Double Indemnity (1973 TV Version)

An essential aid to understanding
Jack Smight
Richard Crenna, Samantha Eggar, Lee. J. Cobb, Arch Johnson, Kathleen Cody
The Setup: 
TV replica of the original film

Having recently watched the Babara Stanwyck original, I was surprised to see that one of the bonus features on the 2-disc set was a 1973 television remake roundly said to be horrendous. Naturally, I became obsessed with seeing it next! It is indeed horrible beyond words, but for that reason is absolutely essential to lovers of the original film, as it so extensively highlights everything that is brilliant about the original, if only by showing how wrong they could potentially go. It even brings out brilliant details and crucial story structure one may not have noticed in the original, but that appear as glaring, disastrous omissions when left out.

We open with our credits, letting us know that our Walter Neff in this film will be played by Richard Crenna—not exactly whom anyone thinks of as emanating searing sex appeal. In the Phyllis Dietrichson role will be Samantha Eggar, whose limitations will become apparent soon enough. The screenplay of the original film was slightly altered by Stephen Bochco, who became a television producing sensation in the 80s for his series’ Hill Street Blues, Doogie Howser, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue, and the film is directed of Jack Smight, of No Way to Treat a Lady, Airport 1975, and Midway.

Crenna as Walter Neff walks into an office one night, signs in [gone is the long elevator ride with the attendant], and enters an office. He sits behind the desk and starts recording his confession, addressing it to his coworker and mentor, Keyes. This device was the excellent excuse for us to hear Neff’s voice-over narration throughout the original film, but here the voice-over comes in and out sporadically. One thing apparent already is that this film is going to be set in 1973, which poses serious problems for the motivations of these characters and for the reality of police work at that time—problems the film will proceed to roundly ignore. The other key change is that the film does NOT let us know that Neff has been shot and is bleeding to death throughout the retelling. This omission removes the reason for his confession, and makes it seem like he’s just telling this story in order to boast, an impression not helped by Crenna’s severely limited range.

So Neff is a door-to-door insurance salesman, a profession that made a great deal more sense in the late 30s. He arrives at the Dietrichson house, which is now a large Spanish-style abode, to find the door answered by Mrs. Dietrichson, wearing only a towel. She soon changes into a robe, and sits on the couch, where Neff talks to her, admiring her bracelet.

Already several details have been changed without providing any decent replacement, and the characterizations are suffering. In the original, Phyllis Dietrichson is upstairs, allowing Neff to watch her legs as she descends the stairs, and she changes into a clingy dress, not a bland robe. They also discuss the anklet she’s wearing, not the bracelet, which tells us, among other things, that Neff is looking at her legs.

You might have no idea from Crenna’s flat performance that he is flirting with Phyllis, until she calls him on it. In the original, Stanwyck met his advances with a crisp “There’s a speed limit in this state, mister.” Compare that the lugubrious rewrite for this film, which manages to stomp all snap out of the line: “I believe in this state there’s a 65-mile-an-hour speed limit.” THUD! Wow, is it possible to remove even more zing from that line? The original follows with more flirty dialogue in which Neff asks Phyllis to “arrest him,” but it is left out of this version. This scene is one that crackles with sexual tension in the original, and if you find it difficult, as a modern viewer, to know what people mean when they say the old Noirs are suffused with sex, all you need to do is watch this version, which is notably devoid of any heat. A tragedy for a story in which sexual heat is such a crucial element. The disastrous casting here also helps to highlight why Fred MacMurray, then known as much more friendly and mild-mannered, worked so well for the first version: it’s about a good, upright man who goes bad, and his previous squeaky-clean image worked to be subverted by this role.

Around now one has noticed that so many speeches are lifted wholesale from the original script by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler that one suspects this version was never intended to exist in its own right at all, but only to be a REPLICA of the original film to fill up television space. One should think of it as a regional theater version of a Broadway hit—it changes out actors and sets, and can be considered an amateur version that exists only to bring the original to a larger audience. In this way it’s a bit like Gus Van Sant’s replica of Psycho, a remake that is also terribly illuminating about everything right with the original.

Will you PLEASE check out this wallpaper:

Lee J. Cobb is the only actor who survives with his dignity intact, giving a decent performance as Neff’s co-worker and friend Keyes, the man who investigates insurance fraud at his company. He is called upon to deliver whole speeches verbatim from the original, and succeeds partially in breathing new life into them. What must be pointed out, however, is this movie’s travesty of the famous “I love you, too” line. In the original, Neff is always lighting Keyes’ cigar, as Keyes is always without a match. At a certain point at the beginning, Neff responds to Keyes gruff dismissal with an ironic “I love you, too.” A repetition of this line is the last line of the film. Here Crenna says the line, but Cobb reacts with thoughtful interest, as though this were an unusual thing for Neff to say. It’s a small thing, but it ruins the whole point of the line AND the implications it casts on the relationship between the two men, which is precisely that this is NOT an unusual thing for Neff to say, and passes virtually unnoticed between them. Of course, you would get no sense that there is supposed to be a deep respect and friendship between these men from Crenna’s walking-corpse performance anyway.

So Neff goes to Phyllis’ house during the day. We find out that she changed the appointment from night today only in a throwaway line, losing the significance that she changed it from a time when her husband—who is ostensibly buying the insurance—would not be home. The original supported this with it also being the maid’s day off—that information is delivered sarcastically here, Phyllis has no maid—leaving Neff and Phyllis totally alone. They talk and supposedly flirt, although you’d be hard-pressed to know it, until Phyllis brings up that she wants to buy an accident insurance policy without her husband’s knowledge. Neff flat-out tells her no, although this version leaves out his blunt opener: “You won’t get away with it.”

He walks out, and then this version omits one of the CRUCIAL speeches from original, which is where Neff explains, convincingly, why a good upright insurance man would suddenly turn criminal. Phyllis then shows up—seemingly an hour or two after he leaves her, and here’s where we start to see Neff’s apartment [above], which, aside from committing serious crimes against humanity in a décor sense, also obliterates his character’s already sketchy motivation. Neff takes Phyllis out to his porch, which is on a ritzy waterfront area overlooking picturesque docked sailboats and yachts! The original had the depression to establish economic need in its protagonists, but this one blows that all away in showing that Neff is quite well-off in his profession. So why would he be willing to risk all that for a paltry $400,000? And without the earlier speech explaining his motivations, we have NO sense of why he involves himself in the crime. Nevertheless, by the time Phyllis comes over, he has inexplicably changed his mind. Oh by the way, this film also leaves out all the recurring utterances of the phrase “straight down the line,” in all its many ironic incarnations.

Hilariously, this version keeps that already-amusing innovation of the first film: having them meet in the supermarket. Only now we’re in a horrific early 70s supermarket with its orange, red and brown color scheme!

Keyes’ offering Neff a job in the investigations department stays the same—minus any discernable connection between the men—then Phyllis calls to tell him the murder has to go off that night. Now, their plan involves killing the husband first, then Neff impersonating him on the train. In the original, Neff wears a fedora and keeps his head down, but here Neff wears no hat—AND has brown hair where Dietrichson has white? Come on guys, can’t you even try a little? Let’s also not fail to mention that while the original boasted a great, highly-staged shot of Neff crouched in the back seat behind Phyllis and her husband, this one just has a lame shot of Neff hiding beneath a blanket. Anyway, the murder goes off: this movie does indeed focus on Phyllis’ face during the murder itself, like the original, although poor Eggar can’t manage to make an expression that looks like she’s thinking about anything.

Neff goes in to work to find investigation of the Dietrichson case consuming the company. This is where Crenna really fails as an actor. These scenes should crackle with suspense—Neff is sitting right in the room as his bosses try to figure out the murder he committed, and he should be shitting a brick throughout. Instead, Crenna is absolutely unresponsive. It’s almost as if he doesn’t even hear the other actors. He is perfectly unperturbed. Soon Keyes has figured out the entire murder, except for who helped Phyllis, and he gives his famous speech about how when two people plan a murder they are then stuck together to “the end of the line—and the end of the line is the cemetery.” Only this speech misses any of the resonance it had in the previous version, as we are missing all the references to how Neff and Phyllis are in it, “straight down the line.”

Then Lola comes in, telling Neff she’s sure Phyllis killed her mother, and letting him know Phyllis was trying on black hats and robes two days before the actual murder. Crenna actually manages a facial expression here, and this scene actually works better than the original in showing Neff’s sudden realization that HE has been played by Phyllis all along. These speculations of an impressionable young girl are all it takes to convince him to kill her, and the rest of the film mimics the original til the end.

As I said, the only reason to watch this is to appreciate the original more, but it is very valuable in that way, as things you didn’t know you noticed in the original suddenly become crucial when left out of the new version. What’s rather incredible about this version is just the simple lack of care anyone involved in its production took with it. Don’t these people take any pride in their work at all? Especially when they’re showing up to remake a contender for best noir film of all time? It’s as though they might as well be remaking Sigmund and the Sea Monster—same difference. Richard Crenna, can’t you try AT ALL? Not even a TINY BIT? And director Jack Smight, you’re not going to try to generate any suspense, or make your creation distinctive in any way, AT ALL? No?

It’s a brilliant idea to include this in a special edition of the original film [although let’s not pretend they couldn’t have fit both on one DVD], as watching it is an invaluable aid to people who love the original, and will make you appreciate it even more. That said, even the thrill of that is gone after about 45 minutes of this crap, making the last 30 minutes [thank God it’s only 75 minutes!] pretty impossible to get through. If you aren’t here to appreciate the original, there is no reason whatsoever to put yourself through this version. You think it might be more contemporary and might up the sex in a way the original couldn’t? No and NOOOOOOOOO. The original is far sexier. If you aren’t a big fan of the original, stay far away.

Should you watch it: 

Not unless you’re doing it to appreciate the original.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY: THE COMPLETE FILE is a long essay/review covering every aspect of the original film.