir I think it offers a decent intro. I suspect that’s the primary reason Criterion chose this over the other track, Schickel focusing more on the genre as a whole, along with the added bonus of details around Chandler and Cain. The other track is worth seeking out, though, as Dobbs and Redman also cover this aspect to a degree, with Dobbs explaining how noir is still present in modern cinema. Dobbs also knew Wilder and has a few personal stories to share.
The commentary is the only supplement on the 4K UHD disc, the disc otherwise devoted entirely to the film. A standard dual-layer Blu-ray is also included, featuring a 1080p presentation for the film, which also includes the commentary. This disc then contains several special features, a couple of which are carry-overs from Universal’s DVD. These are comprised of the film’s trailer (a standard-def upscale) and the 2006 documentary Shadows of Suspense, which runs 38-minutes. This latter production is a typical made-for-DVD documentary, covering the film’s background and production, while also looking at the film’s legacy. It features a few interviews with film scholars and those in the industry, including—but not limited to--Schickel, Eddie Muller, Kim Newman, Drew Casper, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, director William Friedkin, and even author James Ellroy. It doesn’t stick out as anything particularly special, but it gets the job done and is worth watching if one hasn’t managed to see it yet.
Criterion then records two new interviews, the first being with film scholar Noah Isenberg, who spends his 17-minutes talking about Wilder’s early newspaper career, his work on the film People on Sunday, his escape from Europe to the States, and how his background in journalism and his European sensibilities infused his work.
The second interview features critics Imogen Sara Smith and Eddie Muller discussing the film and the source novella for 31-minutes, looking at how the film set the foundations for noir and how the production code, which limited the sex and violence allowed in films, led to some famous and creative moments. On top of talking about their favourite bits of dialogue, their admiration in the casting, and what author Raymond Chandler more than likely brought to the story, they also share some production details, including what more than likely happened to the film’s original ending, which is also brought up elsewhere in this release. Smith has sort of become Criterion’s go-to for noir releases and her contributions are always thorough and insightful (I’m still surprised they haven’t hired her to do her commentary, her one for Indicator’s edition of Framed being especially great) but I rather enjoyed how Muller has been added to the mix, the two throwing topics off of one another.
The set also features some archival material, including two radio adaptations: a 1945 one for the Screen Guild Theater, and a 1950 one from the Lux Radio Theater, running 29-minutes and 56-minutes respectively and both featuring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck reprising their original roles. Both follow the story well enough but the Lux one, which runs longer, features more scenes with Keyes (including the one with the head of the insurance company) and stretches the murder out a bit more. The shorter one impressively still conveys the story but only includes the key scenes, with Keyes only showing up in because it was necessary to explain some plot details. Otherwise, he isn’t in it. Oddly, the shorter one also has MacMurray’s Neff typing out his confession in place of dictating it. Both programs are rather fun and presented in their entirety, including the commercials, Lady Esther Skin Cream for the Screen Guild one, and Lux pushing their soap, including an awkward insertion around the blonde wig Stanwyck famously wore in the film.
Criterion also digs up an impressive archival feature spread over three episodes of a television program called Arena, running a lengthy 3-hours and 2-minutes in total and is found, all by its lonesome, on the second standard dual-layer Blu-ray disc, the third disc in the UHD release. Entitled Billy, How Did You Do It?, it features footage from an extensive interview conducted by German journalist Hellmuth Karasek with director Billy Wilder. Director Volker Schlöndorff—who became friends with Wilder and hosts the episodes here—was the one behind the camera, even chiming in with his own questions on occasion. The interviews work their way through Wilder’s career, edited in order of filmography. The first episode does feature Wilder talking about his techniques, the importance of conveying as much info as possible in a single image, the influence of Ernst Lubitsch, and his upbringing, before moving on to his film work in the States and a lengthy discussion on Double Indemnity. Episode 2, after humorously glancing over his Bing Crosby collaboration The Emperor Waltz, then focuses on Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Sabrina, and Love in the Afternoon, with episode 3 getting into Witness for the Prosecution, The Apartment, and Some Like it Hot. Some of his other films come up (The Seven Year Itch, The Front Page and such) but the focus ends up being on his more “impactful” work, I guess one could say.
As they work through his career Wilder also takes the time to talk about those he has worked with, whether it be screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond or actors William Holden, Jack Lemmon, or Marilyn Monroe. Schlöndorff, as mentioned, throws in a few questions here and there, more concerned about the director’s thoughts on story construction or filming scenes, but the two do get into an extended conversation about the narrative of Some Like it Hot, and the development of the gags within the film.
It’s an extraordinary inclusion on Criterion’s part, and it’s especially impressive they’ve included the whole thing. I’m also happy Criterion decided to throw the whole program on its own disc as to not impact the image for the high-definition presentation of the film on the previous disc any further.
Not everything has made it from prior editions, though. Again, as mentioned previous, the Dobb/Redman commentary is one of those missing features, a shame since it’s a decent track itself. Also missing is the 1973 TV-movie remake, which was found on Universal’s 2006 DVD edition. I barely recall it, but it might have been a fun inclusion. The included insert then features a lengthy essay on the film by critic Angela Jade Bastién.
Despite some of the missing material Criterion has still put together a comprehensive set of features examining the film’s place in laying out the foundation for what would eventually become known as noir on top of looking at Wilder’s influential body of work.
The shadows in Billy Wilder's defining noir have never looked as good on home video as they do through Criterion's stacked 4K special edition.