Critics debate whether “Double Indemnity” was the first true film noir, but the real question may be what took so long for Billy Wilder’s 1944 pic to finally get the deluxe DVD treatment. Universal Studios Home Entertainment finally gives Billy Wilder’s 1944 “Double Indemnity” its due, in a special edition that pays homage not only with commentaries and a documentary but with a 1973 TV movie remake. The latter proves the fool’s errand in redoing a classic.
Through the DVD’s making-of documentary, informative commentary by Richard Schickel, and wildly entertaining track by historian Nick Redman and screenwriter Lem Dobbs, you see that much of what made “Double Indemnity” an often copied and parodied gem was all but accidental.
Wilder’s pairing with Raymond Chandler produced a gem of a screenplay even though their partnership was notoriously acrimonious. Wilder’s manic habit of pacing back and forth, while holding a riding stick, not to mention partaking in three martini lunches, proved too much for Chandler, who broke his sobriety soon after they finished.
George Raft was to play agent Walter Neff, but turned it down and Fred MacMurray took the part — a departure from his amiable figures that only added to the film’s deception. As client Phyllis Dietrichson, Barbara Stanwyck wore a blonde wig, giving her much more of the quality of a femme fatale, even if a Paramount executive complained, “We hire Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington.”
The original ending, in which Neff meets his day of reckoning in the gas chamber, was frowned by censors and test audiences, and dropped from the film. Instead it is neatly wrapped up with Neff’s fateful office encounter with boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson).
Most important, Wilder diverted from the standards of the time and set out to make “Double Indemnity” with the realism of a documentary. In doing so, his judicious use of locales, moody night settings and stark Miklos Rozsa score became a highly stylized pic that set many of the standards for film noirs to come. It’s easy to forget the pic’s implausibilities, as well as the occasional gaffe. (MacMurray, as the bachelor Neff, is wearing a wedding ring.)
Oddly enough, the 1973 Universal TV remake, starring Richard Crenna and Samantha Eggar, plays less like a film noir and more like a two-hour episode of “McMillan & Wife.” Upon seeing it, Wilder is said to have called a friend and said, “They didn’t get it.”
Comparing the two is a kick, and as evidenced by this package, eventually Universal did get it.