DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1973) – A classic movie, played for a sucker


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.)

(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.

SEX! BLOGATHON – Day 2 Recap

Let us prove what’s even more wonderful the second time around with our


The entries just keep getting better and better. Obviously, our bloggers have got what it takes, and they know how to use it!


Criterion Blues looks at Summers with Monika, an early Ingmar Bergman entry in which the acclaimed director details the arc of a budding relationship between two maturing youngsters.


Seville, Spain-born-and-raised Moon in Gemini examines Blood and Sand and gives it an “A+” for authenticity — although happily, she never fell head over heels for Tyrone Power, only to be tossed aside for Rita Hayworth.


And finally, The Fluff Is Raging shows how the film-noir classic Double Indemnity warns us that, when it comes to two lust-soaked lovers, even a meticulously planned murder is never fully insured.

Curious about the rest of our blogathon entries? Links to both our original ‘thon announcement and our Day 1 recap are shown below — follow the links to read every blog that has been submitted so far. As for the rest of our entrants, our blogathon ends at the end of the day today. So PLEASE post your entries as soon as possible, and post their URLs in the “Comments” section below. We need them SO BADLY!!


The original blogathon announcement

Day 1 recap


“Straight down the line” – The significance of the dialogue in Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)


The following is my first of two entries in the second annual “Billy Wilder Blogathon,” being hosted on June 22, 2015 by the blogs Outspoken and Freckled and Once Upon a Screen. Click on the banner above, and read blogs devoted to Wilder’s huge catalog of film, TV, and written work!


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

“Nobody knows anything.”

Screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote this epigram to summarize the Hollywood bigwigs who pretend they have the formula for box-office success when in fact they’re just fumbling around and hoping for the next big hit. But Goldman could just as easily have been describing the characters in Billy Wilder’s film-noir classic Double Indemnity.

Ostensibly, the story of Double Indemnity is that an unhappy married woman uses her wiles to con an insurance salesman into helping her kill her husband, make it look like an accident, and collect on the husband’s insurance policy. But the subtext of this movie is how its main characters puff their chests with pride at the thought that they are somehow smarter than the mere mortals with whom they must deal on a daily basis.

All of the characters speak in highly stylized dialogue (adapted by Wilder and Raymond Chandler from James M. Cain’s original novel) in an effort to show how superior they are. Yet in the end, it is exposed as a sad facade, symbolized by once-smug Walter Neff literally bleeding his confession into cylinder after cylinder of a cold, mechanical office dictaphone.

Let’s explore each of the characters and their varying levels of self-delusion.


Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) – Phyllis’ very aura oozes cheapness, from her platinum blonde wig to her showy ankle bracelet. Paradoxically, it is that very cheapness that she uses to lure in an insurance salesman with her plan to get rid of her older, layabout husband, of whom she has grown very tired.


Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) – An insurance salesman of 11 years, and smooth with a sales pitch. When he first meets Phyllis, he intends only to remind her husband that his automobile insurance policy is up for renewal. But Phyllis starts thinking out loud and, after trading notes with Neff, she realizes that she could conceivably have her husband sign up for a policy of which he was not aware, and then bump him off on the basis of the injury covered by the policy.

At first, Neff wants nothing to do with the scheme, but he is so taken in by Phyllis’ allure that he convinces himself that he has the insider know-how to help Phyllis pull off the plan.


Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) – Neff’s co-worker at the insurance office, and a top-notch claims adjuster. After a quarter-century on the job, Keyes can instantly spot a phony claim with the help of his “little man” — a sort of conscience-in-reverse that ties his stomach in knots until he resolves the bogus claim.

When Phyllis and Walter murder Phyllis’ husband, and then Phyllis submits the claim, Keyes is at first convinced by Phyllis’ sorrowful-widow routine. But soon enough, his “little man” takes over, Keyes concludes that Phyllis is working a scam with a partner, and he smugly assumes that the duo will have to reveal themselves sooner or later.


Lola Dietrichson (Jean Heather) – The daughter of Mr. Dietrichson, but not of Phyllis. Phyllis was Mr. Dietrichson’s second wife. Lola’s mother also died under mysterious circumstances — when Phyllis was her nurse. And before Mrs. Dietrichson died, Lola happened to see Phyllis trying on a black widow’s cap, as though she was practicing for Mrs. Dietrichson’s funeral.


Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr) – Lola’s hot-headed boyfriend, whom Lola finds out has been seeing Phyllis behind her and Neff’s backs. In the movie’s climax, Neff plans to set things up so that Neff will kill Phyllis and have Nino framed for the murder.


Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) – Well, it’s obvious from the get-go that this guy doesn’t know diddly-squat.

Other than Mr. Dietrichson, it turns out that all of the key characters know just enough to have their respective rugs pulled out from under them. Let’s review their ultimate outcomes.


Phyllis – She thought all she had to do was turn on her cheap charm to get anything she wanted. When Neff started getting cold feet after the murder, Phyllis could feel him slipping away, so she cuckolded two people for the price of one by shtupping Nino. It didn’t much help her in the end.


Neff – Like Jiminy Cricket serving as the conscience of Pinocchio, Barton Keyes was the voice inside Neff’s head that wouldn’t stop talking. In the end, Keyes’ assessment of Neff (in a different context) was succinct and accurate: “You’re not smarter [than your peers], Walter — you’re just a little taller.”


Keyes – In the film’s final scene, Neff’s only small smidgeon of satisfaction is that, for all of Keyes’ brilliant deductions, he never recognized that the culprit he was looking for was right across the desk from him. (“Closer than that,” Keyes tells Neff sorrowfully.)


Lola – The youngest of the bunch was wiser than her elders. She just didn’t have quite enough information to save her parents’ lives.


Nino – The smug punk never realized how close he got to an undue prison term. He’ll probably dump Lola for some older broad again.


Countless film historians have (quite rightfully) cited Wilder’s use of lighting, shadows, and unusual camera angles to heighten the story’s suspense and portend the characters’ fates. But Wilder knew that the dialogue was just as important an element of the story as the visuals. (Wilder scoffed when Raymond Chandler was initially left to write on his own for a week and came back with 80 pages of “useless camera instruction.”)

Talk is important to these characters. It’s as if it was their barrier, their smokescreen separating them from the rest of the world. But in the end, the smoke dissipates, and they still have to suffer the consequences of their sordid actions.

(If you enjoyed reading this, I hope you’ll click here to read my second “Wilder Blogathon” entry, about the movie that Wilder almost made with the Marx Brothers.)