Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Double Indemnity (1944)
Studio Line: Image Entertainment - From the Moment they met it was Murder!

Unsuspecting Mr. Dietrichson becomes increasingly accident prone after his icily calculating wife encourages him to sign a double indemnity policy proposed by a smooth-talking insurance agent. Against a backdrop of distinctly California settings, the partners in crime plan the perfect murder to collect on the insurance. Perfect until a claims manager gets a familiar feeling of foul play and pursues the matter relentlessly . Tension soars as the would-be lovers find themselves plotting against each other.

Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Pictures; Best Director; Best Screenplay; Best Actress-Barbara Stanwyck; Best Cinematography; Best Sound; Best Score-Miklos Rozsa, 1945.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 12 chapters; rated NR; 107 min.; $14.99; street date 1/21/98.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: D+/C+/F

For movie fans, it's always fun to hear about the other actors who were considered for now-classic roles. Would we still have loved Raiders of the Lost Ark if Tom Selleck played Indiana Jones? How would we have felt about The Graduate with Robert Redford in the lead?

The most famous tale is apparently apocryphal. That involves the rumored casting of Ronald Reagan as Rick in Casablanca, a part that eventually went to Humphrey Bogart. The truth of this yarn is questionable, though it's often accepted as fact; even if it's false, the idea of warm and homey Ronnie as bitter and cynical Rick is awfully entertaining.

To see how that situation might have ended, we need look no further than 1944's Double Indemnity, a classic film noir that starred Fred MacMurray. When I heard that MacMurray - best known for gently comedic paternal roles in movies like The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor and on TV's My Three Sons - would lead this dark tale of murder and romantic affairs, I thought I'd read incorrectly.

Unfortunately, my information was correct. MacMurray plays amiable insurance salesman Walter Neff. One day Neff stops by the home of a client to update his policy when he meets the man's sultry wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck). An affair soon begins, and the two plot to off her husband, collect on an insurance policy and live happily ever after.

Of course, things don't work out as planned, a fact we know from the start, since almost the whole film is told in flashback by Neff. As we first meet him, he's been injured and is dictating his tale to be heard later by his coworker, claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Neff relates the details, which we see acted out for us.

All in all, the film is well-crafted and plotted. It moves at an effective and compelling pace and provides a lot of smart dialogue and intriguing events. So why didn't I like it?

One word: MacMurray. Try as I might, I simply couldn't accept him in such a dark and troubled role. Plain and simple, the guy's a goofball and he seemed completely inappropriate in the part. To hear his attempts to spit out Raymond Chandler's biting "tough guy" dialogue made me snicker, and that's not the desired result. Nothing was worse than MacMurray's constant use of the phrase "baby" to address Stanwyck; unfortunately, his affected tone makes it come out as "bebby" and it becomes very amusing.

Frankly, Stanwyck didn't do much for me either. Her acting seemed competent but her appearance felt wrong for the femme fatale role. She generally looked somewhat frumpy and unappealing, especially since she was hampered by a very unattractive hairstyle; I don't know if it was a wig, but it sure looked like one.

More problems stem from some of the supporting actors. Richard Gaines seemed terribly overwrought and artificial as Edward Norton, and Byron Barr' s turn as Nino Zachetti also suffered from terminal attempted-tough-guy blues. Of all the cast, only Robinson really succeeded. He played the role with appropriate tenacity and fire and he alone displayed excellent acting; some of the other actors were acceptable, but none were really good other than Robinson.

Old Eddie G. almost saves the film, but ultimately I just couldn't get past dopey Fred MacMurray in the lead. Clearly I'm in the minority here, but I thought Double Indemnity ultimately fell short of its goals due to his presence. The rest of the movie had a lot going for it, but I simply couldn't stop laughing at the lead. Since DI isn't a comedy, that's a problem.

The DVD:

Double Indemnity appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although not atrocious, I found the DVD to provide a pretty inferior picture.

The best aspect of the image was its sharpness. While some mild softness appeared at times, for the most part the movie looked fairly crisp and detailed, with little haziness to interfere. Moiré effects and jagged edges provided few concerns.

However, print flaws were a major problem. White speckles marred much of the film, and I also saw an awful lot of grit. Other defects like blotches, hairs, scratches and thin vertical lines appeared, and much of the picture came across as grainy. The latter issue was especially prevalent in daytime scenes; darker segments hid some of these flaws, but the brighter sections showed how many defects existed in the print.

Another concern stemmed from the brightness. Most of the night scenes seemed too dark; shadow detail appeared awfully weak in the many low-light sequences, and I found a lot of the film very difficult to discern. I understand that noirs are supposed to be dark, but this was ridiculous; so much of the movie lacked definition that it became terribly hard to see the action. A few parts of Double Indemnity looked decent, but much of it displayed various problems. I flip-flopped between "C-" and "D+" ratings throughout the film but ultimately picked "D+" due to the many concerns.

Although it's nothing special, the monaural audio of Double Indemnity fares much better than the picture. Dialogue came across as acceptably natural and distinct for the era and no problems arose in regard to intelligibility. Effects were similarly clear and realistic, and they displayed no signs of distortion. Music seemed slightly tinny and thin, but it also sounded relatively clean and was fine for its age. I detected a light layer of background noise throughout the film. Ultimately, the soundtrack merited a "C+" for its fairly-average (for the era) audio.

The only area in which this DVD completely fails is that of supplements. There aren't any. In fact, this DVD doesn't even include a main menu; try to go to one and all you'll find is a "chapter selections" section. This is pretty weak, though I suppose since the DVD lists for only $14.99, I can't gripe too much.

Unfortunately, my affection for Double Indemnity is low enough to ensure that nothing can overcome the flaws of this DVD. Despite its status as a classic, I found the movie to be less than compelling, mainly due to the presence of Fred MacMurray in the lead role. Without him, I might have liked it, but I thought he completely ruined any tension or drama. The DVD offers very flawed picture plus decent sound and no supplements. Even if you disagree with my assessment of the movie itself, this DVD should be avoided; it's a poor representation of the film.

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