Friday, August 25, 2006

A Straight Down the Line Remake

The new DVD of Double Indemnity includes a fascinatingly bad extra: a 1973 made-forTV remake, directed by Jack Smight (Harper), written by Steven Bochco, and with Richard Crenna, Samantha Eggar and Lee J. Cobb doing MacMurray, Stanwyck and Robinson, respectively.

The first thing you notice about this remake is that even though Steven Bochco is credited with writing the teleplay, he actually did hardly any writing at all: almost every scene, almost every line is taken directly from the 1944 screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. About the only thing Bochco seems to have done is condense the 107-minute original into the 75 minutes allowed for a TV movie on ABC. To be fair to Bochco, being told to rewrite Double Indemnity can't be easy -- what's he supposed to do, write new lines that are better than the old ones? It can't be done. But nevertheless, it seems a little insane to make a line-for-line TV remake of a movie that was constantly being shown on TV.

Hearing all the old favourite lines coming out of the mouths of these very different actors is extremely disorienting. But it also points up how you can have all these great lines and still wind up with a terrible movie: a test case in how a good script does not, in itself, make for a good film if the director and the performers aren't up to it. So the remake tries to replicate the murder scene from the original, with the same close-up of Phyllis Dietrichson as her husband is murdered. But Samantha Eggar and director Smight completely botch the moment by having Phyllis with a blank, who-me? look on her face; they missed the point of the scene, which was Stanwyck's scarily self-satisfied expression. Plus the sound editor or somebody forgets to put in the sound of the husband screaming as he gets killed.

The whole remake of course looks exactly the same as every other TV drama produced by Universal in the early '70s: drab, static and unimaginatively lit, but redeemed by the basic appeal of the real Los Angeles locations. Universal was the last studio to really carry on the old tenets of the studio system; they had contract players and crew members, and a system by which their contractees would rise up through the ranks (so for example, Steven Spielberg went from episodic TV to TV movies to features at Universal). And they kept alive the "factory" way of making TV shows and movies -- fast, cheap and efficient -- long after everybody else's budgets and shooting schedules were going out of control. The downside of this factory production method is that their stuff looks like it was shot fast; the upside is that they would shoot all around Los Angeles (not only did it help the look of their shows, but there would never have been enough studio space for all the projects they had going), meaning that Universal's early '70s TV stuff is even more of a guided tour of L.A. than the original Double Indemnity. Just looking at the city, and trying to figure out where the characters are at a given moment, helps you get through the Indemnity remake.

Finally, the combination of the plot -- people try to plot the perfect murder, but one little mistake trips them up and gets them caught by an eccentric little investigator -- with the Universal crew that shot the remake, means that Double Indemnity plays here as nothing more or less than an episode of Columbo. A bad episode of Columbo -- Lee J. Cobb is no Peter Falk -- but it's amazing how much it plays nothing like a film noir and everything like a Columbo episode with unusually snappy dialogue. Again, the way something is shot can make an immense difference in the way it plays out.

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