Archive for February, 2011

February 2011 Index!

Posted: February 28, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Due to various availability problems that plagued us for the last calendar month, and left us seeing only single versions of several movies that would have been ripe fodder for Remake Chronicles essays, there were only two Remake Chronicles essay in the calendar month of February, which added to the one that appeared too late to get on the January index means a short list this time out. There might be a new one as early as tonight, but tomorrow is more likely.

For your convenience, here are the three remake essays since the January Index. As always, this only includes the remakes essays. Anything else is considered an extra.

One Pothole Away From Death: Two Versions of “The Wages Of Fear”

The Two Troubled Commutes Of Ted Stryker

Counting The Chips At Casino Royale

More Shameless Self-Promotion!

Posted: February 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

More Remake Chronicles goodness is coming. Honest. Circumstances have led the authors to three movies in a row where we saw only the well-known versions while the lesser-known are still coming. There is one key film which we’ve been eager to do since the very beginning where one of the key versions is NOT easily available for DVD rental, and we’ve been delayed by that as well.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, two plugs. “Arvies,” the short story by Adam-Troy Castro, has been nominated for a Nebula Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Two, check out the new book by Adam-Troy Castro and his artist collaborator Johnny Atomic, the gleefully gory Z IS FOR ZOMBIE.


An author’s intent, an actor’s fragile ego, a genial shambles and cruelty to testicles 

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Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Casino Royale (1967). Directed by Val Guest, Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, and Richard Talmadge. Screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, and Michael Sayers, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Additional screenplay contributions by (take a deep breath), Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, Billy Wilder, and Peter Sellers. Starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, and Orson Welles. 131 minutes. ** 1/2

Casino Royale (2006). Directed by Martin Campbell. Screenplay by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with Paul Haggis, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Madi Mikkelson, Judi Dench, and Giancarlo Giannini. 144 minutes. *** 1/2.

Other Known Versions: Seen by us but not reviewed for this essay, “Casino Royale,” episode of TV-anthology series Climax! (1954), starring Barry Nelson as “Jimmy” Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre.

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The James Bond films have become so cemented in their formula for success that their various inevitable ingredients sometimes make them seem less like individual stories than the same story, told and retold with only a few particulars changed. Such elements as the enemy stronghold that blows up in the action climax, the empty badinage with poor pining Miss Moneypenny, the give-and-take with his weapons master Q, the ordering of a martini (shaken not stirred), the final scene where Bond ignores a congratulatory message from his superiors in order to pursue celebratory sex with the rescued lady of the day, the McGuffin that often involves hijacked nuclear weaponry, and (most relevant to today’s examples), the gambling match with the villain where Bond beats the bad guy at the game he is enough of a cad to cheat at, are such series mainstays that they all appear, with only minimal variation, in most of the franchise’s outings. It’s more surprising, overall, when a Bond film chooses to omit one, let alone several.

Sometimes, the newest Bond film seemed less a separate entity than a de facto remake of the Bond film before it (as with The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker).

Under the circumstances, any talk of remakes seems so superfluous that it’s almost startling to note that the series has already known two complete sets.

One involved a twisted saga of the disputed rights to Bond and his supporting cast,  some of whom were concocted by a screenwriter who wrote a spec script for Ian Fleming. A couple of rancorous major court cases led to a settlement that ultimately deprived the main movie series of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the recurring villain who had dominated the Sean Connery era and who became the model for the Austin Powers villain, Dr. Evil. It was this very situation that led to Thunderball being remade, also with Connery, as Never Say Never Again.

The same consortium responsible for that one, hoarding its one treasure like a certain ex-hobbit mutated into Gollum by years of exposure to the ring of power, later tried to make the same basic story a third time, with yet another Bond reprising his role. They didn’t get backing again, but you really can’t blame them for trying.

And then there’s this, relic born of the one Bond novel adapted for television before the movie series, the same one that Howard Hawks once considered filming with Cary Grant. (‘Twas not to be, but seriously, consider Cary Grant as James Bond, and sigh.)

Casino Royale, which was not included in the package deal procured by the Broccoli family, was first filmed in 1954 as a not especially-distinguished episode of a TV anthology series, featuring an American “Jimmy” Bond who needed to win a card game against a Le Chiffre affiliated with french socialists. Copies of that production were lost for decades, but were eventually located and released on VHS (where this reviewer saw it, though it was also included as a DVD extra with the 1967 version).  I can report that it features Barry Nelson as a not-especially charismatic Bond and Peter Lorre as a Le Chiffre who doesn’t lend the play much more than his bored presence. It does, however, hew to the premise of Ian Fleming’s first Bond story, which has the super secret agent obliged to prevent the bad guy from winning a game of Baccarat that will replenish the funds he has embezzled from the Soviets.

(Thus leading to the pithy observation that while other Bond villains had grandiose ambitions, like extorting billions with nuclear terrorism, cornering the world heroin market, starting World War III, or wiping out most of humanity in order to establish a despotic rule over the survivors, this guy is motivated by nothing more than getting his hands caught in the till. In all filmed versions of Casino Royale,  Le Chiffre’s poor money management has gotten him into debt with the wrong people and he wants only to cover his own ass. It’s almost possible to feel sorry for him. In essence, he’s a somewhat more competent version of William H. Macy’s put-upon car dealer from Fargo.)

As in Ian Fleming’s novel, Bond wins the game, only to find himself captured, tied to a chair, and tortured at length by Le Chiffre: a scene that figures prominently in both the movie versions to follow, and which features something relatively rare in the Bond films: 007 completely helpless, and almost broken. It is one of the few scenes that make it into both the 1967 and 2006 versions, a key point of congruence in two productions that are otherwise as different from one another as two motion pictures can be.

The 1967 Version: A Genial Shambles

When the sixties spy craze was at its absolute peak and Bond in particular was a genuine pop culture phenomenon, possessing the rights to a Bond novel not procured by the Brocollis represented a grand opportunity that the makers of the spoof wished to exploit in grand style. They made all the smart opening moves, first by distinguishing their version from the series starring Sean Connery by deciding in advance by planning a farce with only limited fidelity to the Fleming novel. They also cast David Niven, Fleming’s own original choice as the best possible actor to play his character, and in one of the lead female roles Ursula Andress, who had made a splash (ha-ha) as the hot girl in the swimsuit emerging from Bahamian waters in Dr. No, and who is here given dialogue directly referencing her fate in that original film.

They had an explanation for the differences in their Bond written into the screenplay. Their Bond is an aging gentleman, retired from spying, dedicated to a vow of celibacy, and utterly resentful of his namesake replacement, who he calls “that sexual acrobat who leaves a trail of dead beautiful women like so many blown roses behind him.” It turns out that Niven’s Bond was such a force for good that the Brits and their various allies thought that the absence of a James Bond, any James Bond, so destabilizing to the world order that somebody named Bond had to remain active at all times.

This happens to be the exact same theory that some fans still embrace to explain the periodic replacement of the leading men in the regular series. That’s right. James Bond as Job Title was invented here, and it certainly beats the somewhat geekier theory, also popular, that James Bond is a Time Lord who stays young by “regenerating” like the protagonist of Doctor Who.

Circumstances compel him to take over the job previously held by M (here played by John Huston, who isn’t around for long), and support a training program that installs other Bond surrogates in trouble spots throughout the world. Beyond that, the plot defies description, largely because there isn’t one. This Casino Royale wanders all over the map, with plotlines initiated and then dropped, important characters introduced and then dropped, and the many scenes of sixties sexual innuendo (with entire mobs of sixties beautiful women) interposed with scenes that not only fail to make sense but were apparently never intended to make sense. Any attempt to describe the story will inevitably arrive at the phrase, “for no reason whatsoever.” Much of it is very funny, though it needs to be said that a lot of it is just as irritatingly tiresome.

If its contempt for coherent narrative reminds modern-day viewers of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, another film that (somewhat more successfully) feels like it was being made up on the fly, be apprised that one of the 1967 Casino Royale’s early sequences, involving the determinedly chaste Bond’s unnerving night at a castle populated entirely by aggressive young women in heat, was cited by the Pythons a s a direct inspiration for their use of pretty much the identical situation in their film, where the sweaty celibate was played by Michael Palin and the name of the edifice became Castle Anthrax.

It is difficult to tell how much of the chaotic plotting was originally intended, but one of the factors that contributed to it was a very troubled production, caused in no small part by conflict between Peter Sellers (here playing one of the replacement Bonds, a card player whose real name is Evelyn Tremble) and Orson Welles (here playing Le Chiffre). Sellers, who was never the easiest man to work with, took an instant dislike to Welles, exacerbated when Princess Margaret visited the set and fawned over Welles while ignoring Sellers. (It didn’t help that Sellers had just been trying to impress one and all with detailed stories of his friendship with the woman.) Welles responded in kind, deriding Sellers as an amateur.

Sellers was also desperately upset that Casino Royale was a silly comedy, as he’d wanted to play Bond straight – as is evident during the baccarat scene, where much of Tremble’s baiting of Le Chiffre could almost be transposed to a serious Bond film without alteration. As for Welles, it appears to have been his idea to have Le Chiffre regularly stop the game to perform elaborate stage magic at the table – again, for no reason whatsoever — behavior that would less than kindly looked upon at pretty much every casino I’ve ever known. It fits here only because nothing else in sight makes sense.

The two men ultimately refused to act in any scenes together, a snit that the film covered by pretty much never showing Sellers and Welles in the same shot at the same time, even during the card game. Their direct conversations at the gaming table are conveyed by close-ups and the backs of heads. Later, the “torture” of the faux-Bond by Le Chiffre is conducted with Le Chiffre an absent figure mocking the Sellers character by remote control, and torturing by methods that include (what seems to be) a wood-chipper in his chair and an orchestrated hallucination that includes marching men in kilts and a cameo appearance by Peter O’Toole, for (all together now) no reason whatsoever.

Eventually Sellers was either fired or allowed to storm off the set for good, with most of his scenes unfilmed. This included a great deal of necessary connecting material, which is a key reason why he rushes off to rescue Vesper Lynd and is next seen unconscious as Le Chiffre’s prisoner, with no actual scene where he is caught; he refused to film one. A number of his other scenes, including the one where he treats Ursula Andress’s leg as a piano keyboard, and the one where he hops into a race car, were not scripted parts of the film, but joking around on the set, reshaped as narrative.

One early cut of the film actually resorted to using a cardboard cutout of him during the climax, to cover his absence; it was replaced with other junk footage.

So the shamblicious nature of the narrative, ultimately filmed by six different directors and written by a small army of astoundingly distinguished film writers who seem to have been working during production to shape a film that had already spiraled out of control, was in large part a desperate improvisation, to cover for a star who was originally supposed to be a much more substantial player, and was unavailable for much of his intended screen time. What remains is, to an unclear extent, a film stitched together out of spare parts and desperate improvisation as the folks behind the production gave up on any pretense that any of this could ever make sense, even within the context of a silly comedy.

Some of the pieces are insanely brilliant, among them an extended sequence which has Mata Bond (the daughter of Bond and Mata Hari, played with substantial comic chops and what seems to be deep personal enjoyment by Joanna Pettet), on assignment in Berlin running around gloomy German Expressionist sets while still (for no reason whatsoever) wearing the same jewel-encrusted indian dancing costume she was introduced as wearing in an ashram (or whatever) several scenes earlier. Some are messed up, like Mata subsequently changing her accent and personality for no reason whatsoever. Some are just strange, like Sellers dressing up as Adolf Hitler for no reason whatsoever.  And some are just insane, as in the big action climax where old-west cowboys and indians invade the casino for no reason whatsoever, George Raft (who got star billing for less than sixty seconds on screen) shows up and dies for no reason whatsoever, a murdered character played by William Holden is revealed to have faked his death for no reason whatsoever, the Frankenstein monster shows up for no reason whatsoever, a chimp grins at the camera for no reason whatsoever, and main bad guy Woody Allen – who has been fed a nuclear potion – hiccups his way to the massive explosion that kills everybody for no reason whatsoever.

The movie is a mess, but a genial one, dull at times but hilarious at others. It was popular enough to emerge as the third biggest hit of its year.

And its fidelity to the source material amounts to this: A guy using the name of James Bond plays a game of baccarat with a guy named Le Chiffre to prevent him from replacing embezzled funds. Le Chiffre retaliates by kidnapping the girl, Vesper Lynd. Bond is captured trying to rescue Lynd and endures a brief interval of testicle torture (here presented in the most cartoonish manner imaginable).  Then Le Chiffre is killed, which only seems to resolve everything, leading to a false ending before the other shoe drops and the action resumes.

The 2006 Version: Bond Bleeds

The makers of the mainstream James Bond movies finally acquired the rights to Casino Royale in 1999, midway through Pierce Brosnan’s tenure in the title role.

Of Brosnan, who is not material to today’s discussion, let’s be content to say that he’s proven himself a terrific actor, better than the material he was given as 007 usually merited. The World Is Not Enough was likely his best Bondian outing, although, as usual, your mileage may vary.

The problem was not his, really. The problem was that the cartoonish heroics of the sixties Bond had ceased to impress in an era when other film franchises could compete with and wildly surpass the Bond movies in terms of wild action, sexual intrigue, and over-the-top violence. Worse, the Bond films had become so formulaic that other filmmakers had realized that they could do just as well with characters of their own creation, in films that were otherwise note-by-note recreations; and not in the manner that the imitators of the 1960s managed to present their own raft of respectable but second-tier Bonds, but with outings that easily matched the Bond films in extravagance of action. When James Cameron has made True Lies  and Vin Diesel has been in XXX and Tom Cruise has a thriving Mission: Impossible franchise and Matt Damon has the same with his Jason Bourne movies and Bruce Willis can boast the multiple variations of Die Hard, a James Bond movie no longer qualifies as an event just by showing up; it has to excel, to make us care about it, or it’s just redundant.

The people behind the franchise have been accused of “Bourning Up” the Bond films – this being an actual understood reference now – but the truth is more simple than that. With the 2006 Casino Royale, they stripped the character to his essence, removed the gadgetry, tortured quips and descents into campiness that now render some of the earlier incarnations all but unwatchable, and devoted serious thought as to what makes this guy tick and why anybody would give a damn about anything that happens to him. It re-started the series with a pre-credit sequence detailing Bond’s first kills for the 00 branch, which were not made to look jokey and lighthearted but instead ugly, brutal and sordid. One of them is a thug beaten to a bloody pulp in a bathroom, the other is a traitor shot dead while sitting in a desk chair; there is nothing at all glamorous about either of these kills, nothing to match the comfortable distance of that moment in Moonraker where an ambulance employed in a chase scene speeds past three separate billboards hawking commercial products that helped to underwrite the film.

It is only after the usual title song that we get the over-the-top action sequence that usually begins a Bond film. This one’s a parkour chase in Madagascar, set in and around a construction site where Bond pursues a terrorist-for-hire. This tour-de-force, the reviewer’s personal favorite action sequence in any of the Bond films, is to put it mildly not at all free of silliness; it employs, for instance, Roger Ebert’s famous fallacy of the climbing killer, the guy whose attempts to get away amount to scaling an edifice from which he will eventually have to climb down. It is, much of the time, silly of the heroes to even bother to chase them.  What redeems the sequence is its sheer bravura, the terrorist’s mad ricocheting off walls and girders, and Bond’s success at equaling him with blunt force and superior cleverness. If Buster Keaton had choreographed a Bond chase, it would be this one.

The set piece leads to a bad end for the terrorist and Bond in trouble with M for disgracing British Intelligence, from there to another action sequence in Miami that is almost as spectacular, and from there to the murder of a woman Bond had just callously seduced and abandoned in order to follow a lead. M (Judi Dench, who joined the series during Brosnan’s tenure and is another fine addition) back-handedly praises Bond for not caring, and he actually doesn’t seem to: but the moment is sufficiently well-written and performed to make it clear that Bond is not unaware of the human cost.

That brings him to Casino Royale, the introduction of Vesper Lynd, and the poker game played against Le Chiffre (who, here, is a banker for terrorists, who has invested heavily in the fallout from the act of terrorism Bond foils in Miami). At which point the film does something remarkable for the series, which is to say slow down; it spends almost an hour in the deepening of the relationship between Bond and Lynd and in intrigue at or surrounding the game.

The sexual tension between Bond and Lynd is remarkably adult, for the series, which at its worst saw Roger Moore seducing women half his age with no more than a raised eyebrow and a moron double intendre. By contrast, Lynd and Bond are presented as a pair of intensely guarded people, who acknowledge their mutual attraction right up front but also see through one another with a depth that keeps either from wanting personal involvement. His moment of compassion for her, during a moment of post-traumatic personal vulnerability, feels more real than anything that happened in some prior decades of the series.

The film’s Le Chiffre is not entirely devoid of Bondian silliness either; he has a “malformation of the tear duct” that occasionally causes him to weep blood, a physical condition with absolutely no referent in medical science, given that the integral nature of human anatomy is that any wound that bleeds will eventually scab. It’s there to make him look less than human. In truth, though, his nastiness does not exempt him from human vulnerability, brilliantly revealed during one scene where he and his lover are confronted in their hotel room by assassins sent by one of the terrorist leaders whose funds he misspent. Le Chiffre is reduced to a weeping, terrified mess, helpless as a knife is brandished against a woman he may or may not love, but at least likes enough to sleep with. This does not stop him from reverting to murderous type after he returns to the poker table, or has Bond strapped to that chair, but it gives him a depth no James Bond villain has had, before or since. The man may deserve to die, by the logic of the series, but it’s impossible not to understand that he knows he’s drowning.

His subsequent torture of the captured Bond is also more graphic, more genuinely painful, than anything ever seen in the series before. There is no gimmicky threatened castration of the impeccably dressed hero by laser, as in Goldfinger; no civilized gourmet meal before fight to the death, as in The Man With the Golden Gun.  (Brosnan’s Bond was captured by, and tortured by, the North Koreans for a full year, but his ordeal is shown during the usual a jazzy credits sequence, and has all the emotional impact of a music video.) Le Chiffre just tells the shivering, naked, helpless, and terrified  Bond – brilliantly played by Craig — that there’s  simply no point in  sophisticated torture techniques when it’s downright easy to cause a man more pain than he can possibly stand.  And then he whips Bond’s bare testicles with a knot tied in a heavy rope. There are no saucy quips, no insouciant gestures of defiance; like Le Chiffre only a few scenes earlier, Bond is quickly reduced to a despairing shell.

Following Bond’s subsequent deliverance from that predicament, his long recovery and his decision to abandon his secret agent ways for a life spent with Vesper – who in this context represents more than just a woman he loves, but an actual route back to humanity – makes perfect sense.

This is not the only time the movie Bond ever genuinely loved a woman for what promised to be longer than the interval between one mission and the next; the Bond played by George Lazenby loved, married, and tragically lost Tracy, the leading lady of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The difference, in retrospect, is that it’s a little hard now to see why that Bond fell for Tracy when he’d easily abandoned so many who were just as formidable. It’s easy to see why Craig’s Bond makes the decision he makes in Casino Royale. He’s been hurt, this time, more than he’s ever been hurt before. He already cared for the lady. His heart is open.

That it goes badly, indeed tragically, is just as inevitable. The series does need to continue, after all. But in this context it feels even worse when he angrily sums up his loss by telling M, “The bitch is dead.” At that point, something has clearly died in him too. It’s an emotional origin story, so much beyond the usual Bond material that it almost feels like a different genre. That it was immediately followed by Quantum Of Solace, which sought to continue the story but was because of many failings (not least among them an incompetent approach to its action scenes), one of the worst films of the entire series…a heady statement for anybody who’s seen Moonraker…is not its fault.

As for Craig, this much needs to be said. He is clearly not the most distinguished actor to have played Bond. That would still be David Niven. Nor is he the most iconic. That would still be Sean Connery. But, aided by a screenplay that demands it of him, he gives the all-time finest performance as Bond, ever: but for the few flashes the other actors have been allowed, it is pretty much the only time that the character on screen was ever recognizably and consistently a human being affected and scarred by his violent world. Contrasted with some of the campier outings in the past, it’s understating the case to say that it’s barely recognizable as being about the same character, and more accurate to say that it barely seems to belong to the same genre.

Intelligence Analysis

The 1967 film: an insane, out-of-control farce that, at its best moments, lampoons the silliness of the Bond universe about as well as any film possibly could. It’s more talent than usually appears on screen at the same time, all the more fascinating for the misfire. The 2006 version: a serious take on the same material that contains the best action sequence in the franchise’s fifty-year history, and as close a look into the soul of Bond as we’re ever likely to see. The two movies together: an object lesson on the best way to take a character seriously, and the best way not to.

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And now, the wife chooses to accept her mission…

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Casino Royale (1967). Directed by Val Guest, Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, and Richard Talmadge. Screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, and Michael Sayers, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Additional screenplay contributions by (take a deep breath), Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, Billy Wilder, and Peter Sellers. Starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Orson Welles. 131 minutes. **1/2

Casino Royale (2006). Directed by Martin Campbell. Screenplay by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with Paul Haggis, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Madi Mikkelson, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini. 144 minutes. ***

Other Known Versions: “Casino Royale,” episode of TV-anthology series Climax! (1954), starring Barry Nelson as “Jimmy” Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre.

Let me get this out of the way first thing.  The 2006 film is a better movie in every way possible, but I still love the 1967 Casino Royale oh so  much more.

Now, I have the hard part, answering the why of the above statement.

The earlier CR is not prettier, grittier, or even close to good story telling.  There are plots and characters left spinning in all directions, and a nonsensical ending that just is. But for all these flaws, it makes me laugh.  Not rolling on the floor holding my belly and crying, just giggles and chuckles that last over the next few hours and days as I remember the silliness.  Yes, even in my middle years, I still crack up over the insanity of the kitchen sink melee and the game of toss.

I could debate over the David Niven vs Daniel Craig, but both are great Bonds.  Craig reinvigorates 007 as a man of action and decisiveness with little humanity or warmth.  Niven plays Bond as a man hurt by his choices, yet emboldened by those same events.  Could Niven have been a good JBond playing it straight?  I believe so, but that market was never tapped since a certain Mr. Connery was busy playing the horn dog version.

Both films attempt to tell a pretty thin tale and both succeed in very different ways.

Villainwise, well come on guys, its Orson Welles playing cards, magic and drugs.  The torture of the mind, so much more elegant than multiple slams to the nads.  Neither is actually much of a baddie.  Both versions are just Ponzi schemers trying to make up losses before they are lost too.  Should I care what happens to these guys?  Not like the old world domination tactics of say Dr. No.  So I say who cares that they get offed before the final scenes?

So, where is the big difference that tilts me back to childhood?  Ahhh…the music.  Burt Bacharach combining with Herb Alpert.  This is what a band parent’s nightmares are made of. I played this stuff day and night for years and claimed I was practicing.  5 years of trumpet solos , guitar riffs, piano banging, and various other attempts usually drifting into some part of this film’s music.  Well, my folks could only blame themselves for letting me see CR so many times.  The theme song is eminently hummable, and the big hit “The Look Of Love”  was heard for years on AM radio (and many weddings I’m sure).  I still love that terrible little mindworm of a theme.

OK, I’ve said it, this film is a childhood fave and as a high school brass playing geek, I adored the soundtrack (and still do!).  Is it a better film deserving of all the praise I can heap upon it.  Hell no!  Its just sheer fun and I will adore it evermore. (But, don’t forget how good the 2006 film is either).


A Blog Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

One of the occasional “extra” posts, mostly reprinted, that I upload here from time to time, to help fill the space between “Remake Chronicles” posts. This was originally posted on Unca Harlan’s Art Deco Dining Pavilion in 2008, and is also available in different forms on my Facebook site and on my Harper Collins author site. I have edited the essay slightly for this republication. I am aware that some people have been vocal about opining that I must have made this up, that it cannot possibly be true. I swear to you, these events occurred exactly as related. My astonishment is palpable and still entirely justified.

In 1995 the company I worked for at the time decided to move its main corporate office from Larchmont,  New York, to Boca Raton, Florida. I was one of the employees offered an opportunity to move with it. Circumstances made keeping the job a better option than staying in New York, so I agreed to make the move, finding an apartment and arranging for a professional moving company to ship my belongings. I brought everything I could carry with me in my car, and spent 10 nights in a barren apartment sleeping on an air mattress while I waited for my things to arrive.

On the day the truck arrived, I took the afternoon off so I could meet the moving men, whom I had never met before, at my apartment in Fort Lauderdale.

The first thing that happened is that the truck got lost and arrived three hours late. The driver had to call me three times to get directions—at one point reporting a current location some 45 minutes farther away than any I had directed him to — but he ultimately zeroed in on the correct address, and I ran down to the apartment complex parking lot to meet the two guys with the truck.

I must now tell you that though I’d never met the two guys in the truck, I recognized them at once.

They were both clad in overalls. The shirts underneath were neat button-downs, and they were wearing thin black ties and brimmed painter’s caps.

The driver was a chubby guy on the wrong side of 260 pounds. He wore a hat and had a little moustache. He was tremendously exasperated over getting lost for so long, a circumstance he blamed on his assistant, whom he had foolishly placed in charge of reading the map.

He asked me if my apartment was on the ground floor. I told him no, it was on the second floor, up a flight of exterior stairs. He rolled his eyes with exasperation. “Well, I’m sorry,” I said, “It is.”

His coworker was his physical opposite: a very thin man with protruding ears and a broad, amiable smile, charming in its sincerity but simple-minded in its affect. He may have been borderline retarded. I liked him at once, without speaking a word to him.

The two men went to the back of the truck and rolled up the gate, revealing an expanse of boxes and padded furniture. The fat man ordered the thin man to get up there and start handing him boxes. This, the thin man did. He moved so industriously, in fact, that he handed the boxes to the fat man faster than the fat man could stack them on the ground.  At one point he put one heavy box on top of another that the fat man was already holding, almost causing the fat man to fall over. The fat man let out a pained “Whoufff!” The thin man apologized, without full comprehension of his trespass.

I objected: “Wouldn’t it be easier to take the big furniture items first, so you won’t have to maneuver them around the boxes that are already in the apartment?”

The thin man and fat man looked at each other. This was a great idea.

They spent several minutes putting the boxes already unloaded back into the truck.

Now the two started carrying furniture out from the parking lot, through an arched gateway, into the apartment complex and to the wing that contained my empty apartment. Once inside t\hey beheld the stairway, two sets of six risers with a bend in the middle, leading up to the second floor walkway where my apartment sat. It was going to be hard to maneuver some of the bigger pieces, a combined cabinet and bookcase, up that obstacle course, but it had to be done. The fat man said to the skinny one, “You pull and I push.”

The thin man struggled mightily with his burden. The effort this took was so hard on him that his legs wobbled like liquid, slipping against the risers as he struggled for purchase. The smile, however, the eye contact with me as he shared that unwavering smile, never left him. It was like he was putting on a show, with me as audience.

After a heroic effort, they reached the first turnaround. The cabinet/bookcase got wedged against the railing, and would not go any further. The fat man said that he needed to get above it, so he could guide its movement past the bend. “Bring it back down!” he ordered.

The thin man started to comply.

I said, “Excuse me, this is silly. Why don’t you just go up the other stairway on the other side of the building, cross over on the walkway, and meet him here?”

The fat man took this as a capital idea. He went around to the other end of the building. Simultaneously, the thin man climbed down the stairs on the outside of the railing, so he could push from the bottom. The fat man arrived at the top of the stairs, did a double take when he saw that the thin man on the ground, and gave me another exasperated look, a look that communicated, again, the message, “See what I have to deal with?”

They managed to get the big item up the stairs with only two or three minor mishaps, each of them involving minor physical injury to the fat man. This involved the cabinet being dropped on the fat man’s foot, the cabinet jamming the fat man’s hand against the railing, the cabinet crushing the fat man against the wall. Each time the fat man let out a horrified yelp, and each time the skinny man apologized, each time with blinking that established a total dearth of comprehension.

The two men reached the second floor railing with the heavy items, breathing heavily from all the effort. I asked them if they’d like some water before they continued. They both allowed as how it had been a long drive and how they would like to use my bathroom. I opened the door for them. The skinny man started to enter. The fat man stopped him by blocking his way with his arm, pointed at his own chest to establish that he took precedence. 

He marched through the door.

Would you believe me if I told you that he tripped at the threshold and went flying?

We skip their bathroom break. They did their business, brought the cabinet into my bedroom with several additional physical insults to the fat man and at least one spat where the fat man cried out in frustration, “Why don’t you do something to help me?”

The skinny man went back to the truck and returned with the frame supports of my bed. He said, “Where do you want this, mister?”

I’m afraid I stared at him for a moment. This was a one bedroom apartment. An idiot could surmise where the bed would go. I said, “The bedroom.”

He took the frame into the bedroom. A few minutes later he returned from the truck with the mattress and asked me, “What about this?”

The fat man rolled his eyes again. I said, “On the bed frame.” The skinny man brought my mattress into the bedroom.

With all the furniture moved, it was now time to get those boxes. A word about how I labeled my boxes. There were 28 boxes. I had wanted to make sure that none were missed, so I wrote on each one of them with thick magic marker, in letters several inches tall.  They were all labeled something like, Castro Box 1 of 28. Or 2 of 28. Or 3 of 28. Et cetera. The skinny man asked me, “How many boxes do you have?” Again I stared, and said, “28.” The fat man rolled his eyes yet again. The thin man went and started getting the boxes, one at a time, in order, actually moving them in the pile on the truck so he could deliver them numerically. I will note again, for the record, that his big broad smile—never showing teeth, but still an upward curve of his lips—remained on his face during all 28 box trips, none of which the fat guy helped him with.

There were no further disasters as the rest of my items entered the apartment. I signed for the delivery and tipped them. The skinny guy reached for the money, but the fat guy pushed him aside and took it all. I thanked them.

The fat guy said, “Service with a smile.” He actually said that.

The skinny guy smiled at me again as the pair went down the stairs. For the first time, he took off his own hat and scratched his head. His hair was, I must report, short on the sides but stood upright when the hat was removed. It was, I swear to God, bright orange red. The only color it could have been.

Feeling like a man in a dream, followed them out, standing there as they drove away.

The first thing I said when they were safely out of sight was an awestruck, “My God, They Actually Exist.”

And since then I have always wondered how often they were recognized.

August 21, 2008


Is there anybody aboard who knows how to fly a plane?

 

 

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Zero Hour! (1957). Directed by Hall Bartlett. Written by Arthur Hailey. Starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, Sterling Hayden, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. 81 minutes. **

Airplane! (1980). Written and Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker (with substantial lifts from 1957 screenplay). Starring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack. 87 minutes. ***

Other Known Versions: Flight Into Danger (Canadian TV-movie, 1956), Flug in Gefahr (German, 1964), Terror In the Sky (TV-movie, 1971).

Not much in the way of analysis this time. Not much to analyze.

See, this one’s a key reason why we started this blog. The truism “Remakes Always Suck” is not only demonstrably untrue, but also ignorant of the many, many times where the remakes are, by far, better known than the original films that inspired them. In this particular case, the movie that everybody remembers, that hit the pop culture zeitgeist like a lightning bolt, that established some careers and brilliantly revived others, and that continues to be imitated today –  for the most part really, really badly – is not just a remake, but the fifth incarnation of a story filmed and pretty much forgotten four times before. Taking most of its inspiration from the second incarnation, which was written by one of the founding lights of the disaster-movie genre, it may mock that film relentlessly, but also uses its structure and much of its dialogue, verbatim; and before you ask, yes, the makers did pay the copyright holders for the use of the material, though they did their best in the publicity materials to ignore its very existence. So, yes, damn it, it is a remake.

We’re talking about Airplane!,  the perverse Abrahams/Zucker Brothers take on disaster movies, which was written with exacting, intimate knowledge of a prior melodrama meant to be taken entirely seriously. The fidelity to Zero Hour!  is so exact that there are some jokes in Airplane! you won’t completely get until you see moments of unintentional silliness from the earlier film. Light will dawn, and you will mutter, “Oh. So that’s where that came from.” For instance, there is one gag in Airplane! driven entirely by the recognition that a minor supporting actress from the original film, playing the worried wife of a pilot felled by food poisoning, overacts her silent reactions to off-screen events in a scene where she’s supposed to be a wordless, barely noticed presence beside the expert trying to talk down the passenger who has taken the controls of her husband’s plane. In the original, she remains unnoticed, because the man beside her is a powerful presence played by Sterling Hayden, and what he’s saying happens to be important. But if you actually trouble yourself to look at her you will see her hyperventilating like a horse who just completed a five mile run,  in a desperate and failed attempt to steal some of the scene’s attention for herself. In Zero Hour! she gives up after a few seconds,  closes her damn mouth, and lets Hayden do his job. In Airplane!, where she’s standing beside Robert Stack, she erupts into full-scale sexual arousal and – without quite realizing what she’s doing — begins to run her passionate hands over Stack’s chest, until Stack turns toward her in confusion, and she backs off, chastened back into her intended role as the silent worried wife.

Then there’s Johnny, a character from the original who exists only so that the more important players can repeatedly ask him to go get coffee. Abrahams and the Zucker brothers no doubt felt deep sympathy for this put-upon soul when they created their own version of Johnny, a manic zany who leaps in and out of scenes infecting everything around him with his personal brand of insanity.

For someone who had seen Zero Hour! and even read the Arthur Hailey novelization Runway Zero Eight when Airplane! was released in 1980, the parody film played at a higher level; the stunned recognition of the once seriously-intended story, and the lines of dialogue that remain unchanged (but now became wildly funny) when placed in a context of nonstop zaniness, represented one of the movie’s unalloyed pleasures. For someone completely unaware of the prior film who saw Airplane!  enough times to know it by heart, and who only belatedly discovered the film that presented it with most of its source material, the pleasure of discovery is reversed, as a parade of laugh lines are revealed as dialogue lines once seriously-intended. It is a primal case of artistic feedback; each film now enhances the other.

Both films introduce us to one Ted Stryker, a hotshot fighter pilot during the war who made the command decision not to abort a raid when the ground conditions were obscured by heavy fog, and got six members of his squadron killed. Now it’s years later, and the post-traumatic stress of that fateful day have left him a shattered man, drifting from job to job, unable to handle any lasting responsibility. In both cases he has returned home early to find a note from the woman he loves, to the effect that she’s leaving him; in both cases he exhibits prime stalkerish behavior by buying a ticket on the same flight, in the hopes of talking her into returning. (In Zero Hour! she’s his wife, and has taken his son as well; in Airplane! she’s just a long-suffering and scatterbrained girlfriend.) In both cases the airline offers passengers a choice of dinners; in both cases a serious case of food contamination awaits passengers unlucky enough to choose fish for dinner. In both cases, a doctor is in board to treat the afflicted (though he somehow never thinks to induce vomiting). In both cases the flight crew is felled and in both cases Stryker must take his place in the cockpit, fighting his own inexperience at this kind of aircraft while the woman intent on leaving him sits in the co-pilot’s chair, operating the radio and thus getting to see him rise to the occasion. In both cases the chief voice from the ground is an unfriendly acquaintance from his military days and in both cases it is Stryker who decides to try for an immediate landing in open defiance of his old enemy’s advice that he continue circling for another couple of hours.  Each film features a hysterical woman passenger, an old crone self-righteously offended by a seatmate who offers her a drink, and a young boy whose trip to the cockpit brings him into close contact with a pilot whose intentions toward him seem more pedophiliac than paternal.

A look at the dialogue from Zero Hour! reveals how extensively it was quoted (in some of these cases just closely paraphrased) in the later parody. This is by no means a complete list, but it includes many of the moments that viewers of Airplane! took as just part of the silliness.

Little Joey gets to see the cockpit

CAPTAIN  [takes out a toy DC-4] Joey, here’s something we give our special visitors.  Would you like to have it?

JOEY: Thank you!  Thanks a lot?

CAPTAIN: You ever been in a cockpit before?

JOEY: No, sir!  I’ve never been up in a plane before!

Stryker’s Domestic Woes

 

STRYKER: I know things haven’t been right for a long time, Ellen.  But it’ll be different.  Like it was in the beginning, remember?

ELLEN: I remember everything.  It’s all I’ve ever had to go on.  Mostly, I remember … the nights when we were together.  I remember how you used to hold me.  Then afterwards, how we’d … watch until the sun finally came up.  When it did, it was almost like … like each new day was created … only for us.

{…}

STRYKER: Don’t you feel anything for me at all anymore?

ELLEN: It takes so many things to make love last.  Most of all, it takes respect.  I can’t live with a man I don’t respect.

 

The First Signs of Trouble

JANET: Captain, one of the woman passengers is very sick.

CAPTAIN: Airsick?

JANET: I think so, but I’ve never seen it so acute.

CAPTAIN: Find out if there’s a doctor on board, as quietly as you can.

The Introduction of the Doctor

WOMAN: I think the man next to me is a doctor.

JANET: Oh, thank you.  Sir?  Excuse me, sir.  I’m sorry to have to wake you.  Are you a doctor?

DR. BAIRD:That’s right.

JANET: We have a passenger who’s very sick, could you come take a look at her?

DR. BAIRD: Yes, yes, of course.

The Diagnosis

PASSENGER: Oh, stewardess, my wife is very sick, can you do something please?

JANET: Oh, well, the doctor will be with you in just a moment.  One thing … do you know what she had for dinner?

PASSENGER: Oh, yes, of course, we both had fish.  Why?

JANET: Oh, it’s nothing to be alarmed about.  We’ll get back to you very quickly.

{…}

DR. BAIRD: Well, Janet, you’re a member of this crew.  Can you face some unpleasant facts?

JANET: I think so.

DR. BAIRD: All right.  Unless I can get all these people to a hospital quickly, I can’t even be sure of saving their lives. {…} I think you ought to know what our chances are.  The life of everybody aboard depends on just one thing: Finding someone back there who not only can fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner.

Stryker has Greatness Thrust Upon Him

STRYKER: Both pilots?!

DR. BAIRD: Can you fly this airplane and land it?

STRYKER: No.  Not a chance.

JANET: Doctor, I’ve asked everyone.  Mister Stryker’s the only one.

DR. BAIRD: What flying experience have you had?

STRYKER: Well, I was a fighter pilot in the war, but I flew little combat planes with only one engine.  This has four.  There’s no comparison.  The flying characteristics are completely different.  It’s a different kind of flying, altogether.  Besides, I haven’t touched any kind of a plane in ten years.

DR. BAIRD: Mister Stryker, I know nothing about flying.  All I know is this.  You’re the only person on this plane who can possibly fly it.  You’re the only chance we’ve got.

An Editorial Comment from Air Traffic Control

This guy doing the flying’s had no airline experience at all.  He’ll be a menace to himself and everything else in the air.

Taking Stryker’s Measure

TRELEAVEN: All right, Harry, let’s face a few facts.  As you know, I flew with this man Stryker during the war.  What you don’t know is, that doesn’t make my job any easier here tonight.  Frankly, I think you’d be a lot better off if you got somebody else who doesn’t know him at all.

BURDICK: I don’t think that has anything to do with it.

TRELEAVEN: It has everything to do with it.  In the first place, I think it’s a mistake if he knows that I’m the man who’s talkin’ ‘im in.  He’ll have a million things on his mind without being reminded of those days when … well, when things weren’t so good.

BURDICK: Right now, things aren’t so good.  And while we’re talking, there are 38 lives waiting on us for a decision.

TRELEAVEN: Let me tell you something.  Ted Stryker was a crack flight leader up to a point, but he was one of those men who … well, let’s just say he felt too much inside.  Maybe you know the kind. {…} Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smokin’. [lights up]

How’s It Flyin’?

STRYKER: Sluggish, like a wet sponge.

ELLEN [on radio]: Sluggish, like a wet sponge.

Stryker Grows Back His Balls, Gets The Girl Back

VANCOUVER RADAR CONTROLLER: Captain, he’s below seven hundred now, and he’s still going down!

TRELEAVEN: Stryker, you can’t come straight in, you’ve got enough fuel left for two hours’ flying.  You’ve got to stay up there ’til we get a break in the weather!

STRYKER: I’ll take it, Ellen.  [to radio] Listen, Treleaven, I’m coming in, do you hear me?  I’m coming in right now.  We have people up here including my own son who’ll die in less than one hour, never mind two.  I may bend your precious airplane, but I’ll bring it down.  Now get on with the landing check!  I’m putting the gear down now.

ELLEN: Ted?

STRYKER: Yes?

ELLEN: I just wanted you to know, now, I’m very proud.

STRYKER: Tell them the gear is down, and we’re ready to land.

ELLEN [to radio]: The gear is now down, and we’re ready to land.

After the Landing

TRELEAVEN: Ted, Ted, that was probably the lousiest landing in the history of this airport.  But there’s some of us here, particularly me, who’d like to buy you a drink and shake your hand.

***

Oddly, given the willingness of the makers of Airplane! to pick up on and amplify the uncomfortable intimations of pederasty that went along with the little boy’s visit to the cockpit, the remake completely ignores the incident that looks creepiest to our modern eyes, which is to say the nightclub performer who entertains Ted’s little boy with a sock puppet. A modern father would dropkick that guy away from his kid at first sight, and it’s almost unthinkable that the Zucker/Abrahams trio would let this particular opportunity go.  (Maybe it would have been too much of a sick thing). Another element that Airplane! fails to mock sufficiently is the original’s inconsistent model work: the make of airplane seen in the exterior shots is not always the same, and indeed the plane even changes its number of engines.

Instead, Airplane! fills out the rest of its running time with bits quoting from Jaws, From Here to Eternity, and Saturday Night Fever, among others. I used to know the name of the World War II melodrama extensively quoted in the scene where a young soldier says goodbye to his girlfriend – again, the dialogue here is almost exact – but that has faded into the mists of memory.  (Maybe a reader will provide it.)

In recent years the Airplane! template has led to a mini-industry of films that ape its attitude and techniques without one-tenth of its wit: Epic Movie, Date Movie, Disaster Movie, Superhero Movie, etc. About all that can be said of these is that they don’t comment on the narrative, as Airplane! did, but limit themselves to the idiot movie references and scatological jokes that it only used as a spice. They have become their own formula, and unlike Airplane!, are more dirges than comedies. The guy who comes up with the response to the response, i.e., Half-Assed Bad Parody Movie,  achieves comedy gold.

The Flight Log

Zero Hour!, a well-meaning melodrama that now seems about as sluggish as a wet sponge. Airplane!, a still-funny laugh machine, the twin that keeps this particular pair of conjoined siblings breathing.

And now, the wife readies for takeoff…

***

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Zero Hour! (1957). Directed by Hall Bartlett. Written by Arthur Hailey. Starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, Sterling Hayden, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. 81 minutes.  *

Airplane! (1980). Written and Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker (with substantial lifts from 1957 screenplay). Starring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack. 87 minutes. ***1/2

Other Known Versions: Flight Into Danger (Canadian TV-movie, 1956), Flug in Gefahr (German, 1964), Terror In the Sky (TV-movie, 1971).

When Adam suggested Airplane! for this blog I asked when it had been remade. Instead of going into a detailed explanation (as is his wont), he quickly told me that it was based on a film called Zero Hour and we could get it from Netflix. I agreed and put it into the upcoming work queue of  my mind.

Three weeks later, we are back from a short weekend away, the film has arrived and I agree to give Zero Hour! the time it needs to permeate frontal lobe.  I couldn’t figure out why Adam kept one eye on the screen and the other watching me.  Then the film began.

OMG!!!!!  I’m watching a film I know by heart, but it’s not the film I love.  This is the bad older sibling of the comedic young clone.  I had to physically stop the disc more times than I can count to catch my breath.  I sat watching the film in stunned disbelief.  How can so mediocre a movie have become such a comedic masterpiece of my teen years?  Scene by scene, the quotes are there.  Airplane!, which I hadn’t seen in at least 10 years (but could still quote verbatim), was being viewed by me in black and white without the cast I loved and none of the intentional/unintentional humor, and yet there it was in Zero Hour!.  I sat with disc controller in hand and liberally used the pause and rewind buttons .  It took us nearly 2 1/2 hours to get through the old girl because of me.

Is Zero Hour! a great film?  Hell no!  It’s barely an O.K. one, unless you are a true fan of the remake that began a genre of its own.

Oh, hey, in a little aside, if you are ever in a casino, ask if they have the Airplane slot machine.  Its fun and has some great audio clips from the film.