Wilder Diversions - Double Indemnity (1973) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
4Nov/120

Wilder Diversions – Double Indemnity (1973)

[Hey! Since we didn't end up doing a theme month this year, Ryan and I decided to have some fun and look at the remakes of Billy Wilder's films. We're starting with the 1973 TV movie version of Double Indemnity]

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

Well, Ryan, it's hard to remake a classic film. I'm saying that as someone who will still watch 'em, since I think that a good director with a few good ideas can take an old story and improve or expand upon it, discovering new themes or ideas that may relate better to then-current audiences.

I don't think this version of Double Indemnity really does that since, besides cutting a half an hour out of the film and updating the fashions, it doesn't really seem to do much of anything right. This starts as soon as the title card pops up, which may be in the most the most 1970's font you could imagine.

We have Richard Crenna (perhaps best remembered as Colonel Trautman in the Rambo films these days) as Walter Neff for this go around. Instead of being sly and frustrated, Neff is kind of a big pillow of nothingness here, a man who can smirk on occasion but mostly seems like a clotheshorse for loud 70's suits and ties. Then there's Lee J. Cobb as Barton Keyes, who at least looks the part. Cobb has his moments, but a lot of what for Robinson was exasperated punctuation comes across as Cobb forgetting his dialogue.

I'm going to take us lastly to Samantha Eggar as Phyllis; Eggar's British accent and blank facial responses seem like a good idea on paper, but turn Phyllis from a complicated monster to someone who always seems along for the ride, even when she planned it.

The other differences in the film are obviously superficial, and it's interesting to see what little pieces had to be changed to make this believable to then-modern audiences. Instead of Keyes meeting up with Walter at a newsstand, they gab at a food truck out front. Neff's apartment door no longer opens outward, and Phyllis is instead hiding in a nearby stairwell. And then there's the shiny new Amtrak trains that Walter boards to complete his masquerade; it's hard to believe those relics ever looked that good.

But, let's take away the comparisons. If Double Indemnity didn't have the weight sitting on it of the original, could I view it with any more affection? I think the issue is that they just made too many bad choices to allow this bird to fly. It's understandable why they updated the setting, but the dialogue just looks goofy when dripping from puffy 70s suits. This movie isn't cool enough to pull off the dialogue, and the film's set designs scream 1970's at the top of their lungs. It's stiffing rather than engaging.

Okay, Ryan, time for you to tell me how much you actually love this. Go for it!

I am a sucker for seeing movies in a different light. I thought the scenes from Back to the Future with Eric Stoltz are entertainingly both historically and to pinpoint the lighting in the bottle Zemeckis had with his casting and story. Double Indemnity is much like the Gus Van Sant Psycho remake from the 90's that are worth watching just to see how a movie can go off the rails even when keeping most of the script and story beats in tact.

The TV remake of Double Indemnity is not good because the original had everything working perfectly like a well oiled machine and if you take one piece out of the equation everything breaks down (like Stoltz in BttF) and if you swap out everything it is going to end in a mess.

The first thing I want to mention is you can have a modern day noir (The Lookout and Blood Simple are good examples) but this movie was so afraid of its noir-ish roots they ran away as fast as they could. This really hampers the movie in many ways including a half hearted voice over that comes and goes in the film often and many lines of dialogue rewritten so badly they lose their punch. I don't understand anyone that thinks they could write better dialogue than Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler but Stephen Bochco, who would make a HUGE name for himself in TV in the following decade, sure did try.

Yet, the thing that hurt the film the most when staying away from noir is the murder plot. In the original film, Neff kills the husband and then impersonates him on a train where he "falls off" and supposedly dies. They get the body at that point and everything looks like an accident. In the original, Neff puts on a overcoat and wears a fedora to mask the differences in looks between him and the elderly Dietrichson. Since fedoras were out of style by the 70's, Neff doesn't wear any hat and his long flowing brown 70's locks look NOTHING like the short white hair of Dietrichson. How could anyone mistake the two people at all?

I am now going to throw it back to you because I am sure you have something to say about anyone trying to replace Barbara Stanwyck.
Well, Samantha Eggar isn't much of anything here, let alone Barbara Stanwyck. Making Phyllis British opens a whole can of worms-- is this film about colonialism? International paranoia? Or is it now about what that accent does to weak willed Californians?

I noticed the fedora issue, too, and the attempts to modernize the picture more often than not come across as puzzling. Nino has become Franklin. Did someone along the line think that Nino would remove us from the proceedings? Bizarre. Also, having the man who voiced Piglet playing the man from Medford, Oregon, is far more distracting that I would have thought possible even in this deeply distracting film.

There's only one more thing I wanted to make mention of, and I think this was a big key to the movie. Not just that the script had the second act hacked out of it, not just that the actors were more or less a clear step down, not that the interior design presented here would be suited for a bad carnival. It's the locations that I think drove me the craziest: they're too big! The front room that Wilder made so claustrophobic in the original is now a large echo chamber. A lot of the sets in the 70's version seem cavernous, which gives the characters a sense of freedom that they clearly don't have.

No offense to the filmmakers, but the director didn't direct this according to the moods or attitudes of the script, but with as little art as possible. It's a case in point as to why TV movies have such a bad wrap. Hopefully these others we touch on will get a bit better, but I'm not too hopeful.

Next Week: Witness for the Prosecution (1982)

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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