Archive for January, 2011


In which men travel the long hard road from purgatory to hell

The town almost looks clean, doesn’t it?

 

Most Audiences will ask, “Yes, but what’s it about?”

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Wages of Fear (aka Le Salaire de la Peur, 1953). Directed by Henri-George Clouzot. Screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jerome Geronomi, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Yves Montand and Charles Vanel. 131 minutes. ****

Sorcerer (1977). Directed by William Friedkin. Written by Walon Green, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Roy Scheider and Bruno Cremer.  121 minutes. *** 1/2

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, The Violent Road (1957),  directed by Howard W. Koch. Written by Richard H. Landau and Don Martin, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Brian Keith. 86 minutes.

*

Your life has not gone well. You have made every catastrophic decision you possibly could, found your options eliminated one by one, and in the bleak fullness of time found that your foolishness has exiled you to an existence that might as well be considered a cage.  Now you’re a penniless man without future or hope, eking out a hardscrabble existence in a filthy, poverty-stricken town on the wrong side of nowhere. Staying amounts to a living death. Leaving would cost more money than you could ever possibly make here.

You are not just stuck. You define stuck.

Then one day word arrives of a job opportunity that only a man condemned to these circumstances could possibly consider a godsend. There has been an accident at an oil well, a couple of hundred miles away. The well is burning out of control, and explosives are desperately needed to put the fire out. But the only available explosives are at a storage facility near you, and they’re so dangerously unstable that the slightest vibration could set them off. They’re too unstable to fly in. Somebody’s going to have to get behind the  wheel of a truck and drive them to where they need to be, across roads that nobody would ever travel, if they didn’t have to; single-lane roads of the sort common in countries limited by their poverty, that are rutted with potholes, washed out along sheer cliffs, flooded in low places, blocked by debris in others, marked by visibly unreliable bridges and switchbacks, and in every conceivable way a series of deathtraps even for vehicles in danger of blowing up at the first rough bump in the road.

Two trucks will be sent, each manned by two drivers working in shifts. The two vehicles will leave half an hour apart in case one blows up on the way. Which is more likely than not.

The job is virtual suicide. But in this town, you have nothing to live for anyway. If you die, chances are that you’ll never know it. And if you do manage to defy the odds and deliver the explosives with your skin intact, the payment will be enough money to provide you with the fresh start you need, anywhere in the world but here.

This is the premise of two existential thrillers, made a quarter of a century apart (and that third version produced in the interim, which is not within our power to describe). The first is widely considered a classic. So is the second, though it was critically reviled and commercially ignored upon its release and the laudatory verdict is held by a much smaller group of film fanatics who express their admiration in what amounts to open defiance of its undeniable historical status as a major bomb. (You can count this essayist, though – spoiler – emphatically not his wife, as among those who subscribe to the “near-masterpiece” camp.) Both films are harrowing and both follow the same essential plot structure, sharing a number of sequences in common.

But as similar as the two versions are, they’re also very different films, that place their emphases on very different (but equally valid) forms of storytelling. One is the two is all about character interaction, the other is all about the iconography of desperation.

The Wages of Fear (1953)

Though I’d seen both of these movies before, circumstances surrounding our efforts to watch them again for this essay led us to view Wages of Fear after Sorcerer, instead of before, which had a strange effect on the impact of the (very well made) original film: to wit, the opening circumstances of protagonist Mario (Montand) and his best friend Jo (Charles Vanel) are really not all that bad by comparison.

To be sure, both men are stuck in a tiny South American town where they live in poverty and work only intermittently, where it is next to impossible to earn the money they need to leave, but otherwise, they’re living lives. Mario has congenial conversations, friends, a bar he can sometimes trick into extending credit, a sexy local woman who adores him and comes to him on hands and knees despite the contempt he shows her in return; and days that may be boring but are otherwise not all that unpleasant.  The town is no tourist heaven, but neither is it the hellhole William Friedkin depicted a quarter-century later. It’s almost clean. Life seems bearable, if a little poor of options.

The main focus of the backstory is therefore not how awful the lives of these transient men have become, but on how men treat each other in general. When Jo arrives in town, a prosperous-looking individual with a criminal past who had to flee his prior home with little more than the clothes on his back, his big-shot demeanor and veneer of toughness immediately makes him a kind of father figure to Mario, who places their nascent friendship above the other local connections he’s forged. Jo is not above acting like a possessive and bullying wife to make Mario feel like spending time with anybody other than him – like his woman Linda (Vera Clouzot) or prior best friend Luigi (Folco Lulli) — like a betrayal. And Mario falls for it. The tug of war between his prior best friend and current best friend reaches such heights of petulance that it comes to resemble a clash between wife and mistress, a pattern the movie recognizes and exploits for comic effect.

(Incidentally, the tragic/comic italian Luigi resembles a certain well-known video game character. It’s a damn good thing for the current impact of the film that he and Mario never work together as plumbers.)

The simmering conflict approaches violence in a tense barroom showdown between Jo and Luigi, which Jo is able to win because he’s used to being a big shot back home and can still carry off the gravitas necessary to intimidate other men into backing down. Were it not for the approaching intervention of fate, this is a power he would eventually lose, whether by increments as the others around him came to realize that he was fueled with nothing more than hot air, or suddenly, the first time he came up against someone his attitude failed to intimidate.  As it is, the emptiness of his tough veneer is exposed after the oil fire begins and he finagles a position as one of the four drivers – soon exposing a cowardice that rapidly shatters the admiration Mario feels for him.

The result is a French Treasure of The Sierra Madre, contrasting the desperation of the mission the four drivers undertake with the disintegration of the one character who seemed to be the toughest. As a thriller, it’s entirely character-based. The driving sequences are tense, especially one involving a difficult switchback turn that, when I saw it in a theatre many years ago, caused hysterics in the audience when the entire crowd found itself gasping and hoarding breath in unison.  But it’s still the rapid deterioration of the relationship of Mario and Jo – a deeply tragic male love story, ending in tears  – that drives the story, and the hopeless, arbitrary twists of fate that make the story resonate.  The remake, as we shall see, jettisons all of this. Its characters barely know one another and are not subject to feelings of affection, or hero-worship, or betrayal. They just want the payday.

Of the two movies, The Wages of Fear also possesses the superior sense of humor. In both, the drivers find the road ahead completely blocked by an object too heavy to be moved – a fallen boulder in this film, a massive fallen log in the remake. In both they feel utterly defeated by the obstacle, and are ready to give up until one of them realizes that they are, after all, carrying explosives. (Duh.) In both films, they improvise a bomb out of available materials and blow the barrier to smithereens. But there the similarity ends. In The Wages of Fear,  the utter disintegration of the boulder is not just triumphant but hilarious; and the reaction of the men to the blackened scorch-mark on the ground is pretty much in line with what men in this situation would just naturally want to do after bending the landscape to their will. They rush up and, in unison, unzip their flies to pee on it. It’s a party, of sorts (to which Jo is not invited). These men are not beyond the urge to celebrate their little victories. By contrast, the men in Sorcerer greet the clear evidence of their cargo’s destructive power with unnerved silence. Maybe they’re thinking that a similar explosion can just as easily obliterate them. Or maybe they’ve already left such concepts as joy and celebration behind.

There is another key moment which is superior in this film to its equivalent in the remake: the explosion that claims one of the trucks. In Sorcerer,  we see the tire blowout that forces one of the vehicles off the road, setting off the unstable dynamite. In The Wages of Fear, the drivers of one truck just hear a distant rumble, and see the plume of smoke in the distance. No explanation is ever provided. It’s just something that happened, that might have been set off by nothing at all. It’s profoundly anticlimactic…and for just that reason, profoundly terrifying.

The Commercial Failure of Sorcerer (1977) 

Sorcerer seemed to have everything going for it, notably the involvement of a director whose most recent films, The French Connection and The Exorcist, were critical and box-office sensations in their respective years. (Both are still considered classics.) There was also a storyline that had worked spectacularly at least once before, a star then on the rise, and a budget that allowed filming on three continents. But it was damned by the historical moment, elliptical publicity, and a crappy title.

Why was it called Sorcerer, anyway? Well, that happened to be translation of the name painted on one of the trucks. And there was a thematic reason as well. William Friedkin explained, “The Sorcerer is an evil wizard and in this case the evil wizard is fate. The fact that somebody can walk out of their front door and a hurricane can take them away, an earthquake or something falling through the roof. And the idea that we don’t really have control over our own fates, neither our births nor our deaths, it’s something that has haunted me since I was intelligent enough to contemplate something like it.” All of this is defensible in an artistic sense, but questionable when it leads audiences to a complete misunderstanding of what the film is about. (Nor was that the last time in his career Friedkin pulled something like this; see the widespread belief that his subsequent movie Bug was about icky monsters, when it was actually a literate, and stage-bound, psychological thriller about a lonely woman whose lover gradually infects her with his delusionally paranoid world-view.The terrifying but intelligent thriller turned off audiences who went to see the nonexistent mutant bugs and kept away those who might have appreciated the story it actually had.)

In Sorcerer’s case, the prominent reminders of The Exorcist in the ads, combined with a title and ad campaign that offered audiences little clue regarding what the film was about, led to a general misapprehension that this was another venture into the uncanny.  So many people who wanted that walked out upset that they hadn’t seen magic, just a bunch of disreputable men at hard labor, that the newspaper ads soon started including the risible and ill-advised line, “Not a Film About The Supernatural,” which is less a come-on than a desperate disclaimer. Of those who saw it, few were in the mood to endorse its grimy subject matter, its despairing tone, and its downbeat ending.

Remakes were also less common, then, than they are now, and the general thinking among many critics was that they were inherently suspect when based on great films. I recall actual reviews from the time from critics who venerated The Wages of Fear  enough to excoriate Friedkin for his hubris. This was expressed as an entirely separate sentiment than any judgments of the actual movie. In some reviews I saw, back then, he was assaulted for even trying, even before the movie was discussed.

(Not so incidentally, a number of critics also established with their reviews that once they were actually in the theatre, watching, they didn’t bother paying much attention to the action on screen. I recall one major critic for a major publication complaining that the hiring of truck drivers made no sense, as it would be so much easier to just fly the explosives in by helicopter. He must have been dozing or in the bathroom during the scene that makes a point of explaining at length – seriously, at length – that a helicopter would not be suitable, as the unstable dynamite would certainly be set off by the pounding of the rotors. Seriously. It’s perfectly acceptable to criticize a movie for its plot holes, less so to invent plot holes which have already been carefully plugged.) 

Then there was the timing. Sorcerer had the terrible misfortune to come out at the same time as Star Wars, which took its spot as The ONE! MOVIE! THAT! EVERYBODY! NEEDED! TO! SEE! MULTIPLE TIMES! and immediately obliterated everything in its path. You can love Star Wars and its sequels, though emphatically not the prequels, as I do, and still believe that this was not a good thing. Even those of us who like Star Wars well enough have to agree that its impact on the state of moviemaking in our country was an artistic disaster. Together with Jaws and Rocky, Star Wars pretty much ended the era of grownup subject matter, complex characterizations and artistic experimentation that made the early 1970s a second golden age of American moviemaking, and turned the attention of the studios to a time of feel-good stories and so-called rollercoaster rides that gradually weaned the generations that followed away from anything at all challenging or uncompromising, to the point that many find actual mental participation in the movies they’re watching more than should be required of them. Screenwriter Josh Olson, an Academy Award nominee for A History Of Violence,  spoke for many lovers of great movies when he recently sighed about this turning point, wishing that Star Wars had failed (or at least been a smaller hit) and that Sorcerer had been the hit it might have been only a couple of years previously. In an alternate world, he said, that might have led to decades of challenging grownup movies that in our plane of existence either died in development hell or were, worse yet, never even conceived.

He’s not wrong about that. In a very real sense, Sorcerer was the last major film of the artistically-ambitious 1970s, and Star Wars the film that ushered in the high-concept 1980s.

Which is not to say that Sorcerer doesn’t have problems, some of which are inextricably linked to its strengths.

A Talent For Filth

Unlike The Wages Of Fear, which centers on the friendship of two men and derives much of its dramatic spine from the deterioration of their relationship, Sorcerer is about four drivers who barely know one another. A couple of them have shared a civil conversation or two but they are, for the most part, strangers cocooned by the past crimes that have brought them to this time and place. They are entirely separate nations, forced into alliance by shared circumstances. The result can seem remote in dramatic terms, especially since, prior to their embarkation on their deadly road trip, the film replaces any substantive interaction between them with squalor: lots and lots of squalor, establishing with a wealth of local visual detail that this village where they find themselves is the armpit of the world, and a living death for all of them.

Their circumstances are really far worse than in The Wages of Fear, where the men were able to interact as friends and Mario was able to enjoy – or at least, resentfully tolerate – the company of an ardent, beautiful local woman. In Sorcerer, the only local woman is a weather-beaten hag. And when Scheider wakes up in a flophouse also occupied by a dozen other unwashed men, and shuffles to the sink where his morning hygiene consists of taking a mouthful of water and then spitting it out, you know everything you need to know about why this guy who once wore a presentable suit and was never more than a full day from a shower would now seize the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a truck bearing a cargo of unstable explosives. There’s a lot of this, from clothing soaked with sweat to dirty faces that go without soap for days or weeks on end. Truly, you’d have to pick a movie like the original  Flight of the Phoenix or even Quest For Fire to find a movie whose protagonists are probably more odiferous than these. It’s enough to make the sensitive viewer grateful that Smellorama never caught on.

And that palpable stench extends to the entire town around them, a muddy and ramshackle purgatory where people trudge about, ankle-deep in crap. There’s also local corruption, in the form of cops who hassle illegal-alien Scheider and demand one-third of his pitiful earnings in perpetuity. He will never escape this trap. Now, I personally think the squalor tells us everything we really need to know about the motivations of everybody involved – just as we can probably guess the backstory of the pretty young bride in the New Jersey section of the prologue, who stands at the altar before all her friends and family sporting a sizeable black eye. (It’s a splendid example of a throwaway character who sustains the premise that even the people we see in passing have lives we cannot know). I feel that we’re given more than enough information. But your mileage may vary. And if you don’t feel that the images communicate everything they should, if you wish we got to know the inner lives of these desperate men through dialogue and character interaction, then you’re going to prefer The Wages of Fear and have trouble giving a damn about anything that happens in this one.

Another problem linked to one of the film’s strengths is the long series of opening vignettes establishing the criminal pasts of the  drivers: the disgraced businessman from Paris, the terrorist from Jerusalem, the holdup man played by Scheider who gets on the wrong side of the Jersey mob. This very well-made combination of prologues makes extensive use of location filming – and no doubt ate up much of its budget. But it takes up fully a fourth of the film, and diffuses its focus, telling us little we would not be able to figure out for ourselves, namely that these men are stuck in this craphole town and have no means of moving on. Again, the sequences are defensible, even masterful. And again, they’re also distancing. Critics and audiences largely hated them.

Among the things that are clearly better in this film? The explanation for the instability of the explosives does make a hell of a lot more sense here. In The Wages Of Fear, the oil company just happens to have a supply of liquid nitroglycerin which it just happens to store far from the well, with no contingency in place for transporting it anywhere useful. Nobody even finds this odd. In Sorcerer, the explosives are sticks of dynamite, which is perfectly safe when maintained properly and which sweats nitro when not. (This is a lesson a future generation of viewers would re-learn watching the sad fate of Dr. Arzt on Lost.) So Sorcerer has an explanation that actually goes along with the ramshackle nature of the entire enterprise. The dynamite was stored in a central location, by a company that saw no reason why it couldn’t be transported if needed. But somebody screwed up and failed to maintain it properly. Now these poor bastards have to live with it (or not).

The actual journey is even more nerve-wracking here than in The Wages Of Fear, for a number of reasons. Among them: the trucks here are not the well-maintained vehicles of the original, but ambulatory wrecks, salvaged for the occasion, and marked with rusted-out craters big enough to see daylight through. Also, the trucks cross rickety bridges that start to crumble under their weight, and (at the action high point), thanks to a wrong turn find themselves faced with the absolute last river crossing you ever want to encounter with or without a cargo of high explosives.

What follows is one of the most exciting sequences of the decade, a tour-de-force that is one of the greatest achievements of Friedkin’s career and that, all by itself, eclipses anything in the classic original film. I hate to bring up Star Wars again, but, really, this sequence impresses me more than any of the heroic deeds of Luke Skywalker.

 

That’s one rickety-ass bridge!

The Weighing Station

Wages of Fear, a superior drama and a classic of world cinema. Sorcerer, ditto, another take on the same basic story from a worthwhile different angle, that deserved to be recognized in its time. The Wages Of Fear has the edge, but both are deeply recommended.

***

And now, the wife pokes her head out of the sleeper cab…

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Wages of Fear (aka Le Salaire de la Peur, 1953). Directed by Henri-George Clouzot. Screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jerome Geronomi, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Yves Montand and Charles Vanel. 131 minutes. ***

Sorcerer (1977). Directed by William Friedkin. Written by Walon Green, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Roy Scheider and Bruno Cremer.  121 minutes. *1/2

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, The Violent Road (1957),  directed by Howard W. Koch. Written by Richard H. Landau and Don Martin, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Brian Keith, 86 minutes.

Okay, folks, so what we have here are two versions of desperate men in trucks.  Isn’t this a current reality series?

Sorcerer is the newer, grittier (by grit I imply filth),  American language version of the two films.  I’m hoping that the fact that the novel was translated from French is the sole reason for this piss poor excuse of a film.  You have all the elements for greatness packaged here; great director , who can handle both action and dialogue; a leading man, with charisma, screen presence and skills; landscapes both evocative and eerie; and a story that can be universally understood.  Why then did this turn out to be such a downer?

I’ll Tell you why.  They forgot that the story was about human beings.  Men trying to survive despite the conditions forced on them and the fallibilities of their own souls.  Friedkin focused on the dirt and fear and totally forgot that these were living men with pasts, trying for futures.   These men existed in a cocoon of self loathing, that made this film more than just uncomfortable, but outright unbearable to watch.

However, on viewing the earlier French film, I actually breathed a sigh of relief.  Here we have all the elements once again, but this time the human element was actually preserved.

While I don’t agree with the characters, I at least can see that they are not cardboard cutouts just waiting for the next event to blow up.   These are flesh and blood people, with wants and desires, desperate to return to a semblance of the lives they once knew.  They make the best of the meager subsistence they have achieved and try to enjoy the little they have.  What happened to that in the 70’s version?

To wrap all this up: I recently watched a few minutes of Ice Road Truckers:Most Dangerous Roads, andcouldn’t help but be amazed by the bravery and bravado of these men and women. They are doing a dangerous and often thankless job, under often nasty conditions, but I keep asking myself why?  Some for the money, but many do it for the adrenaline rush.  Surviving the impossible is sexy.  Is this part of what people remember when claiming that these films are classics?  Not me.

I won’t be re-watching either of these films again.  Neither film hit my “wow” button, but at least the 1953 version had characters that were close to real human beings. 

The January Index

Posted: January 31, 2011 in Index
Tags: ,

These were our Remake Chronicles essays for January. These are only the Remake essays; anything else on the blog is considered an extra.

True Grit: The Movie Star Versus The Actor

Matinee on The Bounty, or, “That’s Not Very Christian.”

Wielding Prop Spears Against Real Wolves: The Two Versions of To Be Or Not To Be

Three Mutes, Three Mad Sculptors, One Paddle-Ball Man and Three Houses of Wax

Essays in the planning stages include pieces on the two versions of Father of the Bride, the three versions of Night Of the Living Dead, and the two visits to Casino Royale. Expect the next essay, which is based on none of these three, by midweek.


Adam-Troy Castro’s new Andrea Cort novella, “Hiding Place,” appears in the April issue of ANALOG.

Here’s what one blog has to say about it, along with a preview.


In which that lifelike wax sculpture was once an innocent girl with the misfortune to resemble Joan of Arc

 

 

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Glenda Farrell. 77 minutes. ** 1/2

House Of Wax (1953). Directed by Andre De Toth. Screenplay by Crane Wilbur, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Charles Buchinsky (Bronson). 90 minutes. ** 1/2

House of Wax (2005). Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera. Screenplay by Charles Hayes and Carey Hayes, from the story (note difference) by Charles Belden. Starring Elisha Cuthbert, Paris Hilton, Brian van Holt. 113 minutes.  1/2

*

None of them were meant to be immortal. They were all conceived as throwaway entertainments, providing thrills and chills for the popcorn set; the first two weren’t even intended to be particularly scary, though those of us who recall seeing at least one of them in a motion picture auditorium may recall a time or two when a jump scare elicited some screams from its audience. The first features one of the damnedest love stories you’ve ever seen. The second reaches its peak entertainment value with a special effect that has nothing whatsoever to do with its story. The third has a climax of truly transcendent dumbness. There’s precious little intended subtext in any of them.

We’re talking about the three Houses of Wax, all of them horror films set in and around the titular tourist destinations, which are all run by mad craftsmen who achieve realism in their sculptures by entombing their hapless victims in paraffin. Each one of them features a hideously disfigured murderer, and a catastrophic fire that consumes the buildings and melts the sculptures to bubbling puddles. Beyond that, though, the differences are instructive. Each in their own way, they all embody the nature of popular filmmaking in their respective times. Stretching the point somewhat further than the evidence will bear, you could even look at all three and call them a history of the decline of movie-making, over the course of a little more than seventy years. It’s not entirely fair, since bad movies were made back then and good movies are still being made now, but a case can still be made from these three levels of celluloid archeological strata. You’ll see why.

Mystery Of the Wax Museum (1933) 

The first film (directed by Michael Curtiz, who would later make The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca) presents us with the case of one Ivan Igor, pronounced Eye-Gor (Atwill), a London sculptor whose small wax museum stresses tableaux of great historical events, inspirational evocations of subjects like motherhood, and beautiful heroines like Joan of Arc, over the sensational commemorations of crime and violence that draw many more paying customers to another such establishment across town. It’s the old dilemma pitting aesthetic vs. commercial considerations, here complicated by a creator who talks to his sculptures as if they’re really flesh-and-blood people, and a business partner named Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) who would just as soon burn the place down and collect ten thousand pounds in insurance money. The two men grapple and throw punches even as flames engulf Igor’s life’s work, and Worth escapes believing Igor dead and the insurance pay-out his and his alone.

It is interesting to note that in both this film and the 1953 House Of Wax, the Worth figure is a villain but not an absolute one. He has no love for Igor’s art and has nothing but impatience for his partner’s creative principles, but initially wants to play fair with him within the context of his intended crime. He proposes the arson scheme as something that will rebound to the benefit of both men, and fully expects to share the ill-gotten proceeds fifty-fifty. This doesn’t render his actions any less callous in terms of leaving the wax sculptor behind to die, and happily spending the insurance money afterward. It just makes him a guy who considers himself the artist’s friend even when he expects that the artist will happily collude in destroying the work for short-term profit. I’ve worked for at least one publisher like that.

In any event, time passes. The action moves to 1933 New York City. Dead bodies start disappearing from the morgue. Igor arrives in the city, older and mostly confined to a wheelchair (with crutches hanging from a rack on the back). He cannot sculpt anymore, as his burned hands no longer possess the same level of control, but he continues his work with the aid of assistants and apprentices (that include Hugo, a sinister deaf-mute), and is about to open a newer and larger wax museum. The problem, of course, is that some of the figures on display look an awful lot like corpses recently stolen from the morgue.

The chief narrative problem here and in the 1953 version is that anybody in the audience who can’t put all this offered information together, perform the necessary math, and figure out that there’s something other than plaster beneath the wax veneers of the figures on display has likely never seen a movie before, and that since the plot is largely an exercise in marking time until the breathless revelation of the secret we already know, we need some other reason to watch in the interim.

In 1933, that’s the spectacle of the tough lady reporter Florence (Farrell), who is fast-talking, cynical, hard-edged, dumbfounding, rude, and pretty much nonstop funny, especially in her interactions with her editor-in-chief, who seems to hate her and who she seems to hate back. She tells him, “I’m gonna make you eat dirt you soap bubble!” She tells another man, “You can go to some nice warm place…and I don’t mean California!” She leads the police to a crate she imagines to be the coffin of a recent murder victim, discovers it filled with bootleg liquor instead, and instead of just slinking off in embarrassment packs her coat with as much as she can carry. Almost every line that comes out of her mouth is verbal gold, and her angry back-and-forth with her editor leads to a punch line good enough to render all the previous jiggery-pokery with crazed murderers and entombed corpses look like it was just a distraction from what the story was secretly about all along.

This is, in short, one of the few cases where the female protagonist of a horror film is as rich and as well conceived as the menace she must confront. (Another, many years later, would be Silence of the Lambs.) She’s far better than the story she’s in, certainly far better than either of the male leads, who are both dull in different ways…or for that matter her best friend, the imperiled Charlotte (Fay Wray), a “good girl” with the misfortune to look like Igor’s idea of Marie Antoinette, and who aside from the terrific set of screaming pipes you expect from that actress, really doesn’t have much else to distinguish her. She’s just a screaming ninny.

In short, despite some expressionistic sets that employ wonderful arrangements of light and shadow, this is best perceived as a romantic comedy starring Florence that has happened to wander into a horror film and then wandered out again.

(Not incidentally, most current prints look awful. The movie was filmed in Technicolor, but was never properly cared-for. Though a perfect theatrical restoration exists, the most recent transfer to home DVD on the flip side of the 1953 version made serious tint-adjustment errors that resulted in looking weak and washed-out, almost like a bad colorization of a film originally shot in black-in white.)

House Of Wax (1953)

The second film changes the name of the mad sculptor to Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) and the name of the young woman who begins to suspect what he’s up to to  Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk). Sue is particularly drawn to the figure of Joan of Arc, who bears a remarkable resemblance to her murdered best friend Cathy (Carolyn Jones). The creepy deaf-mute assistance is Igor (here pronounced Ee-gor, and played by the future Charles Bronson).

Price was already an established actor whose gallery of roles had included the villainous Counselor (note: not Cardinal) Richelieu in the Gene Kelly version of The Three Musketeers. He had never been in a horror film before, but this and his subsequent performance in The Fly would soon make him one of the go-to-guys for macabre movies, a streak of good fortune that only extended his professional shelf-life as he aged. His Jarrod is not the angry, embittered, almost abusive sculptor that Atwill’s character became post-catastrophe, but a wry, amusing, charming figure who deeply enjoys regaling his guests with the provenance of the horrors on display. It’s a far more entertaining performance than Atwill’s, though that is more than countered by the movie’s insistence on jettisoning the 1933 film’s funny and resourceful heroine in favor of one who is bland, helpless, and pretty much devoid of personality. (Her doomed friend Cathy, who is also a ninny but who happens to be an entertaining ninny with an adorably annoying titter to recommend her, is much more interesting, but audiences should not get attached to her.)

The absence of a protagonist worth following means that the film must get by on style, of which it has plenty, and on the gimmickry of 3-D, which is both the movie’s saving grace and its biggest flaw. It’s the saving grace because the makers of the film recognize it’s their most powerful argument and therefore stage a number of scenes that exploit the device to its fullest advantage, notably by lingering at length on a dance-hall act with leggy dancers kicking their gams at the audience, and even better in a scene where a street performer regales audiences outside the museum with paddleball tricks, that amount to launching that leashed ball at the camera multiple times in rapid succession. At one point he even says he sees someone out there with a bag of popcorn, and it’s clear that he’s not talking to anybody in the movie, but to some moviegoer laughing his ass off in a theatre. Or rather, all moviegoers laughing their asses off, everywhere. Even after Avatar and others, this may be the single most bravura 3-D sequence of all time, simply because it revels in the sheer goofy fun of the technology, without caring much that it has nothing to do with the story.

I hope you have a pair of red/green 3D glasses around the house.

Of course, watching the same scene in 2-D is less satisfying…and the same came be said for the dance-hall scene, which is even more transparently gratuitous because of the amount of time spent on it and because it clearly represents a gimmick that halts the story for no reason. I shouldn’t even have to mention the final shot where the cop holds up the wax bust of Charles Bronson and brandishes it at the camera, just so audiences can ooh and ahh one last time.

Deprived of the strange character twist that defines the 1933 version, this one brings a basic flaw of the story into sharp relief: to wit, neither one has a good climax. Each film builds to its respective mad sculptor in the middle of preparing to “immortalize” some innocent woman as Marie Antoinette with a nice shiny coat of wax, when the cops bust in and he ends up running around in circles and eventually falling into the vat of wax itself. But in neither case do the protagonists have much to do with that; the cops get the goods on him independently and just happen to show up in time to break the door down. This is convenient but does little for the effectiveness of the heroes. It’s lame. And while this didn’t matter so much in 1933, when the heroine still had a terrific punch line coming, it’s pretty flat storytelling in 1953, when she’s not all that compelling a person and her last scene consists of little more than a “thank you.”

But it’s still one of the best 3-D movies ever made…a distinction not to be confused with the best movies ever made in 3-D, which would be another list entirely, probably topped by Dial M For Murder.

So the 1933 version represents a story that gets by on character, and the 1953 version represents a story that gets by on a technological gimmick. And the 2005 version?

House of Wax (2005)

The most recent visit to the wax museum makes one good decision: moving the museum fire, the most exciting sequence in either of the two prior versions, to the climax. This only makes sense, as thrillers want to move toward their most intense moments, not away from them.

But it jettisons the bare bones of the first two and instead gives us a gaggle of tiresome contemporary college students on a road trip, who we quickly and definitively decide to be compelling only to the degree that we must compellingly despise them. As must happen, they “take a shortcut” and have “car trouble” and “split up” and wind up in an entire freaking town, abandoned and forgotten in the age of GPS, with nobody on the streets and no apparent population but for a mechanic and his deformed brother (both played by Brian Holt), who between them have been capturing motorists to make them permanent exhibits in the wax museum that is the town’s most prominent feature.

We need not spend too much time on this. We need note, first, that the odds of any modern horror movie being at all good seems to be inversely proportional to the number of protagonists introduced at the onset. If just one or two, then we stand a chance of whatever happens next being about people whose souls we know and whose fate concerns us. The movie will likely follow something that resembles a plot and involve something more than slaughters at regular intervals. If instead we’re quickly introduced to a small crowd of interchangeable pretty faces who bitch at one another, then we know that the numbers are so high largely because the movie intends on killing them regularly and that everything else about them will be subordinate to that purpose.

After far too much time spent following this particular insipid bunch on their road trip, the plot starts to creak, past the discovery of a pit of rotting roadkill to car woes that lead two of the group to accept a ride they shouldn’t, to a one-block town with no visible people. Of course, it takes forever for the heroine Carly (Elisha Cuthbert) and boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki) to notice that the town is about as lively as an abandoned movie set. When they are inevitably separated, Wade is first to get the wax treatment, which in this case leaves its victims still alive, if immobile, inside that coating, an element that allows Wade to act eloquently with his irises when another in this inexhaustible band of idiots, Dalton (Jon Abrahams), tries to free him and takes forever to realize that peeling the wax off removes the skin as well. Meanwhile, the villain captures Carly, straps her to a chair, and crazy-glues her lips shut. This is pretty nasty, but since she frees herself from her bonds within minutes and physically pries her lips apart with her fingers so she can go back to screaming, the worst effect the crazy glue has is rendering her lips raw and bloody, which in practice just makes her look like she’s wearing bright red lipstick. (Her speech remains unaffected.) But she does get the tip of one finger chopped off, so that’s something.

In the place of the offended and wronged artists Lionel Atwill and Vincent Price played in the first two movies, both driven mad by crimes committed against them after they tried to adhere to a matter of principle, we have Bo and Vincent Sinclair (both played by Brian van Holt), who started life as Siamese twins born to a disgraced surgeon and a lady wax sculptor seen in flashbacks and family photos that place a strange amount of emphasis on how much Mom smoked. The boys, Bo and Vincent (ha-ha, Vincent), kill people because they’re just plain insane. It’s no more than a lifestyle choice. Not for this movie the operatic villainy of once-gentle but tragically wronged souls. These guys are just plain bad, which of course enables Vincent to survive a crossbow shaft through the chest and rise from what nobody in the audience is fooled into thinking of as death, to chase Carly some more.

Paris Hilton is in the movie, as  Paige. She and her boyfriend are parked miles away from any of these occurrences, having sex, and therefore spend much of the film having little to do with the gathering menace. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that she’s just in the film so she can strip for her boy-toy and thus attract the kind of audiences who know what she did to become famous. Ultimately, one of the killers shows up, kills the guy and chases Paige, ultimately killing her, affecting the main plot not much at all. Between them, their purpose here is to serve as subsidiary victims, making sure that not too many minutes go by without somebody getting impaled on something. Of Hilton’s performance I can say only that she manages more on-screen than she does in her life as a personality famous for being famous by displaying considerably more than one facial expression.

It all leads up to the fire in the museum, which is actually, literally, I mean seriously literally, a House of Wax, so that the staircase and the furniture and the walls get all mushy as Carly and her brother try to evade killers as the entire building turns soft as snot all around them. In the entire history of mad slasher movies, this may be the one, the one, where it’s least advisable to flee up the stairs. Expect a scene where her brother tries to run up after her and sinks ankle-deep in the ooze. Expect one of the evil siamese-twin brothers to fall through the floor and land dead on top of the other brother, in a position that precisely duplicates their orientation before surgery. That’s convenient.

So, to the 1933 movie’s focus on character and the 1953 movie’s reliance on a technological gimmick, we can add the 2005 movie’s thudding obviousness, overt sadism, and a level of literalism that works only if the members of the audience can be trusted to be as bone-stupid as the moviemakers seem to perceive them. As dire histories of the art of moviemaking go, you really can’t get any more metaphorical than that.

The Wax Seal

1933 version, a dated and damaged but still enjoyable relic. 1953 version, a nostalgic treat with plenty of remaining charm. 2005 version, ugly idiocy for ugly idiots, one of the worst films of recent years.

And now, the wife chimes in…

***

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Glenda Farrell. 77 minutes. ***

House Of Wax (1953). Directed by Andre De Toth. Screenplay by Crane Wilbur, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Charles Buchinsky (Bronson). 90 minutes. ***1/2

House of Wax (2005). Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera. Screenplay by Charles Hayes and Carey Hayes, from the story (note difference) by Charles Belden. Starring Elisha Cuthbert, Paris Hilton, Brian van Holt. 113 minutes. 1/2

Pardon me for a moment, but does anyone out there have a bit of steel wool for my brain?  Why, oh why, did the worst of these films have to also be the longest?  Oh darn!  I just gave away the ending of my piece didn’t I?  Oh well, it matters not, for I expect most folks who have seen the three films under discussion here have already drawn the same conclusion: that the 2005 remake SUCKS.

I don’t hate horror films.  I love a suspenseful slasher flick a la the original Halloween of the original Psycho, but let’s face it, kids, there ain’t no such thing in the latest version of House of Wax.  Let’s see, we have sex, annoying friend, bully, good girl, bad girl and black guy.  The only thing I had to play with was which order they were going to get offed.  No original attacks and as for supposedly college bound kids, Woe for our future! Any surprises? Nope.  Any squirming anticipatory moments? Not here.  Nope not much of anything that could be called innovative or fun.  So were we supposed to watch this just for the Paris Hilton semi-strip?  I will give the special effects guys a mild thumbs up for all the great melting effects, but the previous films at least used them to emphasize the point, here it was more of a” look what we can do these days”.  Gak, please save me from the idiocy of this mindset.

Then my sanity was recovered(partially, I do still live with a writer and participate in this blog).  We re-watched the 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum and I couldn’t prevent myself from enjoying the snappy patter and decent acting.  There’s something about the screenwriters then, they didn’t write down to the audience.  On the contrary, they dared the viewers to try to keep up.  So much fun!  One question that just always hits me, who opens a new business, especially a touristy thing, downtown on New Year’s day?  I mean, is anybody even able to go out?    And who would want to see a wax museum with a hangover?  Really!!!

And finally, for the sake of truthfulness, I didn’t re-watch the 1953 HOW, mainly because it has become a favorite from childhood.  My first viewing was at summer camp on a rainy day.  I was blown away and even though my cynicism has exploded over the years, my sheer enthusiasm for this film has never waned.  When Adam and I decided to do this column, I lobbied for this to be one of the first just so I could watch and discuss it again.  Vincent Price is a snake charming menace.  Charles Bronson gets to play mute artist.  Carolyn Jones gets to be quiet for most of the film.  And I get to watch 3-D effects that don’t bug the hell out of me.  Gosh, what more is needed?  Oh yeah, I get to remember that awesome early melt scene.  That is what really remains with me.  People (ok wax dummies) melting like the wicked witch.  Just too cool!

Ok, so you see, I am a bit prejudiced here.  So, I say give the first two films a fair shake, but NEVER EVER EVER succumb and watch the 2005 remake!


An Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

Yesterday, flipping channels, I found myself in the middle of of a not-very-good movie I haven’t thought about in years: City Heat, starring Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. (It also features Madeline Kahn, laboring hard as her usual insufferable woman, Jane Seymour as Burt’s plucky secretary, and Rip Torn as the bad guy. Nobody can say it skimps on the casting department.)

I was intrigued enough to watch for a little while.

And, no, it’s not worth seeing again. It was gamey then, and still is, though in this era of truly horrendous action films, it looks far better than it did

But it remains an interesting historical artifact, in that at the time it was made the two male leads were the two biggest movie stars in the world, and their teaming was a major draw. Since that time, Eastwood’s iconic stature has only grown, to the point that his trailer about a grumpy old guy who warns gang members off his lawn can still make theatre audiences excited with anticipation, whereas Reynolds has become a guy who used to be a movie star and will play a bit part in anything, including some jhaw-droppingly awful direct-to-video pictures, to remind you of that.

Why? Well, part of it has to do with Eastwood’s many achievements as a director; part of it has to do with the fact that he made far fewer movies and that many more of thosewere good ones, whereas Reynolds’s best work can be counted on the fingers of one hand and still leave a digit or two left over. (There’s Deliverance, and Boogie Nights, and, um, Breaking In, and Sharky’s Machine, and…um, well, Hooper wasn’t all that bad, and, um…see, it’s already getting hard.)

But then there’s this.

It’s not just hindsight when I say that you can watch City Heat and see the signs that their careers are already aiming at opposite trajectories.

To wit:

Burt Reynolds gets his ass kicked during a brawl in a diner and, covered in thugs,  begs Eastwood for help; Eastwood calmly drinks his coffee, not stirring himself to interfere until a collision spills his drink, at which point the camera zooms in on Eastwood’s scowl and you know the thugs are about to be history.

Burt Reynolds gets involved in a major shootout in the middle of a city street. He fires from hiding, but the bad guys have pinned him down. Eastwood arrives and just walks down the center of the street, scary as hell, blowing them away without once getting hit himself, while Reynolds wonders how the hell he does that.

The protagonists team up to rescue the ladies from a mobster. Reynolds shows up wearing a gorilla or bear suit (I stopped watching, this time, before the climax; but I remember that it was one of the two). Eastwood just storms the castle in street clothes.

There’s more. It’s as if the movie set out to emasculate the Reynolds character while drawing a circle around Eastwood’s.

And there’s this.

Reynolds is just a good-looking guy reading lines. He has some comic timing and some screen presence, but there’s nothing particularly special about him, not here. Eastwood…well, even in a subpar film like this one, you can’t atke your eyes off him.

The odd thing is that the makers of City Heat seemed to know it.


By Adam-Troy Castro

More remake essays are coming. We promise.

In the interim I call your attention to my short story  “Arvies”, published in Lightspeed Magazine in August 2010, which received an unusual number of stunned reviews at the time, which has been chosen for Rich Horton’s year’s best science fiction anthology, and which is right now collecting citations for the Hugo and Nebula short story ballots. If you haven’t seen it, you really oughta. It’s a mind-blaster.

Here, for your edification, is the first paragraph.

“STATEMENT OF INTENT

This is the story of a mother, and a daughter, and the right to life, and the dignity of all living things, and of some souls granted great destinies at the moment of their conception, and of others damned to remain society’s useful idiots.”

That’s “Arvies.” Click the link above, and boggle.


In which two of the funniest screen personalities of all time take one of history’s least funny subjects. Who achieves greatness, and who never rises above kitsch?

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro.

To Be Or Not To Be (1942). Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Written by Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justice Mayer, from an original story by Ernst Lubitsch.  Starring Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman. 99 minutes. ****

To Be Or Not To Be (1983). Directed by Alan Johnson. Written by Ronny Graham and Thomas Meehan, from the story by Ernst Lubitsch and 1943 screenplay by Melchior Lengel and Edwin Justice Mayer. Starring Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, and Christopher Lloyd. 107 minutes. ** 1/2

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, Maan Gaye Mughal-E-Azam (2008), Bollywood film starring Rahul Bose and Mallika Sherawat. (It does not deal with the Nazi era, but applies the plot structure to a period of civil unrest in India.)

*

A troupe of popular stage performers suffering through the Nazi occupation of Warsaw suddenly finds itself the only force standing between the invaders and the Polish underground. Circumstances force the married lead players into escalating heights of desperate acts of theatrical improvisation in the face of the enemy, as they struggle to retrieve and destroy a valuable list of freedom fighters before it falls into the hands of the Gestapo. The wife finds herself lusted after by powerful men who have the power to grant her favors in exchange for her sexual compliance or exile her to a concentration camp as punishment for refusing. The husband finds himself trapped in the lion’s den, pretending to be someone he’s not, and struggling to fool a brutal occupier with barely adequate lies that could fail at any time, thus leaving him vulnerable to torture or imprisonment or worse. All this takes place as their marriage teeters on the brink,  thanks to the husband’s discovery that the wife, who sometimes feels invisible in the face of his own monstrous ego, has had frequent illicit meetings with a dashing young admirer. In the end, their lives depend on an even more desperate stratagem to get them out of Poland before the Nazis find out what they’ve done and have them shot.

It doesn’t exactly sound like the basis for comedy.

And yet, in the two versions of To Be Or Not To Be, it is: although the four decades that passed between the original and the remake alter the precise nature of the laughter in remarkable ways.

The original was written when the evils committed by the Nazis were current events, well-known in outline to the rest of the world but not yet appreciated to their fullest depths (there are prominent references to concentration camps, but not to mass extermination.) The third Reich was not considered a fit subject for comedy, although Charlie Chaplin had already released his merciless and passionate Hitler lampoon The Great Dictator (1940); critics and audiences were lukewarm or hostile, and Jack Benny’s own father stormed out of the theatre in a rage at the sight of his beloved son in a Nazi uniform. The remake, by contrast, was made fifteen years after its star, Mel Brooks, elicited belly laughs by including a joyous Nazi musical, “Springtime for Hitler,” in his riotous comedy The Producers (1968). Audiences had processed the idea that these profoundly evil people could also be seen as profoundly absurd people, without diminishing or denying their crimes, and screen portrayals of stupid or comical Nazis had become so common by then that they were almost a cliche…perhaps too much of a cliche, as it’s difficult to watch Mel Brooks perform a production number in Nazi regalia during the 1983 version and not immediately wonder whether he hadn’t already gone as far with this particular juxtaposition as he possibly could. (Broadway would someday show that he hadn’t.)

The most obvious difference between the two perspectives is best summarized by words Woody Allen had a schlock producer played by Alan Alda speak in his film Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989): “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” This line is sometimes presented today as genuine received wisdom, by parties who want us to know why certain terrible events are too fresh in our minds to be joked about, but can be fine comedic fodder if you first show the decency to wait fifty or seventy or a hundred years. (Hence the presumed upcoming boom in Triangle Shirtcoat Factory Fire humor.)  The people who treat the axiom as if it makes sense somehow fail to notice that Allen put the words in the mouth of a pretentious jackass who produces nothing but pap, or that Allen’s own character, his mouthpiece, mocks it with unremitting scorn. The truth, difficult as it might be for purveyors of decency to accept, is that worthwhile jokes can be made about anything, very much including the things that should not be joked about. Lenny Bruce brought the house down with a joke about the JFK assassination before the President was in his grave. The satirical newspaper The Onion produced a brilliantly hilarious issue about the 9/11 tragedy before the dust had completely settled on Manhattan. Chaplin’s Dictator was about atrocities still taking place, that he saw with a clarity that still cuts like a knife today. Of course worthwhile (and not just “sick”) jokes can be told about tragedies still fresh, as the proper received wisdom should be, “Comedy is Tragedy Plus Perspective.”  The more wit is applied to the perspective, the more brilliant the comedy. And it just so happens that the contemporary relevance of the 1942 version, a mere footnote to most audiences who view it today, can nevertheless be sensed. The movie still has the air of joking about things that should not be joked about…whereas the 1983 version feels distressingly safe despite the prominence of its well-meaning efforts to bring the Nazi persecution of both Jews and Homosexuals to the forefront. It’s the work of people who have reduced Nazi aggression to shtick.

The Setup

Joseph and Maria Tura (Benny, Lombard) or Frederik and Anna Bronski (Brooks, Bancroft) are the lead actors of a theatrical troupe in 1939 Warsaw. (From this point on, in discussing plot elements common to both films, we’ll use the names the characters possess in the original and thus spare both essayist and reader the tiresome necessity of mentioning both versions every time we compose sentences that reference both versions. They are otherwise the same people. Assume it as given.)

Both Joseph and Maria are, to different extents, ego monsters. Maria wants to wear a slinky evening gown on stage in a scene where she’s supposed to play a concentration camp inmate. Joseph imagines himself a great Shakespearean and can be trusted to milk Hamlet’s soliloquy, which makes that a perfect time for Maria to rendezvous with Lt. Andre Sobinski, a young pilot who adores her (Stack in the first, Matheson in the second). The worsening international situation causes the cancellation of (in the 1942 film) a satirical play attacking Hitler; or (in the 1983 film) a comedy sketch about Hitler presented as part of  a nightly revue.

The aborted Hitler sketch is in both films a splendid example of a plot element that functions equally well as exposition (providing them with all those Gestapo uniforms and one actor who can pass for Hitler), and story (the first stroke of their misfortunes)…nothing we should underestimate given that we live in an era when exposition often arrives with a thud.

Hitler invades. Sobinski escapes to England, where he joins the Polish Squadron and encounters Professor Siletski (Stanley Ridges / Jose Ferrer) a much-respected savant who “lets slip” to the fliers that he’s returning to Poland on a secret mission and compiles a list of their family members, ostensibly in order to pass on messages. But he soon reveals that he’s never heard of the Turas, a virtual impossibility for any residents of Warsaw. Clearly Siletski wanted the names to fuel retribution killings by the Gestapo. On orders from British intelligence, the flier parachutes back into Poland, to stop Siletski before he can pass on the names…but his arrival does not go unnoticed, Siletski has actually arrived in Warsaw ahead of him, and so he has to enlist Maria and then Josef to stop him.

Their various desperate improvisations force the male Tura to first confront Siletski in the guise of the local Gestapo chief, Colonel “Concentration Camp” Ehrhardt (or Erhardt, depending on the film), and when that backfires, to play another version of the same scene fooling the real Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) with his own version of Siletski.

Comparing The Performances

Carole Lombard’s Maria Tura is a luminescent creation who sells the story’s conceit that no man, anywhere, can possibly spend thirty seconds in her company without immediately falling head-over-heels in love with her. Her flirtation with the young pilot is a kittenish crush, driven by a mutual attraction that – as if never less than 100% clear – she never for a moment intends to sully with any actual sex. This is a woman who loves her husband unconditionally but appreciates being romanced by a dashing young hero as long as it never really comes to anything; as it has the moral weight of a daydream, her shock when that pilot comes to believe that she actually does intend to leave her husband for him is genuine.

The role is unfortunately less persuasive in 1983 when she’s played by Anne Bancroft; yeah, yeah, I know, Bancroft was a great actress and a beautiful lady who could exude sex when she wanted to, and whose comic timing was every bit the equal of Lombard’s. But by 1983 she came off as the kind of woman you don’t fall in love with until after you’ve bought her dinner and conversed with her for a while, whereas Lombard was every bit the bombshell capable of making men stupid on sight. (Of course, as with any observation having to do with ineffable questions of sexual attraction, your mileage may vary. Male or female, you might have hot screaming fantasies about Sig (“Concentration Camp Earhardt”) Ruman for all I know.)  For this viewer, at least, the helpless reaction the character evokes in men she doesn’t know makes a lot more sense with Lombard than it does with Bancroft, and functions as a distracting, distancing element in the 1983 version.

Charles Durning bothered this viewer as Ehrhardt, mostly because he wasn’t Sig Ruman. (A remake is often easier to take, for lovers of a classic original, when it’s a substantial re-imagining; a film where many scenes are just acted more broadly invites more scornful comparison.) His immense physical bulk permits some inspired business involving his attempt to perch on the side of the desk. He also unfortunately mugs more, which is saying a lot. He adds an unnecessary, obscene hand gesture to the line, “What he did to Shakespeare, we’re doing to Poland.” Christopher Lloyd is an improvement as Schultz; he doesn’t get any more to do than the 1942 Schultz did, but he is a recognizable actor to us and thus better at setting up the regular abuse his character receives. Tim Matheson is nowhere near as effective in his role as Robert Stack. Jose Ferrer is effective enough in his.

The big problem is really the transformation of Jack Benny’s Tura to Mel Brooks’s Bronski. Brooks can act, but when performing shtick he prefers to go for the rafters. Benny was renowned for his timing and can still achieve huge laughs without a word, just by the fatuous “dramatic” pause he takes before reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy. It’s a much funnier performance than the one we get from Brooks, who doesn’t trust the material and all-too often underlines all the places where he expects us to laugh.

The Bigger Problem: The Odd Narrative Choices of the 1983 Version

Nor is that the only distancing element that damaged the 1983 version. The opening production number of “Sweet Georgia Brown”, sung in Polish, is charming enough…but then you have the characters speaking in Polish when the movie needs them speaking in English. To transition to the desired tongue, the movie could have utilized the device that previously worked to fine effect in, among other places, Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) and The Hunt For Red October (1990), which is to say introducing the authentic foreign language and then fading into a translation, which then persists for the rest of the movie.  The 1983 To Be Or Not To Be makes it a joke, presenting a godlike narrator who interrupts an argument between Brooks and Bancroft to announce that in the name of sanity, the rest of the movie won’t be in Polish. Both leads look relieved and then complete the scene in English. To use a line oft-spoken by one of the original film’s supporting characters, it gets a great laugh. But it also tells the audience, Don’t worry about anything that follows. It’s not real. It’s just Mel Brooks doing more Nazi shtick. The “great laugh” turns all of the story’s dancing on the edge of the precipice into a comedy routine. This is an even deeper mistake because the remake, armed with the benefit of hindsight, adds a band of Jewish refugees and a sympathetic homosexual to the list of people imperiled by the Nazis…touches which are absolutely artistically defensible, but collide with the film’s hellbent determination to remain disposable froth.

The remake adds too many cheap jokes, among them the moment when Bronski almost breaks a leg when somebody wishes him good luck by saying, “Break a Leg!” Even worse than that is the introduction of a stage manager named Sondheim, who will of course within minutes be asked to send in the clowns. Oh, I get it. Ha, ha, ha. Nor is that the only ridiculously telegraphed joke: when Anna’s flamboyant gay dresser is chased into the theatre during a show by Gestapo agents who want to deport him to a concentration camp for the crime of homosexuality, and we cut to Bronski on stage performing a production number that is an ode to the most beautiful lady of them all, we know it’s only a matter of time before…yes…that dresser shows up on stage and in drag in a desperate attempt to avoid his fate. Again: oh, I get it. Ha, ha, ha.

Well-intended though it is, the jiggering with the story adds another serious logical problem. The 1942 version of the climactic escape makes something approaching sense. There, the troupe dons their old Nazi uniforms in order to infiltrates a Reich gathering at the theatre, in order to stage a failed assassination attempt, introduce their Hitler as the real one, and “for security reasons” get themselves aboard a motorcade to the airport. It’s a risky and desperate gambit, but it has the benefit of simplicity, and you can imagine it working.  The 1983 version complicates this elegant and entirely acceptable story device with the astoundingly convenient coincidence that has this very troupe hired to entertain for the Nazis at their old theatre, and the moral imperative to bring the Jewish refugees along. This is accomplished by dressing the Jews in burlesque clown uniforms and making them part of the show on stage, before they join the troupe in marching down the center aisle between rows of hysterically laughing Nazis.  But for the frozen panic of one old woman, and the deft stratagem used to cover it (the only good part of the repurposed climax), this works exactly as planned.

But it shouldn’t. Indeed, it introduces a gaping logical flaw that makes the rest of the story impossible.

In the 1942 version, the troupe is not part of the show on stage and therefore won’t be missed by anybody in the theatre when they leave. In the 1983 version, the entire troupe escapes during a show without any of the guffawing Nazis ever noticing what they should notice, which is that the stage is suddenly empty and that the show has ended without so much as a curtain call. How does this work? At least, in The Blues Brothers (1980), when Jake and Elwood fled their concert carrying all the gate receipts, they left their band playing on stage, so it would be a few minutes before anybody realized that the lead singers had vanished…and even then, the cops, vengeful country music band, Illinois Nazis and Princess Leia still realized right away that the objects of their respective vendettas were pulling a fast one. But the motley gang of the 1983 To Be Or Not To Be left nobody behind. Explain how they got as far as four blocks without the airport being notified and you’re a better man than I am.

Finally, and unbelievably given how much the remake otherwise hews to the original, it inexplicably drops the blackest joke in the classic 1942 film and replaces it with a moment of almost unbearable kitsch. In the 1943 version, the troupe disposes of the Nazis piloting the plane by calling them back into the cabin, where the hatch is now open, and having the false Hitler bark the order, “Jump!” The two pilots happily oblige. It not only gets the biggest laugh in the film, but functions as its most searing indictment of the Nazis, as people willing to do anything including destroy themselves without question if their Fuhrer commands it. The 1983 version simply drops this in favor of a more conventional climax in which the protagonists are nearly captured at the airport. It all, unbelievably, comes down to a not especially suspenseful action climax in which the escaping plane accelerates down the runway just ahead of pursuing Nazis, while Anna Bronski’s pampered little dog races alongside it trying to hop aboard at the last minute. This is not just an inadequate replacement for a classic moment. It is a spasm of mindboggling awfulness. Even audiences who loved the remake booed that scene.

Footnote Facts

Jack Benny never again made another film as good as the 1942 To Be Or Not To Be. For the rest of his career, he derived comic mileage from mocking another, The Horn Blows At Midnight (1945), which though a financial failure that signaled the end of his movie stardom, was nowhere near as awful as he would paint it, forevermore. He would always be at his best on radio and television, playing his own long-lasting comic persona, a ridiculously petty, stingy, and conceited version of himself.

Carole Lombard left the set vocal about finding her work on To Be Or Not To Be the happiest and most enjoyable experience of her acting career. How sad, then, to report that it would turn out to be her last film before her death in a plane crash. She did not live to see its release. Today, it’s probably the most often seen of all her films,though her name remains coupled to Clark Gable’s as common shorthand for a certain kind of old-time Hollywood glamour.

The original film’s portrayal of a “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” as a dangerous fool who, whenever embarrassed by circumstances, immediately shifts blame to his underling by angrily shouting, “Schultz!” may have launched a little mini-meme all by itself. Billy Wilder’s classic POW-camp comedy/drama, Stalag 17 (1953),  featured a Sergeant Schultz who pretended avuncular affection for his American captives but took great pleasure in oppressing them. Popular sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, wrong-headed for more reasons than we have desire to go into here, featured a significantly more harmless Sergeant Schultz whose buffoonish commandant also covered up embarrassments by angrily shouting his name.

The Jewish refugees of the 1983 version include, in an unspeaking role, a young boy played by one Max Brooks, son of the married leads. This is the same Max Brooks who later carved out his own bloody niche with the worldwide best seller World War Z.

Mel Brooks reprised his most reliable shtick, making musical hay of the Nazis, with the hit Broadway musical (and its subsequent film version, and no doubt future Remake Chronicles subject) The Producers.

The Verdict

1942 version, a terrific film that deserves its reputation as one of the greatest film comedies of all time. 1983 version, a flawed and messy re-creation that plays many of the same notes but never manages to achieve the same music.

* * *

And, now, the wife weighs in.

Commentary by Judi B. Castro.

To Be Or Not To Be (1942). Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Written by Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justice Mayer, from an original story by Ernst Lubitsch.  Starring Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman. 99 minutes. **

To Be Or Not To Be (1983). Directed by Alan Johnson. Written by Ronny Graham and Thomas Meehan, from the story by Ernst Lubitsch and 1943 screenplay by Melchior Lengel and Edwin Justice Mayer. Starring Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, and Christopher Lloyd. 107 minutes.  **

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, Maan Gaye Mughal-E-Azam (2008), Bollywood film starring Rahul Bose and Mallika Sherawat. (It does not deal with the Nazi era, but applies the plot structure to a period of civil unrest in India.)

Wow.  I have just completed watching both versions of TBONTB and while that may have contributed to the raging migraine that delayed my half of this blog, I can’t say I didn’t have a pleasant time.

I’m sure Adam has gone over the basics, and then ripped apart the little changes that Mr. Brooks (I am sure the writers had little say) felt were necessary for his more modern audience, neither version really tipped my scales.

The 1945 version has actors in a contemporary piece, doing what was controversial for the time.  The 1983 version has actors playing history for schtick and just falling flat.  I was however reminded of why “cheese” is used when passing gas. (See Ehrhardt’s favorite joke).  I also rediscovered my contempt for overblown humor (ie. the ongoing overemphasis in the Brooks version) which has always made me feel as if the filmmakers had little regard for my ability to follow the plot or even the simplest of jokes.

As to the casts of each film , with only one exception, they truly gave it their all.  I adore Christopher Lloyd’s  “Schultz”, but I’ll take Robert Stack as the young flyer over Tim Matheson any day.  I can’t compare either leading lady without feeling a bit brutish.  Carole Lombard was THE comic queen with the beauty and brains to match, I only wish we could have been privileged to see more.  Anne Bancroft was a major theatrical threat, talent, brains, beauty and acting ability that proved itself all the way to the Oscars, her downfall here was following her husband’s lack of subtlety.

Finally, our leading men.  The underplayed Jack Benny and the overblown Mel Brooks.  Now, I am not a Benny fan, not even slightly into the old TV bits, but here he wins hands down.  Conversely, I am a Brooks fan and here I find all the Brooksian schtick unappetizing.  When Brooks allows others to do his work, a subtler hammer is wielded.

So, which film comes out on top of this particular romp fest?  Neither.  I declare a tie with a need for a rematch to be held sometime in the next 20 years.