My first reaction to hearing about a movie remake is nearly always: why? However, although the responses ere well-rehearsed by and large, they are not always specious. Films have always been remade and while it speaks to rampant artistic timidity and a callow, risk-averse sense of the commercial, there are plenty of examples where this has also paid off artistically too. Warner Bros shot three versions of The Maltese Falcon between 1931 and 1941 and did it best on the final try. There is no real reason why a movie text can’t be revisited, the same way that a novel can be adapted over and over for TV or a great play given a new production. The 1988 D.O.A. is the third (official) version of the story and to my mind the most dynamic and successful of them all. And given its Christmas setting, this seemed like the right time to bring it up …
The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.
“Nobody plots to kill an English Professor – we just don’t inspire that kind of passion” – Dexter Cornell (Dennis Quaid)
The story begins in classic Film Noir fashion with the sound of thunder added to the Touchstone lightning logo, here seen in black and white. We segue, still in monochrome, to shots of a rain-soaked street as a man makes his way to the police station. Our protagonist is very much the worse for wear, knocking over the desk sergeant’s little Christmas tree – but he has a story to tell and on a video camera the flashback begins, taking us back a couple of days as we transition to the heat of Texas in December – and to colour (or rather ‘color’ as it is written on a classroom chalkboard) …
In the 1980s and 90s several classic examples Film Noir got the remake treatment – Jacques Tourner’s sublime Out of the Past (1947) became the glossy Against All Odds (1984), with Jane Greer even making a cameo in a new cast that included Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward and James Woods. John Farrow’s The Big Clock was turned into No Way Out (1987) and is a terrific movie even though it changed the story and setting quite considerably. James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice got an (official) remake in 1981 starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange with a script by David Mamet; and before going on to remake Ocean’s 11 (and improving on the original quite considerably), director Steven Soderbergh also made The Underneath (1995), a sadly little-seen update of Robert Siodmak’s 1949 fatalistic mini-masterpiece, Criss Cross. And yet it seems to me that the most interesting, and most undervalued, of these various remakes and re-interpretations of classic 1940s movie texts is the 1988 versionof D.O.A. The original version was released in 1950 and directed by Rudolph Maté from a script by the team of Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene and had previously been remade, basically using the original script, in 1969 (in Australia) as Colour Me Dead. The third version overhauls the narrative quite comprehensively and in the process ends up, in my view, being the one that makes the most of its basic underlying premise.
The story in fact has a truly memorable high concept hook: a man is fatally poisoned, there is no antidote, so he spends the remaining 24 hours he has left to live to discover who did it and why. It’s a wonderfully fatalistic Noir conceit and it’s what most people remember of the original version starring the iconic Edmond O’Brien (see this blog’s masthead if you don’t believe me). Along with the basic story idea the original film also has a great opening, which the 1988 version adapts pretty faithfully. A man dressed in black walks down a long series of corridors until he enters the Homicide office and then comes a truly classic exchange of dialogue:
“I want to report a murder”
“Who was murdered?”
Novelist and English professor Dexter Cornell (Dennis Quaid, a little young for the role, despite attempts to age him slightly) who is beloved by his starry-eyed students (including an absurdly young-looking Meg Ryan, who was 26 at the time). He spends his day teasing Nick Lang, his precocious but overly serious star pupil and exchanging witty banter with colleagues and best friend Hal (Daniel Stern), but his life is a mess – his wife is divorcing him (a stunning Jane Kaczmarek, pre Malcolm in the Middle), disappointed with how he has turned to drink and let his talent and passion wane. Later that day Lang dies after falling from the roof of a University building. Dex, with Hal and his soon to be ex-wife, go to a University function,m attended by Lang’s sponsor (played by regular neo-noir siren Charlotte Rampling). It is here that Dex’s wife learns of Nick’s death, her shock augmented by a huge, Hitchcockian swooping circular camera move – it turns out she was having an affair with Lang. Dex is in shock and has a night on the town, gets drunk and wakes up in Ryan’s dorm, though it seems he was too drunk to make anything other than a few customary advances – in a great shot he looks out of her window feeling a little queasy and suddenly the camera hurtles downward and then we cut to an ultra fast camera tracking from under the building looking up at him in the distance – he goes to a hospital and discovers that he has been poisoned.
In the original, the reason for the murder is a rather banal one that no one can ever really remember (a bill of sale is the MacGuffin), but here it is used to create an existential nightmare in the style of Cornell Woolrich, one of screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue’s favourite authors. It would however be a massive spoiler to give it away. As Dex tries to retrace his steps and find out who poisoned him, he discovers that Lang was not only murdered but that Rampling sponsored his studies after the boy’s father was killed while robbing her house. It is here that the film’s main story takes a detour as Dex gets involved in the complicated and messy life of Nick Lang, leading to another half dozen corpses including, most tragically, that of his long-suffering wife. As the various plot strands are drawn together, via a rather Gothic interlude in a tar pit, the film slowly returns to black and white as the murderer is revealed and Dex is left to walk alone for the little time he has left.
There is more than a touch of Hitchcock’s movies here, especially in a long segment in which Quaid and Ryan are literally glued to each other (shades of The 39 Steps) and pursued by the murderer with a nail gun, though the flashiness of the direction of Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, best known as the makers of adverts and music videos, repays repeat viewings as masses of detail are revealed only on a second or third try. Their handling of the character scenes can also be quite sedate when required too, though it is sequences such as when Dex runs out into the open air after discovering he has been poisoned that continue to stick in the mind after the film is over. Equally impressive is the appropriately mournful music score by Chaz Jankel (the co-director’s brother) which combines a hip indie rock sensibility with a melodic sense well in keeping with the genre’s stylistic antecedents. Despite its inevitably morbid premise, this is a film about a person rediscovering their will to live and love just as this is being taken away from them and makes for a superior valentine to the world of Film Noir. It is well worth looking out for.
Charles Edward Pogue’s blog, Pogue’s Pages, has been dormant for close to a year now, but can still be accessed here: http://poguespages.blogspot.com
DVD Availability: Released quite a few years ago in a decent widescreen transfer sadly lacking in anamorphic enhancement, this is a title that deserves to be treated much better, ideally in HD on Blu-ray perhaps accompanied by the original 1950 version which is available in a variety of unsatisfactory home video versions after falling into Public Domain purgatory.
Director: Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton
Producer: Laura Ziskin, Ian Sander
Screenplay: Charles Edward Pogue (from a story by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene)
Cinematography: Yuri Neyman
Art Direction: Richard Amend
Music: Chaz Jankel
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Jane Kaczmarek, Daniel Stern, Charlotte Rampling, Christopher Neame