As the movie summer starts to wind down, the sheer number of sequels, remakes and ‘reboots’ certainly can make for a dispiriting summing up. But it is worth remembering that, at least in our genre, there are a great many great mystery remakes that took the material somewhere new without impinging on memories of the original.
The following is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog – you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.
“The stuff that dreams are made of …”
Hollywood has always remade films, both its own or those from other countries – most are pale reflections of the original, some merely OK. Indeed, one would imagine that the likes of John Carpenter must be fairly ticked off that much of his best work, including Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog and The Thing (admittedly an exceptional remake in its own right), have all been remade by lesser hands. None the less one shouldn’t ignore these without consideration because some pretty serious filmmakers have undertaken remakes after all. These include the likes of Billy Wilder (The Front Page and Buddy Buddy), Martin Scorsese (Cape Fear and The Departed), David Cronenberg (The Fly), Jonathan Demme (The Manchurian Candidate and The Truth About Charlie) and Steven Spielberg (Always and War of the Worlds). In addition such major directors as Michael Mann, Frank Capra, Yasujiro Ozu, Cecil B DeMille, Alfred Hitchcock and even Michael Haneke have all remade their own films at some point.
So, with so much to choose from, what made the cut? Well, in chronological order …
1. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Humphrey Bogart only got to play the definitive screen Sam Spade in the third adaptation from Warners of Hammett’s classic San Francisco Mystery in just 10 years. The first version from 1931, now retitled Dangerous Female, and starring Ricardo Cortez as a slightly sleazy incarnation of Sam Spade, is well worth rediscovering as a tougher, less romantic version of the story. In 1941 John Huston made his directorial debut with this exceptionally close adaptation of the novel, featuring a veritable rogues’ gallery of character actors, all seemingly cast to perfection, from Sydney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman and Peter Lorre (their first on-screen aspiring) as Joel Cairo, while Bogart and Mary Astor were never better than playing the dark and twisted romance between Spade and Brigid O’Shaughnessy (perhaps Hollywood’s first proper femme fatale) – in a word, wonderful. From the 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett.
2. Murder, My Sweet (1943)
The first Philip Marlowe movie, and perhaps the best of them all, was technically a remake as the book had been filmed by the same studio the year before as The Falcon Takes Over with George Sanders playing the now debonair gumshoe and Ward Bond as the hulking Moose Malloy. For the remake Dick Powell, making the startling transition from hoofer to tough guy in one confident leap, is brilliantly cast against type and began a whole new career on the back of its success. This was the first time in which Chandler’s quintessential literary private eye was depicted on-screen. He gets a great entrance here, wearing a blindfold in a dark room filled with cigarette smoke, leading to a classic flashback structure and a genuinely spooky introduction to Moose Malloy – all of it original to the film and bringing Chandler’s book wonderfully to Noir life. From the 1940 novel ‘Farewell My Lovely’ by Raymond Chandler.
3. The Breaking Point (1950)
It is said that Howard Hawks filmed Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not in a bet in which he said he could make a movie of the author’s worst book. Made up of three interlinked items (two short stories and a novella) it is a Depression era story of Harry Morgan’s unsuccessful attempts to make a living in Key West as a captain of his own boat. Ultimately, desperate for money, he gets involved with illegal smuggling, with tragic results. Hawks’ film made a star of Lauren Bacall and her scenes with Humphrey Bogart still sizzle but it doesn’t really have much with the story or tone of the book and the studio-bound production always feels artificial. The remake from 1950 (full review of book and film coming to Fedora soon) stars John Garfield and Patricia Neal and is much more hardboiled in depicting their relationship and Morgan’s hardships in general and the warmth of his family life – the heart though belong to Harry’s friend and partner, played to perfection by Juano Hernandez. It is one of Michael Curtiz’ greatest films, and that saying a lot as we are talking about the director of Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, King Creole, Angels With Dirty Faces, The Adventures of Robin Hood and many, many more. The ending will leave you with a real lump in the throat. From the 1937 novel ‘To Have and Have Not’ by Ernest Hemingway.
4. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)
The original novel by James M Cain was a huge hit (and a scandalous cause celebre) and has been adapted for the cinema a great many times, but only twice in Hollywood. In 1946 came the popular Noir starring Lana Turner and John Garfield. In 1981 the team of director Bob Rafelson and star Jack Nicholson decoded to remake it, with a screenplay by playwright David Mamet and an incandescent performance by Jessica Lange as Cora. Beyond being more generally faithful to the plot and amping up the sex, it also catches the Depression-era of the novel far more successfully than the 1946 version. Having said all this, I would argue that perhaps Ossessione (1943), the unofficial Italian adaptation by Luchino Visconti, may be the best actual film derived from the material but it can’t be classed as a remake even though it followed a French version of the book, which also didn’t bother to secure the rights from Cain! From the 1934 novel by James M. Cain
5. Scarface (1983)
Al Pacino stars as Tony Montana, a Cuban crook who briefly becomes kingpin of the Miami coke trade before his inevitable fall. Though this keeps the barebones of the original 1932 movie starring Paul Muni – scarred gangster’s rise and fall and the unhealthy obsession he has with his sister – this version, scripted by Oliver Stone and directed by Brian de Palma, is a three-hour epic that glories in its excesses with a high body count and what must still be one the most expletive-ridden movie ever released by Universal Studios. From the 1929 novel by Armitage Trail
6. No Way Out (1987)
I previously reviewed this remake in some detail here. Despite being a remake of the classic film noir (see my top 10 in the genre here) The Big Clock (1947), itself a fairly close adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s fine crime novel, this version smartly updates the story and relocates it from a publishing house to the ultra-paranoid environment of the Pentagon during the Cold War. Kevin Costner is the hero, Gene Hackman the weak-willed politician, Sean Young the woman they both have affairs with and Will Patton is the fixer – when Hackman kills Young, Costner is put in charge of the investigation … The huge twist in the finale to some may seem extraneous but anyone who sits through the film a second time will be able to see how smartly writer-producer Robert Garland has in fact laid the groundwork for the revelation. From the 1946 novel ‘The Big Clock’ by Kenneth Fearing.
7. DOA (1988)
I previously reviewed this remake in more detail here. The original version introduced a great premise – a man is fatally poisoned with a slow-acting toxin and has 24 hours to solve his own murder even if he can;t save his own life – but I always found the actual plot (involving land deeds) to be a bit blah. The remake stars Dennis Quaid as a burned out novelist, Charlotte Rampling as a controlling matriarch hiding a very nasty secret and an incredibly young Meg Ryan as an adoring student. Beautifully shot (in stark black and white and ravishing colour), this remake to my mind makes the best of use of the existential premise (which incidentally was also used in 1969 for the Australian movie, Colour Me Dead).
8. Ransom (1996)
In 1954 the US Steel Hour anthology on TV broadcast ‘Fearful Decision’, a drama by Richard Maibaum and Cyril Hume in which a rich man’s son is also kidnapped for half a million dollars. The major twist is the father’s decision not to pay as he believes this is the only way to get the boy back alive, with the focus on the impact this has on his relationship with his distressed wife. This proved a great success and the play was produced again the following year – but the film rights had already been bought by MGM and in January 1956 they released a movie version, retitled Ransom, starring Glenn Ford and Donna Reed. Details of the film, including clips, can be found over at the Turner Classic Movies website. This film was remade again some 40 years later by director Ron Howard and screenwriter Richard Price, with Mel Gibson in one of his best roles as the father. It is now the best-known version of the story – and I think the best overall. The amazing supporting cast includes Rene Russo as Gibson’s wife, Delroy Lindo and Gary Sinise as cops with different agendas and Lili Taylor and Liev Schreiber as kidnappers.
9. The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
This may be the most controversial selection here, but I much prefer the remake of this film to the original starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. Yes, the original is incredibly chic and the two stars are incredible together. But the plot stalls before the halfway mark and the romance pretty much ends once the characters get together – in the remake there is much more story, the female character (Rene Russo again, see above) is much stringer and her romance with the Brosnan version of Crown romance much more convincing. And it really helps that dennis Leary puts the art world in perspective as being so far removed from real-life crime and villainy that it helps take our anti-heroes off the hook without spoiling the fun. I’m also a big fan of director John McTiernan (best-known for Die Hard, Predator, Hunt for Red October and Die Hard with a Vengeance) and I hope, once he gets out of prison, that he’ll keep making great suspense movies – he does a superb job here, as does composer Bill Conti.
10. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Steven Soderbergh as a producer and/or director has made s small industry out of Hollywood remakes including The Underneath (from Siodmak’s Criss Cross), Solaris, Traffic (from the British TV series, Traffik) and such productions as Criminal, Welcome to Collinwood and Insomnia. None though have done as well as Ocean’s Eleven (and sequels), a massive improvement on the hugely popular Ratpack original that both humanises the story and also manages not to slow down horribly at the end. The bare bones of the plot are the same – a group of buddies are recruited by Danny Ocean to knock off four Las Vegas casinos with a power outage – but nearly everything else is different or re-emphasised, most crucially Ocean’s failed relationship with his wife (Julia Roberts in the remake, Angie Dickinson in the remake). Directed and photographed by Steven Soderbergh, this is a remake that makes you care much more about both the characters and the outcome of the caper because it is much more romantic (and much less of a guy’s movie) and also very clever – and it has a killer soundtrack produced by David Holmes that re-introduced the world to Elvis Presley’s ‘A Little Less Conversation’.
11. Casino Royale (2006)
The film that introduced Daniel Craig as James Bond, this was in fact the third crack at Ian Fleming’s original novel after a TV version in the 50s and a swinging sixties spoof that made lots of money but pleased very few critics. Technically this is a ‘reboot’ setting Bond on a parallel timeline where Judi Dench is still M but our hero has gone back to the beginning of his career having only just gained his ’00’ status in the pre-credit sequence. Craig brings great charm and brute force to his playing as well as his youthful vigour and swagger (he was the first actor to play Bond under the age of 40 since George Lazenby in 1969). The adaptation is remarkably faithful to the small-scale novel, even though it disguises this with hops to Madagascar, the Bahamas, Uganda, Miami and Venice, notably in the centre of the movie at the eponymous gambling house. The opening includes several large-scale action sequences, all of which are brand new as well as a climax in a crumbling palazzo in Venice, filmed with awesome skill by Martin Campbell and his amazing team, but the finest moments are those between Bond and tragic Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), their doomed romance handled with such deftness and delicacy (the sequence in the shower, in which Bond helps her overcome her trauma after witnessing the killing of a villain by sitting next to her and changing the temperature of the water, all filmed and performed in one graceful move) that it lifts the film out of the Bond series almost entirely. And the scene in which she gives him his first tailored tux is a beaut. I listed my favourites among the Bond adventured here. From the 1953 novel by Ian Fleming.
12. Payback – Straight Up: The Director’s Cut (2006)
In 1999 Mel Gibson had a jot with Payback, a remake of Pint Blank (1967), the Lee Marvin existential revenge thriller based on the first of the ‘Parker’ novels by Richard Stark (a pseudonym, as most know, for Donald Westlake). Using the bleach bypass system it delivered a steely hued look that matched the jet blue heart of its lead character, a career criminal betrayed by his wife and his partner now back from the dead to get back what they owe him – $70k. It’s a remake of Point Blank (1967), probably the best movie of its kind ever made. Flamboyantly directed by John Boorman, it remains a classic of non-linear editing, using such nouvelle vague modernism to muse on the nature, means and ends of revenge, all set in a ravishingly shot Northern California almost at the peak of hippiedom (it would make a perfect double bill with Richard Lester’s equally fragmented Petulia). The remake by Brian Helgeland, as shown in the cinemas, was a financial success but was in the third act almost completely remade by other hands (I plan to post on this separately very shortly). An hommage to gritty 70s films like The French Connection and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (which I previously reviewed here and which Helgeland went on to remake himself with director Tony Scott, with disappointing results unfortunately), it was not until 2006 via DVD and Blu-ray that Helgeland was able to go back to his film and deliver this director’s cut and reinstate his original third act. The result is infinitely superior, much tougher, closer to the original text (not least because it removes the voice over), bleaker, much shorter and actually that much nearer to the original Lee Marvin movie too, especially in its opening where ‘Porter’ (as the main character is called int he film), walks zombie-like across a bridge as he thinks about his betrayal and what he plans to do to exact his revenge. From the 1962 novel ‘The Hunter’ by Richard Stark.
So there you have it, a dozen mystery remakes that I think make the grade – of course there are plenty more films that deserve honourable mentions, like Scorsese’s overblown but entertaining Cape Fear (though The Departed gets no love here) and The Deep End, written and directed by David Siegel and Scott McGehee from the novel by Elizabeth Saxnay Holding with Tilda Swinton retracing Joan Bennett’s steps from The Reckless Moment. On the other hand I definitely prefer the original 1934 version of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much to his 1956 remake for instance even though the director didn’t apparently. But then Hitch’s movies are very hard to remake, though that just might have to be the subject of its own post, sometime in the future … What are your favourites? See you again, no doubt …