[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]
Although he has gone on to make such films as CharleyVarrick, DirtyHarry, Madigan, Coogan’s Bluff, TwoMulesforSisterSara, BabyFaceNelson, TheLineup, HellIsforHeroes, TheKillers, and The Beguiled, there are many who still regard The InvasionoftheBodySnatchers as Don Siegel’s best movie. If I continue to prefer several of the others, it’s because Siegel himself seems to come through more directly. Many of the virtues of Invasion inhere in the writing of Daniel Mainwaring, an author of no mean importance whose scripts for OutofthePast (based on his own novel) and ThePhenixCityStory likewise postulate and effectively sustain film-worlds wherein the characters seem to breathe doom out of the very air; in OutofthePast the mutual corruptibility and mortality of Mitchum, Greer, and Douglas proceeds inevitably from the bemused sadomasochism that constitutes their behavioral style; PhenixCityStory, filmed the year before Invasion, recounts the terror of a syndicate-controlled Southern town in which not only the back rooms, alleys, and dark streets but also the homes and the very minds of the citizenry prove insidiously, almost ineffably, pregnable. Then too, there’s the question of the belated and perhaps invalidating framing episodes of Dr. Bennell trying to convince Drs. Hill and Bassett about what’s happening in Santa Mira. Bob Cumbow has sorted out the interpretive problems which that gives rise to. But, in addition, I wonder how the main body of the film has been affected by the revision. In the original, did the events of the film simply unreel without benefit of voiceover commentary? Maybe, maybe not—in OutofthePast Robert Mitchum describes that past to Virginia Huston, which accounts for about half the movie, and the fact as well as the tone of the narration contributes to that film’s sense of eerie masochistic reverie. There are moments in InvasionoftheBodySnatchers when Siegel’s camera just gives us Miles Bennell’s car moving through the streets of the town, fast and slow, by night and by day. Now we vvusually hear Kevin McCarthy’s voice describing the intensification of his concern, the specific doubts that specific details of the changed life of Santa Mira are stirring in his mind. But what if we didn’t hear that commentary? What would be the effect of those calculatedly mundane images and movements? I ask it with some regret because one of the grabbiest moments in the movie is the sight of the town square about 7:45 one Saturday morning; Miles peers down at it from the window of his office, and even before the pod-laden trucks arrive, that natural-sunlight scene has something unshakably awful about it.
[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]
American officials and the American public began to believe that the Soviet Union was bent on building a Communist empire and that it would halt its expansion only when forced to do so.
With this conviction, the American government took steps to block further Soviet expansion. From then on, relations between the two powers bordered on a state of war….
The Red Scare after World War II … had roots not only in the cold war but in long-buried currents of anti-intellectualism and in the rapid social changes attendant on the shift from depression to prosperity. …
Much of what was widely believed during the scare was nonsense. There was a notion, for example, that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the American government. … There was another notion that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the news media, the motion picture industry, and the clergy, so that news, movies and sermons had gulled the public into approving pro-Communist policies. These beliefs rested on the fantasy that the United States, if it chose, could shape the world to its will, and that, whenever anything went wrong, the fault had to lie at home.
—Ernest May, Anxiety and Affluence, 1945-1965
The wave of anti-intellectualism crested with McCarthy and washed over much of the remainder of the decade. Blacklisting had become such a threat that many filmmakers consciously made openly anti-Communist films, to preserve their reputations and obtain favors. Red Paranoia was so widespread that many more filmmakers reflected the fear of subversion and infiltration in their movies, even unconsciously. In either case, the monster movies of the Fifties in general reflect an intense fear of infiltration and dehumanization by a subversive, colonizing power (InvasionoftheBodySnatchers, TheBrainEaters) or by a communal society bent on destructive expansionism (Them!, WaroftheWorlds). Creeping Communism became one of the main themes of monster movies in 1954, and the monster movies themselves became one of the main proponents of the battle against Communist ideology (or what was generally understood to be such). Its metaphors were monsters, from outer space, from under the earth or on it, bent on conquering the human race (always starting with the United States of America), and often determined to create a mindless Utopia devoid of feelings and individuality.
Some time ago, word went out in the land that Ethan Coen and Joel Coen would undertake a new version of TrueGrit. 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 NoCountry 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 TrueGrit movie as soon as they heard a new one was coming?
The first TrueGrit was an abundantly good film—and in 1969 its Old Hollywood classicism held its own alongside Sam Peckinpah’s radical, breakout work on TheWildBunch. Why should it be a problem if we end up with two fine movies entitled TrueGrit, 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.
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, InfernalAffairs (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.
In 1928 Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur scored a huge hit with their play TheFrontPage, 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 TheFrontPage 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 preparingHisGirlFriday (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 TheAwfulTruth. 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.
It took three tries to get TheMalteseFalcon 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 SatanMeta 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 HighSierra (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.
Sometimes the original version is easy to transcend. Ocean’sEleven (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’sEleven 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 ErinBrockovich 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’sEleven delivered, it should never have birthed a franchise. Ocean’sTwelve and Ocean’sThirteen were almost, though not quite, as intolerably smug as the Rat Pack effort.
TheDeparted 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 Letthe 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. LetMeIn (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.
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. AllThatHeavenAllows 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 FarFromHeaven (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).
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 FrontierMarshal, 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.
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 BodySnatchers (1993), full-on nightmarish but uneven; and the quite superfluous TheInvasion (2007).
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 CasinoRoyale. 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). CasinoRoyale, 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 CasinoRoyale 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.
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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
Let’s get the suspense out of the way first. I’ve been taken over: I came to the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a purist’s proper disdain for anyone who presumes to redo a classic movie, but as I sat brooding in the darkness, Phil Kaufman’s 1978 version put out its tendrils and pretty soon everything seemed just fine and why should I go around getting upset over little things? Not that the new Invasionis going to displace the old for me. No way. I think the Don Siegel version is the better movieâ€”more seamlessly, “artlessly” accomplished than the present model, and the more inspired work. But after a tacky special-effects opening (where Siegel needed nothing but a subjective descent through roiling clouds), Kaufman’s version persuasively asserts its right to life as an imaginative reflection of our time, just as Siegel’s insidious “sleeper” stands as a quintessential Fifties experience. The makers of the ’56 film were reeling under the twin impacts of Dwight Eisenhower and Joe McCarthy. Their movie played on both the cozy lure of middle-class conformity and the nagging suspicion that that bastard in the next yard or at the next desk or in the next writing cubicle at the studioâ€”indeed, all those bastardsâ€”had in mind to do you dirt in a manner you hadn’t quite figured out yet. Jack Finney’s story about pod-grown organisms usurping the identities of everyone in a small California town and reducing them to all-alike, emotionless neuters yielded a powerful metaphor for a more mundane loss of humanity. Cold War buffs were perfectly free to read in a paranoid allegory of Communist takeover: they were said to be everywhere, and wouldn’t they look like any normal, healthy, right-thinking Amurkan, same as you or me, and I’m not so sure about you…?
[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
Scribbling a few notes in 1975 after seeing Phil Kaufman’s The White Dawn, I wrote: “Culture conflict is a key element in Kaufman’s work. TheGreat Northfield, Minnesota Raiddeals with the incursion of a group of relative primitives into the bustling world of a growing industrial civilization. The tension created between the seemingly incongruous occurrence of a baseball game in a Western and the primitive, disorganized conduct of the game itself echoes the tension of the film as a whole: The organized constructs of society are taking shape, but not yet rigid; the violent, free-for-all way of life of the Wild West is dying, but not easily. The manic fantasy world of the legendary James-Younger gang of outlaws is brought dangerously close to our own world when someone says of the baseball game, ‘It’s the new national pastime,’ and Cole Younger replies, ‘Our only national pastime is shootingâ€”and it always will be.’ Primitive violence and low humor are juxtaposed with the steam engine and bicycle world of pre-contemporary Main Street, U.S.A. The White Dawn, a quieter, more controlled film, deals with the incursion of representatives of ‘civilized society’ into a world of primitives. The remarkable range of responses among the film’s characters reflects something of the depth and complexity of national, cultural, and racial conflicts. Where the outlaws of Northfieldstaged a raid on a new way of life, whose coming meant their own obsolescence, the three castaways of The White Dawnfound themselves confronting a new physical world: out of place rather than out of time. Inthe debacle that finally befalls them, The White Dawntakes an essentially cynical viewpoint: Against the optimistic observation that most human beings are adaptable, and will in time adjust to cultural differences, opting for compromise or harmonious coexistence, is set the stark portrayal of the strength of the bigoted few who, out of fear or simple stubbornness, will ultimately prevail: people of whatever society are ultimately led by the worst among them.”