The following is my contribution to the They Remade What?! Blogathon, being hosted Oct. 9-11, 2015 by the blog Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Click on the above banner, and read blogs about some unlikely remakes of movies that most likely should have been left as is!
When director Gus Van Zant filmed his ill-fated remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1998, film critic Roger Ebert wrote about it: “Attending this new version, I felt oddly as if I were watching a provincial stock company doing the best it could without the Broadway cast.” It’s obvious that Ebert never saw the 1973 TV version of Billy Wilder’s film-noir classic Double Indemnity (1944), or Ebert would have written those same words 25 years earlier.
Someone is bound to ask why this version was ever made in the first place. I wish I had a concrete answer. My best guess is that Universal Studios — having inherited the movies bought by MCA, which had bought out Paramount’s pre-1948 film library for TV rights — was big on “Movies of the Week” at the time, had the rights to Double Indemnity, and figured they might as well have a go at it. The resulting version is positive proof that just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.
I’m going to approach this review a bit differently, as I am not going to provide a major plot synopsis. My feeling is that most people who are reading this review are already well familiar with the original movie — and if you’re not, then believe me, you’re much better off viewing the classic Billy Wilder version first (assuming you ever want to view this TV version at all).
So let’s get down to cases. I’m sure you’d suffer major shock if I was to tell you that this TV-movie is even nearly as good as the original. I can ease your unsteady hearts right now by declaring that I’m not about to say that. But how terrible is this version?
This movie begins with two major strikes against itself. One is that the story is filmed in garish color. Besides removing the foreboding shadows of film-noir, its artless TV photography makes nearly everybody look orange, as though they’d all spent far too much time in the L.A. sun.
Strike Two is that the movie is inexplicably modernized (to 1973). The original movie was shot in a just-post-Depression, World War II era, which was meant to reflect its characters’ desperation. Conversely (as I’ll address shortly), this movie seems to have nothing but ‘70s materialism on its mind.
If the lead actors had been decent, I think this movie might have had a shot, but the leads are uniformly negligible. As Walter Neff, Richard Crenna doesn’t begin to suggest the too-smart-for-his-own-good insurance salesman that Fred MacMurray played so devilishly. Even worse is Samantha Eggar as Phyllis Dietrichson. It’s hard to believe she was an established actress at this point, since she comes off as a pouty glamour model making her film debut.
There are no sparks at all between Crenna and Eggar. This is one of those movies where, when the starring duo share their first kiss, you really have to take it on faith that the characters feel any heat, because the actors surely haven’t conveyed it.
Strangely enough, the supporting cast isn’t bad, maybe because for most of them, their roles are too brief to do any damage. As the passenger who almost recognizes Neff from the train, veteran character actor John Fiedler (“The Bob Newhart Show”) is dryly funny. And Robert Webber is quite plausible as the drippy boss of the insurance company.
Best of all is Lee J. Cobb as Neff’s superior Barton Keyes, the role first inhabited by Edward G. Robinson. Cobb is about the only performer who doesn’t make you compare him to the original actor, because Cobb really makes the role his own. Rather than Robinson’s spiffily dressed Keyes, Cobb spends the entire movie wearing an unbuttoned dress shirt with an undone tie wrapped around his collar, as though Keyes intended to dress that way for work every day. And Cobb really makes the dialogue his own. You forget that he’s aping a classic movie character and find yourself laughing at lines of dialogue you’ve heard a dozen times before. It makes you wish they’d just done a TV-movie about Keyes instead (although they’d have probably screwed that up as well).
As for the rest of this, the movie-adapted teleplay is written by — of all people — Steven Bochco, long before he made a name for himself as creator of TV series such as “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue.” And that teleplay takes some major liberties that poke huge holes in the story. For one thing, Neff lives in a seaside apartment that seems awfully lavish for the salary of a small-fry insurance salesman. The movie even emphasizes that Neff drives a Mercedes! If that’s the case, why does he need Phyllis’ insurance money?
The other major problem is the movie’s time constraint. The original film ran 110 minutes, but this version had to fit into an hour-and-a-half time slot that allowed for commercials. That whittles its final time down to 74 minutes, thus necessitating the removal of huge chunks of dialogue, settings, and exposition — everything, in short, that gave the 1944 movie its atmosphere.
(But they did manage to squeeze in a shot of the cigarettes that a wounded Neff retrieved from his shirt pocket.)
We know what we’re in for when the “duo-logue” about “There’s a speed limit in this state” ends as soon as Phyllis tells Neff he was going “about 90.” No chance for funny, subtextual bandying back and forth.
And Phyllis, whose characterization isn’t helped by Samantha Eggar’s one-note performance, is curtailed even further when the movie removes most of her scenes of connivery. By the time Phyllis has her big scene of mock-hysteria in the insurance office — a scene that practically has you cheering for Barbara Stanwyck after she performs it — you wonder why Eggar/Phyllis even bothered.
This movie is so intent on emphasizing all the wrong details — see the cigarette close-up, above — that its tone comes close to that of a Carol Burnett parody. Coincidentally, just three weeks to the day after this TV-movie aired on ABC, CBS’ “Carol Burnett Show” — maybe as a reaction to this version — performed its own parody of Double Indemnity, titled “Double Calamity” and with Steve Lawrence and Burnett in the lead roles. (Click here to watch the Burnett version on YouTube.) Strangely enough, the Burnett parody goes to more trouble to get the details right than this “legitimate” version.
What would Billy Wilder have thought of this TV desecration of one of his favorite works? You needn’t ask. According to the Internet Movie Database, both Wilder and Barbara Stanwyck watched this version upon its original broadcast. When it was over, Wilder phoned Stanwyck to tell her, “Missy, they just didn’t get it right,” and promptly hung up.