Top 10 English-Language Remakes – Part 2
Whether or not to remake a great movie is something that must cross the minds of most filmmakers at least once in their careers. Remakes, or ‘re-imaginings’ as they try to sell them, are commonplace and often shocking. Even the original directors are sometimes guilty of taking their own great works and turning them into piles of recidivist nonsense. With Ju-On, Takashi Shimizu produced a new classic of modern horror. By remaking it as The Grudge, he produced yet another of a long-line of boring shocker-horrors that barely registered. Dick Mass’ remake of his own De Lift is barely worth talking about – it really is that bad.
But there are, as we’ve already seen in Part 1 of this feature, reasons to be cheerful. Some movies are brilliantly re-done, even creatively out-performing their forebears by a stretch. New creative inputs to existing canons of literature, art and film can be inspiring and exciting, and we can surely glad of these…
Almost direct remake territory here, with the original (Profuma di donna, 1974) lifted directly out of Naples and plonked down into New York, leaving only the actors and dialogue behind.
These two films manage to, somehow, be the same film and yet remarkably different, which sounds like a credit to the US version, but is more to do with the remake being overly long and therefore being the original plus a lot of American stuff.
In both movies, we’re following a cranky old, blind army colonel who is on a journey to another city to sate some desires and demons – and then kill himself – and his unfortunate aide. So far, so good.
In the Italian original, much awarded and applauded, our focus is the colonel. Rude, drunk, salacious and unapologetic, he wants to get drunk and laid – and to hell with everyone else. He asks his aide to describe the women around him and, dissatisfied, explains how he can better tell a woman’s beauty with his nose. He, of course, harbours genuine love in an old flame, and it is this which acts as some redemption from his self-destructive spiralling.
The US-version (1992) is much the same but is framed more on the aide, played by a passable but insipid Chris O’Donnell. It’s more a coming of age movie, where the aide gets life-lessons from the cantankerous colonel. This would be a disgrace if not for a barn-storming, scenery-chewing performance from Al Pacino as the colonel, on his way to his first Academy Award. Yes, this is Americanized schmaltz, but they keep in enough of the bad taste and vulgarity of the original to make this a different film, and a satisfying watch.
Strangely, this could be considered a remake of a remake, or at least a remake of an unoriginal film. Kurosawa, by the 1960s, was heavily influenced by Western drama and Yojimbo (1961) is an active nod to both the westerns of John Ford, and to the hard-bitten novels of Dashiell Hammet.
None of this takes away from the fact that Yojimbo is a great and influential film. With the peerless Toshiro Mifune, his long-term collaborator, Kurosawa delivered a fairly straightforward story. A hard man, with a steely countenance, puts himself in the middle of two sets of bad people, and plays them both to their grisly end. There is plenty of knowing looks and wry humour to offset the bloodshed, and this is carried into the remake.
A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) is only one of the Yojimbo remakes, but the most significant, mainly because it really gave the world Clint Eastwood. Eastwood didn’t try and play Mifune, instead he played the character, and because of this, the film is immense. It seems original and sharp, even now. It’s richly textured, with dozens of subtle touches and directorial sleight-of-hand to compensate for the lack of money (ironically) and lack of common language. Eyes flick to one-another, sweat trickles down foreheads, hands twitch and, inevitably, someone gets a whole put through them.
Apparently, Kurosawa loved this, even though Leone didn’t get the rights to the remake it and was successfully sued!
Based on the now notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, these films both treat the source material fairly, but it’s the angles of approach which are most interesting. And, as they’re using common source, are they original and remake, or two originals?
Das Experiment (2001) follows a group of advertisement respondents who enter into a psychological experiment to test the limits of human responsibility, endurance and culpability in a closed environment. In no time at all, once they are grouped into prisoners and guards, the mistreatment, abuse and oppressions starts. Mild abuse turns to extreme violence and attempted rape, until the experiment is stopped and everyone leaves, blinking confusedly into the light.
In The Experiment, made in 2010, nine years after the original, the Americans effectively make the same film but with higher production values. What makes it a worthwhile watch is the ingrained psychological standpoint that the film comes from, being from the US and not Germany. The Experiment’s protagonists are far more worthy people, with morally justifiable reasons for taking part, as opposed to Das Experiment’s, who turn up from a small advert for a smallish amount of cash and an inquisitive mind. What stops the US version being completely weedy, though, is the ramping up of the oppression and, eventually, the violence and a much better ending.
Two countries, two points in history, two sets of moral foundation – and two films that exist in their own rights.
Pre-dating the French New Wave by a couple of years, Bob le flambeur (1956) was a genuine film noir as well, managing to top it off by being really a quite gentle romance and a thriller on the way! So, it’s hardly surprising that it got the Hollywood treatment, but it wasn’t ruined in what is essentially a homage, not a rehash.
At its core, Bob le flambeur is not an unusual storyline. An old-timer needs a lucky break and finds one, but it’s coated with risk and possible destruction. In this case, it’s a casino that the down-on-his-luck Bob discovers has pots of cash on a certain day and decides to nick it. He is undone by bad friendship choices, but isn’t ruined. It’s a deft story of desperation and betrayal with more than a touch of sympathy and pathos.
By contrast, The Good Thief (2002) has Nick Nolte in blistering form as Bob, now a heroin addict and gambler, looking for his lucky break. Although essentially the same story throughout, this is a definite upgrade across the board. Neil Jordan’s screenplay and direction, and a global cast list, including the irrepressible Tcheky Karyo, make this slick, gritty and impressive.
A rare case of the source material being respected and used to take a story onward and upwards.
There was a period in the early 2000s when Tom Cruise had an attack of the ‘credibles’ and produced a few watchable films. High up on this list was Vanilla Sky (2001), a remake of his girlfriend Penelope Cruz’s own film Abre los ojos (1997), a story told in retrospect by the horribly scarred protagonist.
Whilst it’s true to say that Vanilla Sky doesn’t particularly add a lot to the original, it is worth considering these films in the same way one would consider two orchestras who have both played Beethoven’s 5th. It’s such a good piece of music that it’s nice to hear more than once, and by a different set of people, to give you another angle.
The story of both films is one of sexual intrigue, jealousy, revenge and then the existence possible in a cryogenic and virtual reality life. It’s a mind-bending and non-linear storyline which wasn’t messed around with too much in the remake, for which kudos is due.
Abre los ojos is dark and grim, leaving the viewer unsettled and unsure. Vanilla Sky is sharper, cleaner and more expensive for sure, but it retains the lack of redemption and excuses for its characters, and so justifies its existence.
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