Remakes that earn their keep

2 July, 2013 (17:37) | by Richard T. Jameson, Essays | By: Richard T. Jameson

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in the 2010 ‘True Grit’

Some time ago, word went out in the land that Ethan Coen and Joel Coen would undertake a new version of True Grit. The brothers deemed the 1968 Charles Portis novel a great book and felt that many of its riches remained untapped by the 1969 film version. With No Country for Old Men as proof that the Coens know how to bring an estimable novel to the screen, we’re salivating to see their film. But why did some people start trashing the first True Grit movie as soon as they heard a new one was coming?

The first True Grit was an abundantly good film—and in 1969 its Old Hollywood classicism held its own alongside Sam Peckinpah’s radical, breakout work on The Wild Bunch. Why should it be a problem if we end up with two fine movies entitled True Grit, each with its own particular virtues? Instead, too often, we fall into the insidious pattern of talking about remakes—indeed, movies in general—as if it were a zero-sum game. Only one can survive. I like this movie, so let’s beat up on the other one until it gives up the title—literally. That’s just silly.

So saddle up old Bo—or Little Blackie, as the case may be—and ride the remake trail looking for multiple versions that are anything but redundant. There are quite a few, and some of them may surprise you.

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We begin with a remake that got named best picture of its year—although Warner Bros. didn’t go out of their way to mention that Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) was based on an ultracrisp Hong Kong movie, Infernal Affairs (2002), which had revivified the played-out HK gangster genre. Both films tell the parallel, occasionally intersecting stories of two police detectives leading double lives: one (Andy Lau/Matt Damon) as a police department mole planted by a mob leader (Eric Tsang/Jack Nicholson), the other (Tony Leung Chiu Wai/Leonardo DiCaprio) as a longtime deep-cover operative posing as the mob leader’s righthand man. Some admirers prefer the Hong Kong movie, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak from a script by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, for telling its twisty tale in a whirlwind hour-and-40-minutes, whereas Scorsese took two-and-a-half hours. But Scorsese’s epic savors the history of the mob boss, the moles, and their (South Boston) community more deeply and is richer in atmosphere. It also offers a hogfeast of character-acting opportunities for Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone, et al., and arias of finely florid dialogue by William Monahan. Best of all, it has Vera Farmiga, mesmerizing as the police shrink who becomes the lover of both secret agents. And at the very least, its success freed us of the ritual obligation to bemoan, year after year, that Martin Scorsese had never won an Oscar.

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In 1928 Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur scored a huge hit with their play The Front Page, about a Machiavellian newspaper editor scheming to keep his star reporter, Hildy Johnson, from quitting to get married. A 1931 film version followed, directed by two-time Academy Award winner Lewis Milestone—a respectable effort, though Milestone’s early-talkie experimentation would not age well. Fade in eight years later to a Hollywood livingroom where director Howard Hawks “was trying to prove to somebody that The Front Page had the best dialogue of any modern play.” As it chanced, a woman read Hildy’s lines that evening and inspiration struck. Within weeks Hawks and screenwriter Charles Lederer were preparing His Girl Friday (1940), a gender-bending adaptation that turned Hildy Johnson from Hildebrand to Hildegarde and made her the editor’s ex-wife, looking to remarry. The sex change did no damage to the original concept (fact is, it lowered the creepiness quotient of Walter’s boys’-club possessiveness), and Hawks was further inspired to appropriate some brilliant comedy-of-divorce material—including a certain supporting actor—from Leo McCarey’s 1937 gem The Awful Truth. That film’s star, Cary Grant, plays editor Walter Burns, and Rosalind Russell as Hildy matches him in hurtling energy, flawless timing, and mastery at overlapping dialogue in the trademark Hawksian manner. Add expert ensemble work by the character actors in the criminal courts pressroom gang and you’ve got a peerless comedy guaranteed to leave you both exhausted and exhilarated.

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It took three tries to get The Maltese Falcon right. The Dashiell Hammett novel came out in 1930. Warner Bros. bought the rights and in 1931 made a not-bad movie, notable today for its Pre-Code frankness and the sleaziness of private eye Sam Spade as portrayed by Ricardo Cortez. In 1936 the studio recycled their property as Satan Met a Lady (1936), a ludicrous farrago that didn’t credit the source novel by name, changed Sam Spade to Ted Shane (an inanely grinning Warren William), and made Kasper Gutman, “the fat man,” a woman. Another five years passed. Then John Huston selected Falcon for his directorial debut. As the fair-haired boy among Warner screenwriters, Huston knew the book was readymade movie material with world-class dialogue; previous versions just hadn’t taken advantage of that. The studio almost blew it by assigning George Raft to star, but Raft passed and the role of Sam Spade went to Humphrey Bogart, whose legend had begun to take form a few months earlier in the Huston-scripted High Sierra (1941). The rightest cast in Hollywood history fell into place around him—Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr.—and Huston designed the most intricate camera strategy he would ever employ. The result was (somebody told you?) a masterpiece, the definitive private-eye mystery, a riveting duel of wits among a cast of vivid characters, and an early waft of what would eventually be identified as film noir.

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Sometimes the original version is easy to transcend. Ocean’s Eleven (1960) was the first “Rat Pack” movie, which is to say, the first movie conceived and built for Frank Sinatra and his best showbiz chums to inhabit and trash like a rock star’s hotel room. It also began a streak of trashing, or at least besmirching, the reputations of some worthy directors—in this case, Lewis Milestone, who soon found that direction was neither wanted nor listened to. A caper movie, Ocean’s Eleven had veterans of the 82nd Airborne conspiring to rob Las Vegas casinos. The caper part is endurable; the run-up to it, an endless slog of bad wisecracks and unrelieved male-chauvinist-piggery, is not. Still, that notion of taking down five Vegas casinos during an ingeniously engineered blackout kept audiences interested. Forty years later, director Steven Soderbergh, hot off dual Oscar nominations for Erin Brockovich and Traffic, decided to revisit it. With pal and producing partner George Clooney as ringleader Danny Ocean, a cadre of co-conspirators including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, and a sublime Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould, and Julia Roberts (the former Erin Brockovich) as Ocean’s ex-wife, the party was on. This time it was a good one. However, as much fun as the 2001 Ocean’s Eleven delivered, it should never have birthed a franchise. Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen were almost, though not quite, as intolerably smug as the Rat Pack effort.

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The Departed aside, the practice of remaking foreign-language films for the multiplex is mostly parasitic and often offensive. And when the foreign film is as singular, surprising, and unexpectedly fine as Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008), the idea of plunking the story down in America and finding a horror-genre designated hitter to direct it sets one’s blood a-boil. So imagine the shock and gratitude upon discovering that Matt Reeves has honored everything that made the Swedish masterpiece so extraordinary and moving, translated it directly when he could, and brought his own intelligent and discreet perspective to whatever needed adding or adapting. Let Me In (2010), like its predecessor, is a vampire movie so subtle that one hates having to mention it’s a vampire movie. The main characters are two twelve-year-old outcasts who find each other in a snowy residential courtyard … although one of them has been twelve for many lifetimes. There’s nothing gratuitous about the several gory deaths in the film, and the monster is heartbreakingly human in every way but one. This American version of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s story takes place in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where (who knew?) it snows just as in Sweden. The juxtaposition of gothic horror and crisp mountain horizons delivers aesthetic satisfaction, as does the resetting of the story in a culture where vehicular traffic is an insistent fact of life. Let Me In is new again, though its wisdom is ancient.

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After dismissive reviews in 1955, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows went on to become the most widely admired of the director’s elegant melodramas of the Fifties. Its plot concerns a handsome widow (Jane Wyman) in a small New England town who falls in love with a younger man (Rock Hudson), her gardener. Her grown children and her friends disapprove, to the extent that she breaks off the relationship and accepts the prospect of a lonely old age. Then she realizes how lonely that’s going to be and … well, you should see it for yourself. All That Heaven Allows has been remade twice, though in both cases it’s more a matter of homage: a postmodern filmmaker expecting viewers to recognize his film as an alternate version and have their experience deepened by the additional frame he’s thrown around the original. Of course, Sirk’s original was already frame-filled; his lucid, analytical visual style was key to investing potentially mawkish material with complexity, intelligence, and power. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Sirk tribute, Ali—Fear Eats the Soul (1974), deals with the unlikely but tender love between an elderly German charwoman (Brigitte Mira) and a Moroccan “guest worker” (El Hedi ben Salem). Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven (2002) sets its tale where Sirk did, in a picturesque Fifties New England. Its heroine (Julianne Moore) is not widowed but married to a man (Dennis Quaid) who’s secretly homosexual, and this time the sympathetic gardener is black (Dennis Haysbert).

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Some remakes enjoy such stature that we may never suspect they’re remakes at all. My Darling Clementine (1946) is among the best-loved of John Ford’s classic Westerns, a historically inaccurate yet exquisitely imagined retelling of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone. No one ever forgets Henry Fonda’s Wyatt leaning back in his chair on the hotel porch; or the chilling malevolence of Walter Brennan’s Old Man Clanton; or the surgery performed on a saloon table with only a handheld kerosene lamp for light; or the showdown at O.K. Corral, the brusque popping of gunshots amid cloaking dust as the morning stagecoach rattles by. Above all, there is the poem of Sunday morning in Tombstone, the slow, auspicious gathering of the citizenry to flow toward an unbuilt church, and a worship service whose text will be music and dancing. Clementine is a film of breathtaking beauty and loving grace notes, yet on another level the production was a convenient way for Ford to fulfill a studio contract. 20th Century–Fox head Darryl Zanuck suggested remaking Frontier Marshal, a sturdy 1939 Fox B-movie in which Randolph Scott had played Earp opposite Cesar Romero’s Doc Holliday. Although barely more than an hour long and downright abrupt in its climax, that movie includes prototypes of key scenes in Clementine. Director Allan Dwan started in the picture business before Ford, and his camera eye is nearly as attentive to the surrounding Tombstone community as Ford’s would be.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) was one of the movies that nailed the Fifties. A small-town doctor (the late Kevin McCarthy) comes to realize that everyone in his community is being replaced by alien, soulless lookalikes. Was this sci-fi story an allegory of Cold War paranoia (“Commies are everywhere and they’re taking over!”) or a cry of protest against an age of conformity? To which the correct answer is: Yes. Daniel Mainwaring adapted the novel by Jack Finney; Don Siegel, who was on a roll at the time, directed. Then and now, an absolutely terrific movie. So who needed another version in 1978? Well, maybe people who’d noticed that the “Me generation” thing was getting out of hand. Director Philip Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter set their adaptation in supertrendy San Francisco and delivered not only the creepy-suspenseful goods but also a witty detailing of how gratification seekers keep bouncing off one another’s lives like misspent spermatozoa while pursuing insular notions of contentment. In the hero’s best friend part, Jeff Goldblum created a zany, maddening, touching portrait of an insufficiently gifted narcissist compensating for neglect, and Leonard Nimoy was perfect casting as the celebrity psychiatrist and bestselling self-help author whose patients can truly say, “You’ve changed my life!” Donald Sutherland starred; Don Siegel and Kevin McCarthy did cameos. There have been two subsequent remakes: Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993), full-on nightmarish but uneven; and the quite superfluous The Invasion (2007).

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By 2006 the James Bond franchise had been running on empty for so long that it was hard to muster curiosity about the new Double-O Seven, Daniel Craig. That changed utterly about five minutes into Casino Royale. Blond hair notwithstanding, this Craig person was a darker Bond than we’d ever thought to see—darker even than Sean Connery’s, because Connery had that twinkle. Craig brought a nervy, wounded gravitas to the part, potent enough to cue us to take Bond’s preposterous missions seriously. Turns out the new one mattered more than any since From Russia With Love (1963). Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, had been adapted twice before: there was an hourlong live-TV drama in 1954 (Barry Nelson—Barry Nelson?!—was Bond; Peter Lorre, Le Chiffre), and in 1967 independent producer Charles K. Feldman had made a multi-director, big-screen mess of it with three different James Bonds (David Niven, Peter Sellers, and Woody Allen). So that’s why the 2006 Casino Royale counts as a remake, even if it’s the only screen version that matters. Martin Campbell directed with both panache and care, and instead of the usual silly Bond gadgetry, the key technology was real-world: a Smart Phone! Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre was a credibly dangerous, rather than cartoonish, villain, and Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd became the first Bond woman of emotional consequence since Diana Rigg’s Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma (2007) can be deemed a successful remake; it made money, got some good reviews, apparently satisfied a lot of people. Yet it’s a textbook example of how to vulgarize a classic. Delmer Daves’s 1957 original wasn’t quite a great Western, but it was awfully good. Van Heflin played a small-time rancher who’s about to lose his place, and Glenn Ford was the captured bandit he’s deputized to escort to prison. The film is principally a character study, with the charming but lethal badman tempting the unheroic family man to take a bribe, let him escape, and go home safe. Inconveniently for the badman, he starts to admire his captor. The original 3:10 to Yuma, from a short story by Elmore Leonard, was as lean and spare as its drought-season black and white cinematography. Spare, too, in the matter of killings: only four or five (one is ambiguous). Mangold kills off ten times that many, even importing a Gatling gun at one point to increase the firepower, and most of the deaths are gratuitous. Oddly enough, he overcompensates by loading down Russell Crowe’s outlaw and Christian Bale’s rancher with enough backstory and motivations to break a horse’s spine. Crowe and Bale are fine—Crowe especially, giving his bloody badman an artist’s touch—and Ben Foster is memorably ornate as Crowe’s kill-happy lieutenant. To Mangold’s credit, he doesn’t go hipster on the genre, twist the conventions with cheap irony. That’s something. But the original version is really something.

Copyright 2013 Richard T. Jameson

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