Double Indemnity: Legacy Series - A Partial Review

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Mark VH, Aug 12, 2006.

  1. Mark VH

    Mark VH Stunt Coordinator

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    This is probably my all-time most-wanted DVD title, so permit me this long-winded bit of indulgence. And I know some other folks have been waiting for the disc for a while, so that feels like a little more justification.

    All that bias aside, here goes: this is the DVD release of the year.

    Warners has done some incredible work this year - The Searchers, Stagecoach, Streetcar Named Desire, The Tough Guys Box, Film Noir Collection: V3, etc. And the other studios - Criterion, Fox (who may actually have Warner beat this year for quality), Disney - have all brought out stellar packages as well. But if your definition of a great DVD is a great film given the treatment it deserves (via a quality transfer, sound, and comprehensive, informative extras), then there's no way this doesn't belong in the conversation.

    That being said, a confession: I haven't listened to either commentary track (the first by Richard Schickel, the second by screenwriter Lem Dobbs and historian Nick Redman), though I hope to tackle both in the next day or so. So it's possible that I may be jumping the gun in my claim. But I don't think so. If either of them live up to the material I've viewed thus far, it's gravy.

    First, the transfer:

    It's not Lowry-quality. There's film grain, there are a few scratches, and no one's going to mistake it for a Citizen Kane-like clean-up job. But it's a fantastic transfer, as good as I've ever seen the film look. Shadow detail is excellent, black levels are stable and artifacting is non-existant. The fact that the print isn't in perfect shape means nothing - it's eminently watchable from beginning to end, and I'm firmly convinced that Universal took the best possible source material they could locate - probably the restoration done by the UCLA archive - and transferred it with time and obvious care. I couldn't be happier.

    Sound:

    Mono. Dialogue is perfectly audible, and Miklos Rosza's score sounds as good as I've heard it. No hiss whatsoever. Not much more to be said.

    Extras:

    Introduction by Robert Osborne - Not long (only about 5 minutes or so), but Osborne, as usual, does a wonderful job outlining the players and introducing the film without giving a thing away. If you've seen his contributions on TCM, you'll know what you're getting here. One thing to note is that the intro was recorded exclusively for the DVD, as Osborne references the disc during his talk. A small point, but it's the first indication that Universal absolutely knew the demand for this film on DVD, and took care in assembling the material for it.

    Theatrical Trailer - Scratchy as hell, but the film's 62 years old. Gives away way too much, as with most of the trailers of its time. But it goes without saying that it's great to have for posterity's sake.

    Shadows of Suspense Retrospective Documentary - First, a little background. Universal's first wave of Legacy Series discs included my second-most anticipated DVD ever - The Sting - and it included a retrospective documentary on its second disc. The doc gathered principal cast (including Newman and Redford) and crew all to discuss their experience making the film. And I hated it. A bunch of actors all fawning over each other, dozens of clips from a film I'd just watched and virtually nothing of value to add to an analysis of the movie. The film looked great, but the doc was ass on a stick.

    Why am I telling you this? To demonstrate that I'm hugely critical of weak documentary material, even when it's on a disc that I've been drooling over months in advance. To show that even if a retrospective doc assembles all the people you think you want to hear talk about a film, it can still turn into a circle-jerk. And to relay my joy in conveying that the documentary assembled on Double Indemnity may be the best of its kind I've ever seen.

    It runs about 40 minutes. It doesn't do anything revolutionary in terms of structure - it essentially walks us through the making of the film, discusses its place in film history and talks through most of the creative people involved. And it doesn't shy away from fawning - this is one of the greatest American movies ever made, and nobody denies it - although said fawning is generally kept to a minimum.

    But the doc also fully demonstrates that Universal knew, without a shadow of a doubt, the value of the film they had, and consequently assembled a crew of talking heads that would do it justice. The list includes the following (off the top of my head) - Eddie Muller, James Ellroy, Alan Silver, James Ursini, Drew Casper, Caleb Deschanel, William Friedkin and Kim Newman, in addition to about 10 others (can't remember names off the top of my head). And virtually everyone contributes something of value. Some relay fascinating and occasionally hilarious production stories that don't shy away from some of the uglier sides of the production, not least of which includes the fact that Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler hated each other. Folks like Muller place the film in its film noir context with brief but proper explanation of noir for those not "in the know." Hell, Ellroy even gets to curse (definitely a "motherfucker" in there). It's uncensored, it's fascinating, it's funny, and it contains the absolute bare minimum of filler. I don't know that I've never seen it done better.

    If I really wanted to quibble with the disc, I'd say that it really didn't need to be a two-disc affair. The only extra on Disc 2 is the 1973 TV remake, starring Richard Crenna, that I doubt even the most masochistic among us will watch. I certainly won't. But the fact that Universal sought to include it, despite its inevitable awfulness, tells me that they were trying to be as comprehensive as possible in assembling the material for the disc. You may disagree.

    All this, and I haven't even touched on the film yet. That's probably because there's very little to be said. It may be my favorite film of all time. I can't find a single flaw in the damn thing. The leads are perfect. The music is perfect. The lighting - good God, the lighting - is perfect. The writing is perfect. I'd say more, but I don't want to spoil a thing for anyone who hasn't seen the film.

    All I'll say is that for sheer quality, I haven't bought a better DVD this year. Univeral took so much damn time in bringing this film back to DVD after the woeful bare-bones 1998 disc, most of us believed that they just didn't care enough about the film to release a decent version on disc. This release proves us wrong.

    The Searchers: Ultimate Edition is a beautifully produced DVD. Utterly gorgeous transfer, informative supplements, and two discs worth of solid material (as opposed to one for DI and a take-it-or-leave-it second). I have no doubt there are some who will refer to that as the disc of the year, and I'd have a hard time debating the issue. It'll probably come down to which film you like better. But for me, Universal's Double Indemnity: Legacy Series is the finest DVD to be released this year, and should be owned and treasured and re-watched as often as possible.
     
  2. george kaplan

    george kaplan Executive Producer

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    Great to hear this is worth an upgrade, though it's a shame that they couldn't somehow find the gas chamber deleted scene.

    As to the Searchers vs. Double Indemnity, I love Double Indemnity almost as much as I loathe the Searchers, so that's an easy call for me.
     
  3. Thomas T

    Thomas T Producer

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    RE: "..... The 1973 TV remake ..... that I doubt even the most masochistic among us will watch"

    I always knew I was different, Mark. I could never quite put my finger on it. Thank you for putting a name to it.

    Not only will I watch the TV remake, I was thrilled that Universal included it as an extra.
     
  4. Haggai

    Haggai Producer

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    Thanks for your detailed thoughts about this, Mark. Definitely one of my most-wanted titles over the years as well.
     
  5. Ollie Gatehouse

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    Thanks for the review Mark, glad I held up from buying the R2 version.
     
  6. Ric Easton

    Ric Easton Cinematographer

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    Thanks for the review. I totally forgot that this was coming on Tuesday!
     
  7. Scott Shanks

    Scott Shanks Second Unit

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    Ric,
    The release is a week from Tuesday - Aug 22.
     
  8. Ric Easton

    Ric Easton Cinematographer

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    Thanks Scott! Really looking forward to this one!
     
  9. Mark VH

    Mark VH Stunt Coordinator

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    As an addendum:

    Finished listening to the Lem Dobbs/Nick Redman commentary track last night and, as with the rest of the supplementary material, it's utterly stellar. Dobbs does most of the speaking, and he's hugely engaging. Dobbs relates all sorts of interesting info about his experiences meeting with Wilder (who he got to know fairly well in the '70s), his opinions on his work (makes the controversial assertion that the partnership with I.A.L. Diamond ruined Wilder) and plenty of discussion of the film itself. And there's virtually no dead space - I kept wanting to get up to go to the bathroom and couldn't find a good place to pause; in fact, Dobbs actually self-conciously references the one instance of dead space, calling it a huge no-no when doing commentary tracks. And whereas one of the biggest complaints about commentaries is that the speaker describes the onscreen events the entire time, this is virtually the opposite - though they occasionally reference onscreen events, it's only on the rarest of occasions. Fantastic track.

    I'll try to get to Schickel later this week.
     
  10. Haggai

    Haggai Producer

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    Sounds great, Mark! Looking forward to that commentary now. I read a mostly negative response to Schickel's commentary on another website, but it sounds like the Dobbs/Redman one is top-notch.
     
  11. Mark VH

    Mark VH Stunt Coordinator

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    It is indeed. Really excellent. Just out of curiosity, on which site was it that you read the comments about the Schickel track?
     
  12. Haggai

    Haggai Producer

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  13. Robert Anthony

    Robert Anthony Producer

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    I am all over this in a hot minute, and I'm also interested in the 73 remake. I didn't know there was even such a thing until this release, and craven curiosity is going to make me pop it in. I'm considering it an extra along the lines of the "Love Conquers All" cut of Brazil.

    Some of the best dialog ever written.
     
  14. Mark VH

    Mark VH Stunt Coordinator

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