Film Review: Double Indemnity (1973)

Billy Wilder’s production of Double Indemnity in 1944 is an acknowledged classic—indeed it sets the standard—of the genre of film noir. Alas, compared to its equally dark and dramatic contemporaries like The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane, the first incarnation of Double Indemnity stands in stark contrast to its 1973 spawn by the same name.

To call the remake directed by Jack Smight (with teleplay written/edited by Stephen Bochco) a faithful reproduction of Billy Wilder’s 1944 original would be a stretch of the imagination. The same judgement goes with any comparison of the remake with the original novella (by James M. Cain) upon which both these Double Indemnity renditions are ostensibly based.

In this case, the standard warning that comes with most made-for-tv movies of the 1970s would certainly apply: “this motion picture has been edited for content and for the time allotted.”

In other words, for those looking for a classic film noir psychological-thriller typical of the 1940s, the 1973 version will surely come as a disappointment.

Critics, then and now, of the Double Indemnity remake have not held back on their distaste for the new-and-improved version. Generally judging it mediocre and banal, this remake is damned by critics with statements like “the sharp edge of the original is lost,” and “This 1973 boring remake is a forgettable TV-movie made probably by the same people who did ‘Gilligan’s Island.’”

Among its many perceived faults, two stand out: poor casting/acting and a softening of the original script. Even the production quality is scathingly described as “more ‘Dynasty’ than film noir,” with garishly brightly-lit sets, and 1970s décor, cars, and clothes; all divorcing the made-for-tv version from the highly acclaimed grittiness of the 1944-produced black and white version.   

As well, the cast in the 1973 remake is not immune from criticism. Gone from the remake are the dark and seductive character of Barbara Stanwick (as Phyllis Dietrickson) and the smoldering menace of Fred McMurray (as Walter Neff). In the reheated version of Double Indemnity these actors are replaced by Samantha Eggar and Richard Crenna, respectively, who are panned as miscast and uninspiring. Both are seemingly going through the motions and acting their parts without much enthusiasm or conviction—however, there is general agreement among critics that there is one bright spot for Lee J. Cobb turns out a competent and believable performance as Barton Keyes.

Nonetheless, the 1973 Double Indemnity, I believe, is judged just a bit too harshly. Granted, to the film noir purist this made-for-tv film is definitely not in that category. But as a dramatic murder-mystery psychological-thriller the remake indeed does a reasonable job of entertaining one for its 1 hour and 15 minutes run time (not including commercial breaks).

Richard Crenna and Samantha Eggar are also hampered by the censorship requirements of 1970s TV networks, by necessity toning down some of the sexual innuendo and violence found in the 1944 version (the remake had to meet a mild TV-PG rating). I think they do the best they can despite being hamstringed by censors and a watered-down script.

To that end, I think the script modifications done by Bochco truly reflect the time in which this film was produced and are not unlike his work on TV hit shows he was involved in including  Hill Street BluesL.A. LawDoogie Howser, M.D., andNYPD Blue. In fact, Bochco also has writing credits for other successful made-for-tv crime procedurals such as IronsideColumboMcMillan & Wife, and other watered-down murder-mystery series. So, it should come as no surprise that this incarnation of Double Indemnity is simply aligned with what the tastes of American TV viewership demanded in the 1970s: lots of glitz, glamor, and ostentation while staying light on the sex-and-violence part.

Thus, I don’t align with what one critic said about this motion picture: “This made-for-TV remake deserves an “F” grade, or, maybe a “D” for dumb.” Double Indemnity circa 1973 is actually quite a smart and action-packed thriller (yes, the acting is kind of strained in spots) and wholly in organic agreement with the tastes of tv-viewership of the 1970s (indeed, in keeping with Dynasty and Gilligan’s Island). To Steven Bochco’s credit, he does hew quite closely to the 1940s script even if at times it thus comes off as somewhat incongruous anachronism—almost like he was trying to memorialize Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s original screenplay in all its former greatness—but in a different time warp.

As a cultural artifact, for those younger viewers, the 1973 remake of Double Indemnity is a time machine that will take one back almost 50 years to another era, one of polyester clothes and bell-bottoms (both of which are now in fashion once again), bright wallpapers, and disco music. For that reason alone I recommend watching this motion picture while maintaining an open mind—and losing the prejudice of film noir purism. Sure, one won’t find the subtle intensity of Billy Wilder’s production here but you will encounter a decent murder-mystery thriller in similar vein to Columbo, Murder She Wrote, and Matlock (if you like that sort of thing).

Looking for feature film quality in a 1970s made-for-tv crime-procedural is the critic’s first—and biggest—mistake.

Works Cited

Double Indemnity. Directed by Jack Smight, screenplay by Steven Bochco and Billy Wilder, performances by Richard Crenna, Samantha Eggar, Lee J. Cobb, and Robert Webber, Universal Television, 1973.

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