General request:  has anyone seen or come across a TV movie version of a classic film that comes close — or, for that matter, anywhere near — the quality of the original movie?  If so, let us know pronto.

What brought this to mind was a recent viewing of Double Indemnity — the TV movie. It was accidental since up until recently we did not even know such a creature existed.

The 1973 tube version was attached as an “extra” to the DVD of director Billy Wilder’s marvelous 1944 original starring Barbara Stanwyck as the prototypical film noir femme fatale who seduces cocksure insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) into killing her aging husband for the insurance money.

The picture easily stands as one of Stanwyck’s finest. She is at her seductive best, providing a truly memorable performance. It helps that her dialogue is as sharp as a broken beer bottle.

Double Indemnity’s unbeatable script was put together (in not always harmonious fashion) by Wilder and Raymond Chandler based on James M. Cain’s novel.  For noir fans it doesn’t get much better than that.

The cast is excellent, particularly the superb Edward G. Robinson as the insurance investigator who unravels the murder mystery. The narration by the doomed MacMurray is wise and reflective. As an added bonus, one of our favorite character actors, Fortunio Bonanova, is on hand.

Well, ok.  Double Indemnity is a true American classic.  We know that.  But what of the TV version?

What to say?  It was the brainchild of Universal’s hyperactive television division at the time with Steve Bocho — who later created the Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law tube series — writing the script and lifting direct dialogue quotes from the Billy Wilder original. Nonetheless, a dull cast deadens the material.

The Fred MacMurray role was taken by the late Richard Crenna, best known for his roles as a military officer in the three Rambo movies.

More damaging, Samantha Eggar assays the Stanwyck part to disastrous result. How this wholesome British actress, perhaps best known for her costarring role in the 1967’s Doctor Dolittle with Rex Harrison and Anthony Newley, wound up in this faux noir in the first place is mystifying.

Crenna’s performance could have been phoned in.  Eggar, looking thin to the point of incipient emaciation, completely lacks Stanwyck’s earthy sexiness thus robbing the pivotal character of  her necessary evil flourishes. Lee J. Cobb exercises his least appealing blustery aspects in the Edward G. Robinson part.

Gone is the evocative black-and-white cinematography of John Seitz (this being television in the Seventies, the remake was photographed in color). The settings are altered in unpleasant ways; the film looks to have been shot at a high end Newport Beach resort. The gritty economic undercurrent propelling the original movie is totally absent.

The story goes that after the TV movie aired, Wilder called Stanwyck saying:  Missy, they just didn’t get it right.

But Wilder certainly did.

 

 

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