Posts Tagged ‘Thriller’


 

gaslight poster

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Gaslight aka Angel Street, The Murder in Thorton Street,  A Strange Case Of Murder  (1940). Directed by Thorold Dickinson. Screenplay by A.R. Rawlinson and Bridget Boland, from the play by Patrick Hamilton. Starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wyngard.  84 minutes. ** 1/2

Gaslight (1944). Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John R. Balderston.  Starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury. 114 minutes. *** 1/2

So here we have yet another stake through the heart of the oft-repeated premise that “Remakes Always Suck.”

This also serves as eloquent argument against the premise that remakes are coming closer together, today, than they ever have before. We’ve already covered the three versions of THE MALTESE FALCON made within ten years, the last of which was the only great one; and, only slightly less dramatic, three versions of THE THREE MUSKETEERS made within thirteen years, of which only the last one can be legitimately argued to have gotten the story anywhere close to right. The movies under discussion this time out, made only four years apart, may seem an extreme class, but a couple of the Musketeer movies were that adjacent, and the Falcon movies were almost as much so. Still, four years is an unusually narrow gap. It may not be our all-time record – that would be two POSEIDON ADVENTURE movies made a year apart –but it’s close.

Both films are based on the 1938 play set in the Victorian era about the cad of a husband who, to keep his wife from realizing that he’s a con man searching the attic of their London home for priceless jewels, sets about deliberately driving her insane – or, more accurately, convincing her and the world that she is insane, which pretty much amounts to the same thing. If this seems an unlikely premise, please keep in mind that much of what occurs here presents a genuinely sophisticated understanding of the dynamic between some emotionally abusive husbands and their terrorized wives. In the real world, the household becomes a closed system, where the wife is cut off from any possible reality check on the part of friends and family who might be able to halt her disintegration; she is made to believe that everything that happens is her fault; she is offered little moments of affection and reward that are just as cruelly withdrawn, in a manner designed to make her feel that the blame for the loss is her own. Pathetically grateful for any indication of kindness, as her self-esteem is reduced not just to zero but to negative numbers, a woman in this position can be made to believe the most ridiculous premises, even those that contradict the evidence of her own senses. In 1940 and 1944, the premise might have seemed over the top; today we’ve seen and recognized too many real-world examples where exactly this form of abuse was made to work, and the saddest truth associated with either movie is, frankly, that when each movie’s independent investigator arrives to tell the heroine that she’s not insane and that her husband’s merely been twisting her perceptions to make  her think so, the ladies in question are, if anything, restored to sanity more easily than most. Witness the oft-seen moment from any number of domestic abuse cases, where the wives with the freshly broken nose and the freshly fat lip refuses to press charges, insisting to cops that the bullying subhuman who did it is “a good man.” Of course, the premise that a woman might have the right to defy her husband, or even walk out on him if he treats her poorly enough, was still sufficiently radical at the time these movies were made – let alone the time being written about – that the play hedges its bets somewhat, revealing in its final movements that the cad has another wife and child off in another country, and that our heroine is therefore not actually his wife,  and is therefore free to react as his treatment of her should have been enough to dictate.

The two movies are not identical. Though based on the same play, and including some nearly identical scenes, there are substantial differences between them, down to the plot level. The 1940 version is much more faithful to the play; the 1944 version changes many of the particulars, in large part to better showcase and protect its stars.

Gaslight (1940): Not Really About Her

The 1940 film, half an hour shorter, begins with a shadowy figure sneaking up behind a sweet little old lady, Alice Barlow (who’s embroidering a pious sampler, just to make sure we get the dastardly nature of the crime), and strangling her. Years later, the two upper floors of her now-abandoned home are sealed off, and the rest of the home renovated for new tenants:  Paul and Bella Madden (Walbrook and Wyngard, respectively), who pull up in a carriage, and at very first sight are recognizable to us as not the happiest of couples. Bella looks haunted, almost spacey. Paul seems stiff and resentful around her. There is no clear sign of even theoretical affection between them.

Clearly, he has already started to break her down, to make her the malleable thing he wants her to be. One immediate effect of this is that she is immediately removed from the role of protagonist; that position is taken by B.G. Rough (Frank Pettingell), a retired detective who worked on the old lady’s murder case and whose suspicions are rekindled now that the house is occupied again. Rough is an older man, and a rather roly-poly one, so any question of actual sexual chemistry between him and Bella, in the latter scenes, is negated. The suspense lies in whether he can get the goods on Paul, and rescue Bella, before the damage done to her is irreversible.

We further learn, from a visiting relative who is denied permission to see Bella, that she has always been a frail person whose health has always been in question. There has never been any strength in her, never any personal will aside from the will she borrows from those who take care of her. We first meet her when she’s already reduced by her husband’s treatment of her and we therefore have no idea what kind of person she could be, if treated with genuine love or kindness. We feel sorry for her, but that’s about as far as it goes, and as far as it’s ever permitted to go.

The revelation, before long, that Paul is the murdered woman’s ne’er-do-well nephew, and that his beastly decision to drive his wife mad began with her discovery of a letter that he sees as possible evidence against him, further removes her from the center of this, her own story. It really has nothing to do with her. She saw something she should not have seen. Before that point she was just a woman who didn’t realize she was the victim of a bigamist. At some point, he either actually liked her or thought she would be useful cover to have around; we honestly don’t know, nor are we given enough evidence to know.

We find out in both movies that Paul’s nightly disappearances from his home are cover, to re-enter the home through the attic by first cutting into a nearby abandoned building, so he can search for the jewels he’s been after all along. In the 1940 film, the explanation for what he does when he leaves at night comes fairly early, to both us and detective Rough. Also in 1940, the sexual chemistry between him and the sinister young maid is explored to a much greater degree than what we’ll get a mere four years later; he actually indicates to her that when his wife is locked up in the asylum, the two of them will be free to rumpty-dumpty, and in fact takes her on an extended date to a show at a London music hall, which doesn’t add as much as to the story as the screen time would seem to indicate but does permit the film to include an extended high-kick dance number, which was considered an absolute good, once upon a time.

The climax reveals that the mind-bogglingly valuable rubies the whole thing has been about, all along, were all hidden in Bella’s locket, which defies plausibility, as the locket is about the size of her thumb and the jewels would all have to be the size of periods on a printed page. It’s hard to credit those as valuable rubies. Those are the chips removed from valuable rubies when the jeweler cuts them into a pleasing shape.

Still, once Detective Rough tells her what’s up, both apart from her husband’s presence and while he’s there fuming to hear it, Bella’s confrontation with her exposed “husband” is a powerful one, in which the weak, fragile, shattered wife actually does look like she’s about to stab him with the knife in her hand, out of sheer loathing. One advantage of not really knowing her character beforehand is that we honestly don’t know what she’s going to do; she is revealed for the first time in those scenes, and it’s a powerful moment. The film is beautifully shot and furnished with sumptuous sets, and though neither quality is quite as magnificent as what we’ll get a few short years later, it ain’t nothing, either. It’s not a bad film. It’s actually a pretty good one, better as a predecessor to its particular classic than the first Maltese Falcon  was to the Humphrey Bogart version. But few people would remember it today, or have any real reason to see it,  if not for its position as footnote to what would shortly follow a few short years later.

 

 

Gaslight (1944): Beware The Attack of Pretentious Gallic Smoothies

The 1944 version – which is, let’s say right off, to an order of magnitude a greater feast for the eyes – offers us a lot more, in the way of substantive changes, than just the introduction of far more charismatic actors.

To start with, the victim of the original murder is not a sweet little old lady making pious samplers. She’s a world-famous opera singer, renowned throughout the world, and the owner of jewels that were bestowed upon her by a smitten crowned head of state; it therefore becomes much more believable that the jewels are priceless enough to have been worth all the to-do made about them. (She doesn’t appear in the story as a character, but we see a portrait of her, and can tell that she was still relatively young and beautiful when killed; and on top of this her character helps inform that of her niece Paula (Bergman), who is here presented as a girl who has substantial singing talent of her very own, who foolishly gives up her ambitions when she falls in love with her future “husband” Gregory.)  Gregory (Boyer) a piano player who once accompanied Paula’s aunt, has pretensions of a great future as a composer, but we soon learn that he really doesn’t have much to offer in that line; he is a non-talent, who is in evil ambitions subverts a girl who, we are made to believe, is a much grander one.

None of this is critical to the plot, but note how well all of it moves the endangered wife to the forefront. In the original, he owns the house and really doesn’t need her around while he searches it; he just begins his campaign to drive her mad because she’s seen an incriminating letter and he was treating her like crap anyway. In this version, she’s the inheritor of the house. He needs her to gain access to it, and so he uses his wiles to first deprive her of her ambitions and then of her property and then of her freedom of movement and then of her sanity; it’s a much greater series of betrayals, and it’s all focused on a girl we know. We may first meet her when she’s a traumatized teen being removed from her aunt’s house in the aftermath of her aunt’s murder, but by the time we catch up with her again on the continent, she’s far away from that tragedy and, though clearly still traumatized by it, a formidable young woman with substantial potential (if not in music, then at least for attaining happiness). We see, in her radiance, the depth of the love she thinks she’s found, in Gregory…and Bergman sells this feeling so substantially, so perfectly, that she’s substantially more beautiful in these scenes  than she was in her earlier hit Casablanca. And she’s not exactly a crone in Casablanca.

Charles Boyer’s acting style has not aged as well, alas – he was a pretentious gallic smoothie then, when that was a good thing, and that has only gotten worse as most screen acting has evolved in more naturalistic directions – but that actually rebounds to the movie’s benefit. Occasionally, a flawed performance is precisely the right kind of flawed performance. For instance, McCauley Culkin was not half the actor his co-star Elijah Wood was, when they played together in The Good Son, a thriller about a murderous, sociopathic child…but the limitations to his affect, and the general off-ness of his line readings, only furthered the impression that his character was a little monster only mimicking the proper emotional responses in order to seem properly human.  Much the same thing occurs whenever Tony Curtis played a con man, pretending at sophistication; the pretense was transparent, and rightly so. There about a million similar examples. To our modern eyes, Boyer is affected and corny…but exactly the kind of untrustworthy guy who might impress a naïve young girl who doesn’t know any better. It is a perfect twist on the material.

With this chemistry, Boyer playing Gregory as the most romantic, smooth-talking sharpie alive, and the first signs of trouble appearing as Gregory insisting to his lady love that of all the possible places where they can now settle, he wants a small house on a London Square exactly like the one that Paula has steadfastly avoided since her childhood trauma…the arrival at the house where most of the action takes place now plays a lot differently. Paula is apprehensive, but believes that she can be happy there; Gregory is clearly manipulating her and just beginning his transformation from eloquent romantic to control-freak, but she is not yet a doormat; she has every reason to believe that she might be happy. Her character begins from a place a lot different than the character from the first film. In this remake, we know her well and like her before she ever enters the house with her creep of a husband. She has a character  that can be broken down. And so it plays at a much higher level when he acts downright unhinged, during a tourist visit to the Tower London; when he starts hiding household objects and leading her to believe that she has stolen them; when he encourages her to believe that she has had memory lapses; when this movie’s sinister young maid (a teen Angela Lansbury, in her movie debut), bullies her out of her plans to leave the house and go for a walk. It hurts to see this vivacious, beautiful, talented young girl having the life sucked out of her. It hurts less to see the same thing happen to somebody who’s already a doormat.

Paula’s connection to music also adds to another key moment of the story. Both films include a scene where the husband consents to her attendance at a high-society party that includes a piano recital, only to cruelly accuse her of stealing the watch which he has hidden away in her handbag, and drive her from the room in tears. In the 1940 version, there is no special reason to believe that Bella is enjoying anything more sophisticated than the rare opportunity to be seen out in public. She seems profoundly uncomfortable, even in her seat.  In 1944, it’s music. It transports Paula. Bergman is able to indicate that her character feels joy at the sound – and the cruelty of then robbing it from her is profoundly underlined.

In this film, there is no indication that Gregory’s dalliance with the nasty young maid goes any further than flirting on his part and yearning on hers; perhaps, despite clear evidence that the husband is a heel in other ways, 1944 Hollywood didn’t want to hinge too much of the story on that hard-sell, adultery. It’s a loss, even if the removal of the dance-hall sequence is a dramatic plus in that it doesn’t take us away from the main story at a point where it honestly doesn’t need to bleed tension.

(The smaller role doesn’t stop young Angela Lansbury, a teenager at the time and still a name performer today, from nailing what she’s given.  She says in an interview among the extras on the DVD set that includes both movies that she was very kindly treated by everybody – which she notes isn’t always the case, for actors of any age, and good luck in particular for the young girl enjoying her first big break.)

The revelation that Gregory is sneaking back into the house after leaving at night takes place a lot later in the story than in the 1940 version, and the solution to the mystery of the missing jewels is much more sensible and therefore much more satisfying. Paula’s confrontation with her securely bound husband, once he’s been exposed, is a killer-diller; after two hours of being reduced to an emotional invalid, she now gets to expel all of her anger and betrayal, and though there’s never any real sense, as in 1940, that she might kill him, the sudden return of the girl who’s been robbed from herself is the story’s heart, and Bergman nails it in one of the great sequences of her career. She won the Academy Award for the part, deservedly.

But the best of the story’s improvements to the play may be the most “Hollywood”; i.e., instead of giving us a fat old retired detective who swoops in to solve the case just to show he can, we get Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton), a Scotland yard functionary who also, persuasively, serves as possible future romantic interest for Paula.  He’s accused by another character of being in love with her. He very likely is. There is no reasonable way, even at movie-melodrama speed, for her to reciprocate. She only has a few minutes freed of the influence of her “husband.” But it is clear at the end that she is letting her rescuer into her life, and that at bare minimum she has found a friend who will be a positive presence in her days, to counter the loss of the monster who tried to destroy her. This is also more satisfying, if less realistic, than the heroine of the original getting nothing more than the opportunity to breathe fresh air. Cotton, who often played profoundly decent men, serves that function well here, though it needs to be noted that he could radiate evil when he needed to; see Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt (1943). Gaslight was the seventh full-length film of his career, all made in a three-year period, and was astonishingly his fifth great one. Nor was he finished with greatness for the decade; The Third Man was still to come.

This is, by the way, one of those occasional stories that adds to the English language; “Gaslighting” somebody has become a slang term for a pattern of psychological torture designed to get them to doubt their reality, and ultimately get them to blame themselves for their own abuse. It is therefore worth noting that when I recently mentioned on-line that I’d seen this movie for the very first time, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction editor and notable scamp Gordon van Gelder immediately insisted that my memory was failing me and that we’d seen it together. It took me hours to twig to what he was doing. Thanks a lot, Gordon.

The Incriminating Papers

1940 version: a reasonably effective melodrama, marred by remote characters and too narrow an arc for its leading lady. 1944 version: an all-time classic.

*

And now, the wife remembers it differently…!

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Gaslight aka A Strange Case Of Murder (1940). Directed by Thorold Dickinson. Screenplay by A.R. Rawlinson and Bridget Boland, from the play by Patrick Hamilton. Starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wyngard. 84 minutes. ***

Gaslight (1944). Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John R. Balderston. Starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury. 114 minutes. *** 1/2

This is one of those times when I agree with Adam on the ratings of these films.  Both films are well made and for the most part well acted.  But neither one really blew me away.

I had seen the 1944 version a few times while growing up and always felt that the heroine was just too much of a pushover.  I mean first they bundle her off to get her away from London and the murder scene.  Then, some guy she’s only recently met  is allowed to take over running her life and takes her back to the murder house.  Then, some guy she doesn’t even know is allowed to convince her that not only is she not going mad, but her loving husband is nothing more than a murderer and thief.  Talk about a pushover!  And, this is the heroine we are supposed to root for?

I never knew of the existence of the 1940 version or the play until we stumbled across the listing on the cable barker.

I found the 1940 storyline much more satisfying, but constrained by the boundaries set by the stage play. It had a bit more feel of reality when a former police officer recognizes a suspect from a past case, and takes the case open again.  I mean isn’t this what COLD CASE is based on?

I guess I need to spoil everything if I want to state my major gripe with the story.  Guy meets girl/wins girl/moves with girl to supposedly strange (to him) place/begins controlling every aspect of girl’s life/begins convincing her she is going insane/is found out by third party and destroyed all in time to save girls sanity and life! The very idea of a murder occurring and the criminal being so obsessed as to hatch this convoluted plot to get his hands on the property.  It boggles the itty bitty grey cells.  And yet, the 1944 film, following these basic storylines, is considered by many to be a minor masterpiece.

Both films are very set bound and claustrophobic, which intensifies the drama.  The earlier version, just didn’t have the budget or directorial talent to pull off what the 1944 film did.

The Gaslight of 1944 had Ingrid Bergman playing weak with a steel core  and Charles Boyer playing slick and cruel.  One deserved all the praise heaped on her, the other wellll, not so much. Boyer’s stilted stylization in this film was really just an unease with acting in English and unfamiliarity with his co-star nd director. His later roles where he evinced a sly charm, came after much more time had passed and he was more a part of the American movie community.  But here, playing the foreign fella, well, the stiffness comes off as cruelty and “foreigner “ standoffishness.

Both films are well worth the time invested in their watching.  Neither is more, or less, than the set piece it was meant to be.  The earliest a good attempt at interpreting the play, the latter and lush film remembered for one of many roles of an incredible actresses career.

 


First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Rear Window (1954). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Raymond Burr, Thelma Ritter. 112 minutes. *** 1/2

Rear Window (1998). Directed by Jeff Bleckner. Screenplay by Larry Gross and Eric Overmyer, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring Christopher Reeve, Darryl Hannah, Robert Forster. 89 minutes. **

Other Related Films:  Too many ripoffs and homages to count, among them Disturbia (2007), which is so similar to Woolrich’s story that the owners of the film had to go to court to get a ruling that they hadn’t violated Rear Window’s copyright.

This one’s an oddity, folks: a remake that was actually based on a breathtakingly brilliant idea for a variation on a movie that was a classic to begin with, that nevertheless utterly failed to live up to its promise.

The source was the short story “It Had To Be Murder,” by suspense great Cornell Woolrich, all about a man temporarily laid up with a broken leg who has nothing better to do while he heals than look out the window and watch the lives of his neighbors. As it happens, one of those neighbors has a murderous secret involving the sudden disappearance of his wife. Our hero gradually pieces together the clues – all predicated on his neighbor’s odd behavior, all of which has other potentially innocent explanation — and ultimately brings the malefactor to justice.

There is no girlfriend in the story, no great emotional character arc linking the mystery to a pivotal crisis in the hero’s life. It’s just something that happens to him, something that makes his brief existence as an invalid a little more interesting than it might have been otherwise. (Other Woolrich stories are more emotionally fraught: the failure of SOME great moviemaker to adapt his horrific stunner, “Momentum,” remains a mystery.)  The subsequent movies required more, and are in at least case significantly more satisfying.

rear-window_cartel

The Original

The 1954 version written by John Michael Hayes and directed by Alfred Hitchcock presents us with the case of one L.B. (nickamed “Jeff”) Jefferies (James Stewart), an international action photographer who is laid up in his rarely-used Greenwich Village after getting a killer photo of a race car wreck, which he evidently got from standing in the road while the twisted wreckage spun ass-over-teakettle toward him. (In a sense: serves him right). We gather from much of the dialogue about his activities, taking photos in hot spots around the world, that getting the impossibly dangerous shot is his specialty. The man is a danger junkie, now confined to a wheelchair and about to go crazy as he waits the last few days for his cast to be taken off. He’s an action hero reduced to inaction hero. He has nothing better to do than to look out the rear window and watch the lives of his neighbors.

The courtyard his tiny apartment overlooks is one of the great indoor sets in the entire history of the movies. It is a complete, living neighborhood in and of itself, comprised of a number of different buildings of different design, overlooking a central area where the inhabitants have carved out flower beds and little patches of lawn. There’s even an alley, through which Jeff can see the street, and passing cars. For the 112 minutes of the movie, the action never moves from this place, except to pull deeper into Jeff’s apartment where he has conversations of varying import with his visiting nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), his old war buddy Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), and his socialite girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), who is pressing him for further commitment.

The first thing to note here is that this is a guy who honestly cannot decide whether he wants to be married to Grace Kelly. This is a plot point that has appalled friends I’ve shown the film. But some men do flee domesticity, and one of the grand, subtle jokes of the vast multi-layered tableau that fes Jeff as he looks out his window and spies on the outside world is that every single life he spies upon presents him with another possible future, depending on whether he says yea or nay to Lisa. There’s the pair of ardent honeymooners, pulling down the shades and initiating an implied marathon love-making session that seems to go sour after only a couple of days; there’s “Miss Lonelyhearts,” the miserable woman stuck in a particularly miserable and increasingly despairing singlehood; there’s “Miss Torso,” the good-time party gal who always has men hanging around and represents the erotic opportunities Jeff might enjoy if he ever lets Lisa go; there’s the middle-aged couple with the little dog, who every night drag their mattresses out to the fire escape and snore away in relative comfort, all sense of passion gone; and finally, there’s the Thorvalds, whose marriage has turned toxic, and who have so little to say to one another that they’re almost always visibly in separate rooms, framed by different windows. It’s worth noting that nowhere in this slice of life are there any children. Children would fall outside the metaphor, which is like all great dramatic metaphors felt without any particular effort to underline it. What Jeff sees is very firmly the face of Jeff’s dilemma.
  
The second thing to note here is that all of these spied-upon characters have an arc of sorts, played with perfect modulation as the drama in the Thorvald apartment – where the much put-upon husband (Raymond Burr) appears to have offed his wife – takes center stage. Almost all of them pay off. So does the drama in Jeff’s apartment, where in between banter with Stella and romantic complications with Lisa, he resists and then embraces his obsession with Thorvald’s apparent crime. It’s a marvelously layered film, with comedy and relationship drama and even questions over the creepiness of Jeff’s activities all braided together in a tapestry of remarkable design. These days, some viewers may find it requires patience. But it rewards that patience. I don’t think it has a single dull moment, and key among its best attributes is the way the clues to Mrs. Thorvald’s murder don’t just pile up in some facile way, but at times offer competing explanations, and reasons to turn away.

Nor is Jeff given a free ride on the moral issues. His voyeurism – hardly asexual, but certainly bored – is criticized by everybody in his circle, and the movie takes delight in using this to indict the audience. The moral issues are so nuanced that it is even possible to feel sorry for Thorvald, after everything Jeff has put him through in order to prove his case. Thorvald is not an evil man, per se; just a very unhappy, very weak, very trapped one who has done a horrendously evil thing, and when he confronts Jeff (who he presumes to be a blackmailer) with an anguished, “What do you want from me?”, that one line is likely the most empathetic moment of Raymond Burr’s career.

But then all the performances in the film work at an equal level. It is among the best films of James Stewart’s career and one of the best of Grace Kelly’s. Even the supporting players across the courtyard inhabit their roles with grace and a deep sense of humor.
 
It’s very nearly a perfect film, and though it’s been imitated a dozen times, it’s hard to think of any wrinkle that would even stand a chance of improving on it.

Enter Christopher Reeve.

The Remake

The sad but stirring twist in the life of Christopher Reeve is so well known that it need not be recapped here; suffice it to say that I concur with author Brad Meltzer’s take on the man, that he achieved fame by playing the indestructible Superman and greatness standing in the mortality of all of us Clark Kents.

I don’t hold with the popular wisdom that Reeve was never great on screen except as Superman; I would argue that he was pretty damn chilling as a sociopathic playwright in Deathtrap, and pretty damn good a couple of other times. He was certainly no liability in Remains Of The Day opposite Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. performed in front of the camera on several occasions following the terrible accident that made him a quadriplegic, and was therefore a natural when somebody hit upon the startling brainstorm of casting him as the lead in an updated Rear Window. Why wouldn’t it work? Jeff in the original is pretty damned vulnerable as a man of action who has been sidelined by a mere broken leg; how much more helpless will his character be, when he cannot move a muscle under his shoulders, and requires live-in help just to get a cup of water when he wants one? Wouldn’t that ramp up the scares even more?

This is not a unique idea. As it happens, there is an entire subgenre of what we’ll now call “handicap thrillers,” involving physically impaired characters who must overcome their limitations in order to overcome the evil intentions of various murderers and thugs. Among them: the terrifying Wait Until Dark, which starred Audrey Hepburn in the adaptation of the Broadway play about a “world champion blind woman” terrorized by gangsters searching for a cache of drugs in her apartment;  See No Evil, which pit a blind Mia Farrow against another murderous plot; and Mute Witness, about a woman who…well, you can figure out the rest. There are even other thrillers featuring lead characters in wheelchairs. Hell, thriller writer Jeffery Deaver has written a pretty damn terrific series of novels about his quadriplegic forensic scientist Lincoln Rhyme, one of which was made into an unfortunately not-very-good movie with Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie.

The inherent claustrophobia of Rear Window should have worked wonders with the predicament applied to a quadriplegic, and with a quadriplegic we all loved in the lead.

And this much needs to be said: in spurts, Reeve is terrific. He always excelled at the dazzling smile during an emotionally vulnerable moment, and has several opportunities to pull off that trick here. Throughout this film, he has scenes that play off the heartbreaking realities of life as a one-time vital person reduced to immobility, including one where he regards a closet teeming with clothes that he will likely never wear again. Early scenes, with him in the hospital bleakly wishing he was dead, are downright painful to watch, in light of our certain knowledge that Reeve lived those moments and felt those feelings.

But – and boy, do I feel like a heel for advancing this case – he also sabotaged this movie’s effectiveness as a thriller from the get-go.

The problem is that, by the time it was made,  Reeve was quite rightly an advocate for spinal cord research, and for state-of-the-art medical treatments for people with spinal cord injury…and as such, acutely aware that this movie, by far his most substantial acting role after the accident, was the best place to advocate for his cause. So he made demands, and nobody involved with the production had the heart or the good sense to say no to him. So it begins with him in the hospital, features him declaring that he will walk again someday, and includes scenes of him undergoing arduous physical rehabilitation to triumphant music long before he even gets to the apartment where he will observe the murder across the way.

This is absolutely fine if you’re making an issues drama of the challenges faced by quadriplegics, less fine if you’re making a thriller – a short TV movie, no less – where all these scenes take time and bleed tension from the story you’re supposed to be here to tell. Another problem arising from this is that, as a result of all this can-do spirit, the character he plays is exactly the same at the beginning of the movie as he is at the end; he doesn’t rise to the occasion, and he doesn’t learn about himself. His character arc is a straight line.

The story might have worked better if Reeve had been a despairing recent quad who imagined he had little to live for, for most of the film, and was brought back to some interest in life by his engagement with the murder scene across the street…a natural plot development given how many quads attempt suicide in the early years of their disability – but such attention to emotional realities, or at least dramatic ones, would have interfered with his personal mission to make this a hidden advocacy film.

Reeve’s advocacy harmed the film in another way. At the time, he also said he wanted to show the kind of tech available, to aid quadriplegics in living fulfilled lives. So there’s a lot of that, in his character’s home: including voice-activated computers that control the lights, the elevator, the phones, and so on. His character has an attendant in residence at all times, a fulfilling career with partners who respect him, and a beautiful woman who by the end of the movie will fall in love with him. This is all nice stuff to have. It doesn’t replace a functioning body, but it makes the transition to a disabled life as easy as it can be. So what we have, here, is quadriplegia as Christopher Reeve lived it – which, while it functions as drama, is absolute death when it comes to a film of suspense. Imagine he was a quad of more modest resources, living on disability, in a cramped space with only limited assistance – and THEN suspected that a murder was taking place across the street. This guy can afford to set up surveillance equipment, just in case he misses anything – and, by the way, unlike the original film’s protagonist, whose voyeurism bothered his nurse, his girlfriend, and his cop buddy, this guy’s video cameras are treated as cool stuff by almost everybody concerned. The voyeuristic aspects never receive substantive criticism.

Time hasn’t been kind to the concept, either. In 1954, the rarity of air conditioning – a factor in other Hitchcock movies discussed here in the past– meant that it was perfectly reasonable for the residents of a middle-class apartment complex to live their lives in full view, playing out entire dramas in view of their windows. In 1998, it doesn’t make nearly as much sense…especially since the Hitchcock provided a far more spacious courtyard with apartments set at varying angles and not the direct-line-of-sight posited by this movie. Also – as any thriller writer will tell you – the invention of the cellular telephone has been absolute hell on plotting, and its inclusion in the remake is no exception. Too, the killer here is a one-dimensional designated asshole, not nearly as interesting or as oddly sympathetic as Raymond Burr was in the original.

Finally, there is no wonderfully complex courtyard across the way: just a single dull edifice that fills Reeve’s line of sight and offers him what amounts to a collection in television sets in the form of conveniently-placed windows. There is no comparison to what we were given in  1954. It’s flat, in every sense of the word.
 
This was not Reeve’s worst remake of a notable film: his last movie as a fully-abled man was a terrible version of Village of The Damned, and we will someday cover his participation in a truly unfortunate version of The Front Page. (It was called Switching Channels, and he played opposite Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner.) All we can say of this one is that it just didn’t work.

The View From The Apartment

1954 version, an undisputed classic. 1998 version, a missed opportunity.

*

And now, I watch from cover as the wife engages in sinister activities…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Rear Window (1954). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Raymond Burr, Thelma Ritter. 112 minutes. *** 1/2

Rear Window (1998). Directed by Jeff Bleckner. Screenplay by Larry Gross and Eric Overmyer, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring Christopher Reeve, Darryl Hannah, Robert Forster. 89 minutes. **

Other Related Films: Too many ripoffs and hommages to count, among them Disturbia (2007), which is so similar to Woolrich’s story that the owners of the film had to go to court to get a ruling that they hadn’t violated Rear Window’s copyright.

I so wanted to like the 1998 rethink of Rear Window.  I mean come on it had Superman starring and proving he just might really be.  Besides, the original was really showing a few grey hairs (not just the one’s previously claimed by Jimmy Stewart). But, alas, it was not to be.

In 1954, and even up to the mid 70’s, it may have been commonplace for someone to become a temporary voyeur via injury or illness.  Boredom had fewer releases than today, little television, no computers or video games.  Books were limited at most libraries by budget and distance to said library.  And most magazines came out monthly, so a long convalescence had a lot of downtime.  So its believable that the Stewart character could easily start watching his summertime neighbors and playing mind games with himself.  Its even possible that those same folks might not notice him watching, or could pass it off as just a friendly guy at his window.  Creepy neighbor watching became the meme much later.

The things I find totally unbelievable for that time or EVER, is that any straight man, whether injured or not, rich or poor, or whatever, could have Grace Kelly in her most gorgeous state, throwing herself at him (and wantonly at that) and he can resist and actually ignore her!  PUHLEEZE!  Dude didn’t have a broken leg, They were feeding him large quantities of saltpeter.  Next, the home nurse never insists he leave the apartment, just cleans him up and lets him hobble about his two rooms.  Six to eight weeks in solitary confinement?  Is that doctor recommended?

Now, how about that remake?  I can believe that architect Christopher Reeve has enough cash reserve for all the wondrous toys both medical and electronic he buys after his accident.  I’m sure he had much better access than the average newly paralyzed patient and just figured he could walk back into (so to speak) his job and most of his old life.  Ummm…  ??? How?  Most of his firm’s partners would attempt to block him from anything to do with the job or the public and claim it was for his own sake. 

Now, how about the crux of each thriller, the supposed murder of the neighbor’s wife.

In both films the murder is based on the supposition that a disappearing wife meant a murder had been committed.  Neither is proven conclusively, but both disabled leads taunt the murderer into a full on attack.  In the 1954 film, I honestly believe that Jimmy Stewart, hobbled or not, had a fighting chance against Raymond Burr. Not so with Chris Reeves.  How could he?  His ability to defend himself was purely run and hide.  he couldn’t draw a gun or knife on his attacker, he could only call 911 if that.  The suspense was only if he could breathe long enough for help to arrive.  In other words, uhh, no really.

So, to sum up.  1998 had a good try at an update, but needed less disability to keep the suspense alive.  1954 needed a leading character who wasn’t wearing a giant “L” on his forehead for the whole film.


Keep Your Mouth Shut, Or Say Goodbye to the Kid

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, from a scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlison. Starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, others. 75 minutes. **

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the earlier screenplay. Starring James Stewart, Doris Day, Alan Mowbray, Hillary Brooke. 120 minutes. ***

You and your family are on holiday abroad. You are intent on having a good time and minding your own business, but a mortally wounded secret agent warns you of an assassination plot threatening the stability of the entire world. Naturally, you resolve to tell the authorities…but before you can the bad guys kidnap your child and threaten murder if you ever tell the police what you know. All you have left is your own resources, your own determination to get that child back…and an imminent rendezvous at a concert in  London’s Royal Albert Hall, where an assassin’s bullet has been scheduled to coincide with a climactic clash of cymbals.

This is the dilemma that faces the protagonists of the only story Alfred Hitchcock ever saw fit to revisit, the two Men Who Knew Too Much; two very different films similar in plot outline and much more than “similar” in the Albert Hall sequences that mark the high points of both, but which are in other ways quite different. Hitch himself told Francois Truffaut that the first film was the work of a talented amateur and that the second was the work of a seasoned professional; he is not wrong about that, even though both are second-tier work, missing the subtext and psychological richness that mark the best of the suspense master’s output. It’s safe to say that without the master’s name on it, the first would now be totally forgotten if not the presence of the great character actor, Peter Lorre; and that the second, fun as it is, would likely not be remembered all that much more. (Sorry; even as lightweight Hitch goes, it’s certainly no North by Northwest.) But as far as originals and remakes go, they make a deeply instructive pair, because a side-by-side comparison demonstrates the best possible reason to make a remake in the first place: i.e. fixing what was, initially, wanting.

Lorre

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The first The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) presents us with Bob and Jill Lawrence (Banks and Best), a British couple on vacation in St. Moritz. Jill is a competitive-level skeet-shooting champion; she misses her shot here, but her skill is established, and anybody who wants to know whether this will eventually be a story point should recall the maxim once posed by Anton Chekhov. The first thing worth noting here is that while kids in jeopardy are a long-standing tradition in movies, kids in jeopardy can be annoying when they almost die stupidly, and Betty gets on our crap list right away when she chases a weiner dog – which we take to be hers, though it is never seen again – onto a ski-jump slope, and comes within a few feet of being mowed down by a skier in competition. (Given Hitch’s later fame for staging elaborate and persuasive set-pieces, it’s worth noting that the near-accident is presented as unconvincingly a product of stock footage, a reaction shot, and the editing room, as anything you are ever likely to see in a Hitchcock film ever again; this in part because it’s a low-budget film from the very early days of sound, and in part because Hitch was, as he later admitted, still learning his craft). 

It is also worth noting that Bob and Jill feel like place-holders instead of characters. We are invited to root for them because the camera is on them, not because either one of them does anything to make us fall in love. Bob pulls what is allegedly a neat trick involving his daughter’s knitting, which he hooks onto the tux of a man dancing with Jill, so it unravels during the waltz and tangles everybody on the dance floor in twine…but the moment is pure movie hokum; it’s impossible to believe that the dancers would all fail to notice that this was happening, for as long as they do. And there is absolutely no sense, aside from the natural assumption, that this couple has any real affection for their child, until that child is kidnapped; there simply isn’t any real chemistry between spouses or between parents and child.

(It’s worth noting, by the way, that even by the standards of the era, where some actors seemed to have used their cigarettes as substitutes for actually giving a performance, it’s downright cringe-worthy to see star Banks take a deep drag and deliver his next line with a big, white cloud of toxicity puffed directly into his little girl’s face, at what amounts to point-blank range. Betty doesn’t seem to mind much. The actress, Nova Pilbeam, retired from show biz only a few years later but is is apparently still alive, her iron constitution providing a terrific defense against second-hand smoke.)

The subsequent assassination of the secret agent makes little sense even by the flexible physics of Hitchcock movies. The bullet, evidently fired by a sniper outside the building, cracks a window, its trajectory carrying it over a very crowded dance floor with other bodies in every direction, and then manages to hit the secret agent in the chest even though – I cannot possibly stress this enough – even though he is at the moment dancing with Jill and any bullet striking him in that spot would have had to go through her first. It is in short such a magic bullet that the one responsible for hitting President Kennedy and Governor John Connolly is revealed as a muggle bullet by comparison. We will forgive the happenstance that has it piercing the agent’s chest UNDER his tuxedo without making a hole in that tuxedo; the logic of bullet holes was extremely loose at this point in film history, and if we started to complain about that one we’d have to complain about all the others and would probably be here all day. Still, the moment doesn’t work at all.

Following Betty’s subsequent kidnapping by the bad guys, the action moves to London, where in between bouts of dramatic cigarette smoking, Bob decides to investigate the assassination plot himself, and (because this movie is only 75 minutes long), finds the conspirators right away, through a visit to a creepy dentist. There is some goofy nonsense involving a “Church of the Sun,” which manages to hypnotize Betty’s monocled twit of an Uncle, but for our purposes the important part has to do with Bob’s almost immediate capture by the bad guys, who have him in custody and ENTIRELY ineffective for most of the rest of the film.  Led by droopy-eyed, cigarette-smoking Peter Lorre – they naturally spend this time blowing smoke in his face. (Lorre’s filmic output consists of many great films like M and Casablanca and The Mask of Dimitrios and The Maltese Falcon and Mad Love and Arsenic and Old Lace where he gave performances by, you know, brilliant acting, and a couple of others like this one and the tv version of Casino Royale where he substituted his cigarette; he is profoundly creepy here as always, but really, the cigarette is being asked to do far too much of the work.)

The climax is an all-out assault by cops where Bob accomplishes almost nothing – the very model of the ineffective hero.  (Jill’s skeet-shooting does come into play, however, a twist telegraphed for almost the entire length of the movie that nevertheless got outright applause at the one repertory theatre showing where I saw it, years ago.)

Is there anything to recommend the film to earn it its unlikely reputation as a classic? Well, yes; the Albert Hall sequence, where the leadup to an attempted assassination is set against a classical music piece, while Jill sits helplessly in the audience. It is a remarkably effective and suspenseful interlude, the one thing here that would lead any viewer to think that this young Hitchcock fellow might indeed have a future. But even there, there’s an astonishing gap in logic. The point is made, following the non-fatal shooting of the foreign dignitary, that the concert resumes after a slight delay, even though the assassin has not yet been caught. This is a line of unnecessary passing dialogue that doesn’t really affect the plot at all, but…umm, what? Does this follow any real-world behavior you recognize?

But that brings us to the remake, which is in very small part an exercise in brilliantly re-staging that scene and providing it with a surrounding story that is somewhat more worthy of it.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

The second The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is separated from the first by two decades, a generation’s worth of technical advances, a clearly superior budget, and the increased clout of its superstar director. Make no mistake: it is still not a great film. Hitchcock did make other great films in this decade, among them the other James Stewart vehicles Vertigo and Rear Window;  this was merely a solid thrill ride, with little in the way of resonance beyond the doings on screen. (And even as such, not nearly as fun as North by Northwest.) But as a story, it works substantially better, for a number of reasons.

To start with, it’s visually far more sumptuous. The black-and-white cinematography of the original is not particularly special, except in moments. The 1956 film is never less than gorgeous, even during scenes set in Morocco that clearly employ rear-screen projection and other artifices easy to discern by a sophisticated modern eye.

It’s also better storytelling. It actually takes time to get us to know its two leads, Ben and Jo McKenna (James Stewart, Doris Day), an American doctor and his somewhat retired stage actress wife. We learn that they have an easy familiarity, that Jo has a somewhat more refined bullshit sensor than Ben, and that Ben has an amiable awkwardness about him, here shown in his discomfort with Moroccan table manners, that instantly humanizes him and makes him more than a generic thriller hero.

Doris Day gets a lot of crap for her performance as Jo, and particularly for her two renditions of her signature song “Que Sera, Sera,” – a ditty that strikes many modern ears like nails on a blackboard – but, your opinion of the song aside, look at how it’s used as storytelling. We see Jo singing the song while making the bed for her son Hank…who happily joins in to sing a verse on his own. There is strong story value in this moment. You know at once that she’s sung this song for her son many times, and that he takes an uncomplicated, unembarrassed joy in singing it with her. An entire childhood is sketched in with this one unremarkable demonstration of a parent/child relationship. The song comes up again – irritating its detractors still further – at the climax, when Jo uses an impromptu embassy party performance to signal her captive son that she is in the building and looking for him; it is also pure hokum, but it is hokum based on character, a climax that is therefore infinitely more satisfying than the one in the original, where the lair of the villains is stormed by police and Bob Lawrence accomplishes little before being knocked out beyond freeing  his daughter from a locked room.
    
The gradual entrapment of Ben and Jo into the espionage plot is a lot better established than in the original. In this version, it turns out that spy Louis Bernard sought out the McKennas because he has reason to believe a vacationing couple might be involved in the assassination plot he’s investigating. As it happens, he has mistaken the pair for the actual culprits, the Draytons…who in turn note how familiar the Mckennas are with Bernard and assume that they’re associated with him.  It’s a wildly unfortunate series of coincidences that gets the McKennas in trouble, but then coincidences are perfectly fine as plot devices when they make matters worse. They’re only unacceptable when they make matters better. The net that gradually draws around the McKennas in the first half hour of the film is a perfectly acceptable evocation of the capriciousness of fate, and works quite well at setting up the conflict – best of all during the scene where a mortally wounded Bernard, who’s disguised as a street arab, staggers through a crowded market toward the man he knows to be a doctor, who will not be able to help him. The moment where his false brown skin color comes off Stewart’s hands is downright horrifying in its subtext: a visually compelling cue for the danger being passed from one man to another.

Every element of the story is improved. In the original, when Jill finds out that her daughter has been kidnapped, she turns away, dazed; she looks downright stoned, and it’s such a terribly designed scene that it’s difficult to empathize with her. In the 1956 scene, physician Ben tells Jo that he has something to tell her, which he will only impart if she does what he says and takes a pill he has offered her. It is a sedative, which he has prescribed to lessen her shock. Even with the sedative, she is downright hysterical. The scene speaks on more than one level: Ben’s cold-blooded practicality in a crisis, Jo’s tremendous love for her son, the size of the hole that’s just been ripped in their lives.

The plot even works better when the movie moves to London. In the original, when Ben decides to go after the kidnappers himself, the piece of paper he has picked up from the dying spy leads him directly to a dentist affiliated with their conspiracy. The dentist may be creepy, and Bob’s encounter with him effective enough, but the lead still seems too easy; almost spoon-fed. The remake addresses this by sending Ben on a wild goose chase to confront a hapless taxidermist named Ambrose Chapell, who clearly knows nothing of the conspiracy…when he should be visiting a house of worship named Ambrose Chapel, instead. It’s a funny, frustrating, and suspenseful interlude, raising the possibility that Ben’s independent investigation might end before it begins. Best of all, it defuses what would otherwise be an overpowering sense that everything here happens just a little too conveniently.

The set piece at Royal Albert Hall is largely a shot-by-shot remake of its counterpart in the prior film, but even it works better, in part because Hitchcock plays more visual tricks, among them visual tracking of the musical notation as the orchestra proceeds toward the fatal crash of cymbals. It is lusher, more visually enchanting, scarier, and in part even funnier (thanks to the special attention paid to the guy whose job in that orchestra is to sit there quietly, bored out of his mind, until the time comes to bang those cymbals together).  You may note that Bernard Herrmann, the composer whose famous scores included the famous one for Psycho, plays the conductor – and is even identified on-screen as himself, a bit of meta-humor that he likely appreciated.

We will also note that the scene has been improved dramatically, as well. In the original, Jill silently pieces together the assassination to come while sitting in one of the seats; here, Jo stands at the rear of the auditorium, clearly not part of the audience, her discomfort palpable until it becomes unbearable and she is left silently weeping, utterly lost over what to do. You may, like many, hate the two performances of “Que Sera, Sera,” and indeed it’s not unfair to call Day a mediocre actress at best, but she still acts the living hell out of this particular scene. In a career that was largely dominated by lightweight comedies of no particular memorability – and which she ultimately walked away from in disgust, following horrific mismanagement of her finances and her thespic options by a manager/husband who was either totally oblivious to her desires or downright contemptuous of them – these are likely the best few minutes she would ever have on film.

James Stewart made four movies for Hitchcock, two of which are all-time classics and none of which are less than interesting. (Even the worst one, Rope, is a fascinating experiment, that rises to greatness at several moments.) His The Man Who Knew Too Much occupies a position somewhere in the middle. It’s a solid, nuanced, movie-star performance of a good man forced to rise to an untenable occasion over stakes that affect him deeply. There’s a reason why Stewart’s place among the immortals is as linked to Hitchcock’s fame as it is to the direction of Frank Capra and Anthony Mann; his work for Hitchcock, even in this film where he played the most straightforward character of the quartet, helped give him the impact of a star who could express inner darkness while still projecting basic decency.

This was no small thing.

The Crash Of Cymbals

Hitchcock said it to best: The first film is the work of a talented amateur. It shows genius in spots, but is otherwise not very good. The second film is the work of a professional at the peak of his craft – not his best work of the period, but never less than assured.

And now, the wife prepares to shriek from the cheap seats…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, from a scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlison. Starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, others. 75 minutes. *

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the earlier screenplay. Starring James Stewart, Doris Day, Alan Mowbray, Hillary Brooke. 120 minutes. ***

I was actually looking forward to seeing a Hitchcock film I had yet to see.

Adam and I, early in our relationship, took a trip to Universal Studios and had to see the special effects exhibit  framed around the works of Sir Alfred. We entered the hall with about a hundred fellow visitors and perused the photos and films names about the room.  Adam and I began happily checking off the films we had seen and making note of those we hadn’t.  Most of the crowd just mulled about waiting for something to happen.  After all this was Universal and a special effects exhibit, so I guess they were waiting for someone to pop up and yell BOO!  Nope, a guide came out and began asking folks how many of the listed films they had seen.   Never had I been so bothered by silence as then.  Only one other couple in that room had even remembered seeing at least 3 of the master’s works.  As for Adam and I , we stopped counting somewhere around 12 films, with many more yet to go, realizing we had seen more by far than most others in that place.  We sat wondering why these folks had come to see this particular exhibit if they had no clue about these films.  The Hitchcock tour closed a few months later to be replaced by some cartoon-related attraction, but Adam and I miss it to this day. (Especially when we use our Bates Motel towel set).

Ahh, but on to the films.

I understand why Hitchcock felt an absolute need to right this wrong in his career.  The early version (1934) was clearly made by a filmmaker constrained by budget and his own learning curve. The characters are absurd, exhibiting a lack of warmth I can only attribute to poor scripting and worse acting.  We get to meet a disappearing dachshund who nearly causes the death of the soon to be kidnapped “child”,  a mother conveniently a champion skeet shooter, a poor maligned father who takes abuse with a cheerful smile, and a group of friends and who don’t question why a child who has been travelling with her parents and pet must suddenly stop and visit an never before heard of aunt in a different country. 

Next, we deal with the lack of reality in both the shooting and the sudden angst of the parents.  The shot rings out, the spy slumps over to whisper those needed clues, and dies without a hole in his dinner jacket or blood spreading out anywhere.  Come on, even in the 30s a death was a death.  And, now suddenly, when the kid disappears(and the dog, but no one mentions this), the parents get all upset, when earlier they would have gladly bundled her off to the nearest boarding school or convent.  PUHLEEZE!  These parents early on show all the warmth of a pair of wet shoes and only daddy shares a childlike joke with his daughter, more like a friend than parent.

So, I quickly gave up hope that this (I cant use “old” cause the film was released the year my mom was born and she’ll be annoyed by the old word) first version would resolve in a logical or satisfying manner, and I was right.  The cops can’t shoot straight and are afraid to take a kill shot.  They are more interested in the residents of the homes they take over than the killers firing at them.  And, of course, it all falls on skeet champ mama to save the day, after ineffective daddy gets all the leg work done.  Last I checked shooting skeet is waaayyy different than offing a human through an open window, who also happens to be holding another human shield in front.

Now let me get on to the musically irritating, but eminently better 1956 version.

I was born in the early 1960s, therefore “Que Sera Sera”  was sung and played around the house a LOT.  Did I learn to despise it?  YES!  Do I still cringe when I hear it?  YES!  Has anyone actually analyzed the message handed out by this little ditty?  Obviously not really, or maybe this ear worm is the reason for all the ills suffered by the baby boomers and Gen-Xers..  After all, the song does say just roll over and accept whatever happens, and that does seem to be the problem we face.  So I guess I can blame part of the woes of the world, since the 1960s, on the effect that the placement of this one song , in one film, had on the world.  But, Don’t blame Doris Day, she was just the delivery system for this ennui bomb.

In this version we have a more believable family group.  Older, doctor husband, hot, young musical theater star wife and precocious spoiled child.  There is actually a semblance of familial feelings seen from the start.  This said, when the fan gets hit, the couple who worries about arranging for a sitter in the hotel for their 8 year old child while they attend a local restaurant, have no qualms turning said child over to a couple who amount to total strangers who happen to share the bond of a common language.  Ummm..??? Maybe this comes from a jaded sense of the 80’s  and children on milk cartons, but I remember my folks cancelling plans, rather than leave me with an unknown sitter.  Same time frame, better parenting?  Maybe?

Then, these caring, loving parents refuse the help of professionals in the mistaken belief they only they, with no expertise, can rescue their child.  OK.  Right!  The film follows the same pattern from here as the original, but the red herrings and set ups are MUCH better, but still, that damn song is the key, or is it?  By the time daddy doc finds the kid, the song is over and the bad lady kidnapper is helping the kid get away.  Happy ending, with a glib last line, as is the trademark of all the good Hitchcockian films, but kinda unsatisfying on multiple viewings.  Now, North By Northwest, so much more fun!


 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009). Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Sven Bertil Taube, Peter Andersson.  152 minutes. ***

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011).  Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Steven Berkoff, Yorick van Wageningen. 158 minutes. ** 1/2.

Spoiler warnings should go without saying by now, given that this blog earns its bones by contrasting plot minutiae of multiple movies based on the same source material. But a word to the wise is particularly apt here. These films are procedural mysteries, hinging on buried secrets, horrible revelations, unexpected reversals and horrific crimes against women. If you haven’t read the best-seller by author Stieg Larsson…if you haven’t seen either movie adaptation, but plan to indulge in the future and do not wish exposure to surprises, then this current sentence is the place to stop. So stop. Do not come after us with wrath in mind, especially not if you’re an unstable girl with a vengeful streak and a tattoo needle. Be apprised that it’s more or less impossible to compose intelligent commentary about the first installment of this particular franchise without delving, at least briefly, into the sequels, which are also set up here. We won’t be discussing those in nearly the same level of detail, but, again, if you haven’t indulged and wish a radio blackout, you won’t find it on this blog. If you prefer another topic, either go elsewhere or check out this handy-dandy index of all the other fun stuff we’ve talked about in our first year. We promise, we won’t be upset.

Clear on that?

Fine.

So here’s where we stand. Both these movies are based on a worldwide publishing phenomenon, a trilogy of Swedish novels centered on the tangled backstory of one Lisbeth Salander, a troubled girl whose past includes abuse, wrongful imprisonment, cover-ups at the highest levels of government, rape by authority figures, and her own barely repressed rage. She is a dangerous, asocial genius, suspicious but not incapable of friendship or loyalty. She is almost impossible to fully know but possesses such a knack for inspiring reckless loyalty in those who care about her that, by installment #3, the conspiracy of friends intent on saving her from a government  intent on destroying her oddly seems to outnumber the number of people actively involved in that conspiracy. She is a brilliant computer hacker, a talented thief, and a tough fighter, in addition to being a mathematical prodigy and the secretive user of a totally photographic memory.  She is physically petite, aggressively sexual, a chain-smoker, and defiantly off-putting. Some people, like critic Roger Ebert, have ventured that she might have Asperger’s Syndrome, but that’s not a diagnosis we concur with; she may be anti-social, but she’s too good at reading people for that to be a sensible label for her. Let’s just say that she has good reason to distrust people and to keep the number in her inner circle to an absolute minimum.

All three novels also feature one Mikael Blomkvist, a left-wing journalist recently convicted of libel. Blomkvist, a clear stand-in for author Stieg Larsson. Larsson was also a crusading journalist, well-known in Sweden for his exposes of white supremacist groups, and the recipient of one of life’s great terrible breaks when he wrote these novels and died in his early forties before any of them were published, thus doomed to never sit on a airplane, anywhere, and see that one person in four was reading one. He incorporated many elements of his own personality, at least as he saw it, into Blomkvist, which may be one reason why even readers who adore Lisbeth find his character too much to take, in that he’s always juggling several women simultaneously and here breaks through the reserve of a hot, moody chick half his age while also maintaining an active, long-standing affair with another woman whose husband honestly doesn’t mind. 

(Characters who exist as authorial self-flattery are not exactly unknown in fiction – the writer M. Night Shyamalan played in Lady In The Water  was easy to peg as his own —  but it took Star Trek fandom to label them properly; they’re Mary Sues. Mary Sue is the young ensign identical to the author who shows up on the Enterprise bridge, is instantly beloved by all the featured players, has affairs with a number of them and is soon acclaimed as an invaluable member of the crew. Mary Sues are wish-fulfillment, to an often embarrassing degree. They can be uncomfortably self-revelatory when they appear in fan-fiction and downright appalling when they appear in professional prose. Blomkvist can be as hard to take as any, and it needs to be said that Larsson seems to have written all three books believing that he was the star attraction, not quite realizing the degree to which Lisbeth should have been; she spends much of Book Three confined to a hospital while Blomkvist and company race about trying to clear her of murder charges. If there’s anything that the scenarists of both the 2009 and 2011 films seemed to have realized right off is that the obsessive recounting of all the women the man gets to fuck – who include even Harriet Vanger, the girl whose supposed murder and subsequent discovery in hiding are the basis of Dragon Tattoo —  really did need to be brought within bearable dimensions or we’ll hate him.)

In any event, the best of the three novels is the one that only hints at Salander’s full backstory and involves her and Blomkvist in a more-or-less self-contained adventure. (Books 2 and 3, and the swedish films based on same, are really one long, convoluted narrative.) Salander and Blomkvist travel different paths that don’t converge until they meet for the first time at the halfway point.

The recently-disgraced Blomkvist accepts a job offer from retired elderly industrialist Henrik Vanger, to investigate the forty-year-old disappearance and apparent murder of one of the only members of his nasty extended family that he doesn’t despise with cause: niece Harriet,who vanished without a trace during a family gathering.    (The rest of the family, with only a few exceptions, is a nasty collection of ex-Nazis, drunks, crazy people, and assorted cads; any of them could have taken Harriet just out of spite.)

As Blomkvist gradually puts together clues establishing a connection between Harriet’s disappearance and a heretofore-unsuspected series of serial killings going back decades, Salander finds herself contending with a nasty new legal guardian, Nils Bjurman, who sees in the legally-but-far-from-actually incompetent Salander a girl he can blackmail for sexual favors.  He even rapes her, which turns out to be a colossally bad move on his part; she not only captures the crime on video, thus providing herself with blackmail material of her very own, but chains him up, sexually violates him,  and marks him forever with a chest tattoo declaring him a sadistic pig and a rapist.
  
Blomkvist and Salander meet, team up, and go after the serial killer together.

It turns out to be Henrik’s nephew and Harriet’s brother, Martin, picking up a vile trade he learned from his father; Harriet, it turns out, is still alive, having fled the madness and abuse of her family.

That’s the basic outline, but the novel is so complex, with so many twisted relationships and so much backstory – not to mention a couple of choice sexual affairs for Blomkvist before Salander decides she wants to make recreational use of him – that the respective screenplay writers had free choice of what plot elements to keep, and what plot elements to discard. (Strictly speaking, the newer of the two films is clearly less a remake of the first, than another approach to the source material.) It is instructive, therefore to note the choices they made and which ones worked better.

One note: the Swedish films were actually edited-down versions of a television miniseries, unseen by us. It is therefore inevitable that the streamlining decisions we reference with regard to the 2009 film, exceed whatever decisions were made for the somewhat more inclusive TV version. Fine. We are only talking, here, about the 2009 theatrical release. And on, at long last, we go.

Noomi

The Casting And The Dramatization of the Central Relationship

Both films feature quality performances in their galaxy of supporting roles, and it would of course be very possible to fill an article longer than even this one with extensive comparisons on a case-by-case basis; we note that the Swedish Film’s rapist Nils Bjurman is a colder and more frightening figure, while the American film’s is a more imposing one in comparison with its petite Salander; we give the edge to  2009’s Sven-Bertil Taube over 2011’s Christopher Plummer in the key role of Henrik Vanger, that rarest of all mystery characters, the likeable and sincere wealthy industrialist who is not implicated in any crimes. (For a more typical specimen of his breed, see John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown.) Plummer is excellent in his role, but Taube is given somewhat better stuff to do, and is in particular more heartbreaking in the scene where he is reunited with his long-missing niece.
  
The casting of the leads is significantly more critical and makes more of a difference.

As Mikael Blomkvist, 2009’s Michael Nyquist and 2011’s Daniel Craig seem equivalent at first glance; they even look a little alike, though Nyquist looks a little lumpier, more of an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation, than Craig does. Craig comes with the baggage of multiple action heroes, including James Bond, a past and future incarnation that makes him seem a little more indestructible than Blomkvist should probably be (even if Craig’s Bond was, like Blomkvist, capable of being driven to despairing tears when death seemed imminent.  The first film’s de-emphasis of Blomkvist as prolific cocksman-around-town also goes well with Nyquist’s less-than-Bondian appearance, and the character’s sincere astonishment when Salander leaps into bed with him. Craig can’t be entirely faulted for this, as actors always bring the baggage left over from their past roles, but it’s still there. In the remake, I particularly miss one scene of many from 2009 that establish his human limitations: i.e., when he hesitates at the wheel of their rental car, confessing to Salander that he hasn’t driven since his divorce. That’s the act of a limited man in danger of being over his head. There’s nothing in the 2011 film to keep you from assuming that Blomkvist couldn’t engage in Bondian car chases if he wanted to.

As Lisbeth Salander, 2009’s Noomi Rapace and 2011’s Rooney Mara play the same notes, but with completely different instruments that achieve much different effects.  Rapace has a lean, angular face, which emphasized all of Salander’s savagery; she’s downright fearsome, especially in the scenes where she takes her revenge on Bjurman and hops on her bike to go after the serial-killing Martin. (There is no doubt, in the earlier film, that when she pursues Martin he is in big fucking trouble, and it feels damned good.) By contrast, Rooney Mara has a much softer, baby-faced appearance; she looks smaller, and more vulnerable, more like a person who has made herself what she is as protective coloration, than one who just became that creature naturally after her life’s many traumas. This is nowhere more visible than in the scenes from both movies where Salander is resentfully dragged into her employer’s conference room to answer the client’s questions about Mikael Blomkvist; Rapace’s Salander is bored, resentful, contemptuous of the need to go through these formalities, and perfectly willing to be rude about it. She makes eye contact, angry eye contact.  During the same meeting, saying the same thing, Mara’s Salander is withdrawn, sullen, hiding her features under a hoodie. These are two different attitudes, two different damaged psychologies. Mara’s performance is a good one, but I give the edge to the original film. Salander shouldn’t be shy. She should be downright feral.

Further screenwriting decisions change the dynamic of the two scenes where Salander and Blomkvist make love for the first time. In 2009, Salander surprises Blomkvist by hopping into bed with him, then by leaving for her own bed without any genuine intimacy as soon as the sex is over. (When I saw the film for the first time, a perceptive fellow theatergoer exclaimed, “Man, now he knows what it’s like to be used!”) We should note that this all takes place immediately after Blomkvist has unintentionally alienated her by noticing her photographic memory, and tried to let her know afterward that he admired it. The sex she initiates is not just an expression of her growing attraction to a man whose decency she has come to recognize,  but is also a defiant declaration: You want to get close to me? This is how close you get – and no farther; it means nothing. A thread is introduced: Blomkvist’s attempt to know, really know, this angrily unknowable woman.

By contrast, in 2011, there are no such mixed signals. There is no immediately prior scene where Salander has reason to be mad at him, no moment where he’s been conciliatory. Salander just initiates sex with Blomkvist because it’s about the point in the story where that would normally happen. But it really comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t feel like it really goes anywhere until the coda. Again, the advantage here belongs to the 2009 film – where it really would have made sense to include the coda, where Salander happens upon Blomkvist strolling with another lover and storms away, feeling betrayed.

Oddly, the 2009 film, which needed it to set up the sequels where she is so furious at him that she refuses to talk to him even in conditions of dire personal need, omits the coda that establishes the reason for her resentment. The 2011 film, where the same moment feels forced, does not.

It’s not quite a wash. The relationship in the 2009 film feels like a dramatic arc. The same relationship in the 2011 film does not. 

The opening credit sequence of the 2011 version (sans titles)

Other Contrasting Storytelling Decisions

In the novel and the 2011 film, it is not Salander who breaks the missing Harriet’s biblical code. It is Blomkvist’s daughter, who comes by for a visit and sees Harriet’s notations for what they are. The original movie omits Blomkvist’s daughter entirely and presents the cracking of that code as more evidence of Salander’s scary competence. I like the splendid irrelevance of such a key clue being broken by a background character who otherwise doesn’t have much to do with anything, but I also admire the storytelling economy of attributing the same epiphany to Salander. In the end, the moment seems to work a smidgen better in the 2009 version.
 
In both films, Salander loses her trusted laptop to a violent incident in the subway. In 2009, she has a nasty and violent encounter with a bunch of drunks; in 2011, she races up an escalator to retrieve her snatched bag a mugger, then slides down the bannister to get away from him. The 2011 scene is a nice bit of physical business. It is not nearly as upsetting as the 2009 scene, which makes it a lesser scene.

The 2009 version relegates Salander’s relationship with her beloved previous legal guardian – who, by suffering a stroke, delivers her into the brutal hands of Bjurman —  to a mere line of dialogue, which burdens the sequels with the need to introduce him later. The 2011 version has three scenes with him, which serve the intended sequels but slow down this installment considerably.

The novel and the 2009 version both give another reason for Henrik Vanger to hire Blomkvist: he actually met the missing Harriet, when he was a young child and she was his babysitter. At least one major clue turns out to be his misunderstanding of his fragmentary memory from that time. I believe it a neat touch. The 2011 version omits this angle entirely, possibly because the makers thought it a bit much. It’s a wash, I think.

The 2009 version omits the Vanger Corporation’s offer to become partners in Blomkvist’s magazine, Millennium. The 2011 version emphasizes it. It’s an important plot point in the novels, but the 2011 movie is just complicated by it. It needed to go.

The 2009 film is better than the 2011 film in establishing just how Blomkvist pieces together sequential photos of Harriet watching a parade, to establish from her reactions that something across the street frightened her. It is also better at establishing how the two investigators establish the pattern of serial killings from past decades.
  
The novel establishes that, once she and Blomkvist find Harriet Vanger, Salander has nothing but contempt for the woman who spent decades in hiding rather than expose her brother as a rapist and serial killer. This happens to be a very legitimate moral point, one that Salander – who burned the primary abuser in her life – could hardly avoid feeling.  (Blomkvist’s subsequent affair with Harriet in this novel and the immediate sequel – of course he has sex with  Harriet – is yet another reason for Salander’s anger over the next two books.) The 2009 version omits Salander’s moral outrage entirely. The 2011 version has her angrily mutter something about Harriet Fucking Vanger but fails to establish just why she’s angry at the lady: a bizarre exercise in alluding to a point but not actually making it.  

Both films are faced with the necessity to dramatize the story’s anti-climax, where after the scary encounter with serial killer Martin Blomkvist must a) discover the missing Harriet still alive, b) engineer a tearful reunion with Uncle Henrik, c) be handed the evidence against the Wennerstrom Corporation. In the 2009 film, he must also report to serve his prison sentence. In the novel, this prison sentence takes place in the middle of the action; in the 2009 movie, after Blomkvist and Salander solve the Harriet Vanger mystery. The 2011 version omits it entirely.

(It’s not bad in a novel to have a character go away for a prison term in the middle of the action; it can be taken care of in a couple of pages, and establish the passage of time. In the 2009 movie, it helps get Blomkvist out of the way while Salander makes heroic efforts of research on his behalf. (And it adds to the effectiveness original film’s far more elegant compression of the backstory, far superior to the 2011 version’s insistence on showing us every step in Salander’s process.) 

The 2009 movie quite rightly paces everything after the encounter with Martin as a final act, but one that flows, inevitably, to the conclusion; the 2011 film gives us way too much and is so narratively lumpy it feels like the series of climaxes that had audiences revolting at the end of The Return Of The King.  It honestly does not work. Only six minutes longer, it feels almost forty minutes longer than that. On the other hand – since in both the novel and the 2009 film Blomkvist flies off to Australia where he locates Harriet Vanger in hiding – it makes precious little sense in the 2009 film to have the prison sentence delayed until after Blomkvist makes this trip; at least, not if you think the Swedish authorities would have something to say about a convicted felon jetting off to the other side of the world before he serves even one day of his sentence. Wouldn’t they prohibit him from traveling internationally until after he served his time?

The 2011 film is oddly discordant in the scenes where Salander, she of the photographic memory, makes a map documenting the movements of the serial killer. She uses thumbnails of the victims, taped to the map. She is the only one using this map, as she does this research. Why does she need it? After all, it has long been established that her memory is infallible. Is it because she knows that there’s an audience out there that requires the reminder?

Finally, both films take it upon themselves to tell us a major part of Lisbeth Salander’s backstory – her torching of her abusive father – that was not revealed until book 2, The Girl Who Played With Fire. The 2009 version presents us with a fragmentary flashback, hinting at deeper secrets; it is a powerful moment. The 2011 version? She casually reveals the secret in answer to a direct question, while in bed with Blomkvist. It’s almost a joke.

Does the 2011 version do anything substantially better than the 2009 version? Well, it benefits from having a director with a more marked touch with visuals. Certainly, the scenes set in winter feel colder, in terms of both temperature and emotional isolation, than anything from the 2009 film. It’s more adroitly edited. But if you want the version that, to this viewer’s mind, boils a long and lumpy novel into an effective, streamlined cinematic thriller…it’s the 2009 film.

And now, the wife enters, angrily gripping a tattoo needle…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009). Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Sven Bertil Taube, Peter Andersson. 152 minutes. **1/2

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011). Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Steven Berkoff, Yorick van Wageningen. 158 minutes. ** 1/2.

Over the years, I have listened to many people warble on about how great this movie was, and how I just had to see it.  Or, how incredible this or that book was and since I read books, I just had to read it.  Well, I resisted all the Da Vinci nonsense, but succumbed to my curiosity in respect to the topic under discussion here.  Why!?!?

I’ll actually begin with the book.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an international bestseller and now I know the key to a mystery best selling novel.  Write a so-so mystery , not too tough for the average fella and then drop dead(or get killed).  The so called mystery with all the red herrings is just too easy for words.  I had it tied up before Salander makes it to the Vanger enclave.  I continued to plod on for fear that the writer may have a true surprise waiting, but alas, disappointed again!

As for either film, I prefer the 2009 original for its fealty to the book, but the bits left out still really diminish the characters.  The 2011 version seems to dote on the plot bits and diminish the characters.  Neither is satisfying as a visual meal, but either is preferable to an Adam Sandler comedy film fest.

Let’s try to remember, Blomkvist is a horndog , Salander is a psychotic genius and Vanger is a manipulative old man.  These are the meat from which these sandwiches were made, but somehow they are all served stale and cold.

  

 

 

 


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

Based on a story outline and abandoned by Akira Kurosawa (who was never quite able to make it work, and thus moved on to other things), and directed by russian emigree Andrei Konchalovsky (who, from evidence available on-screen, seems to have had a limited command of english and, for all his masterful use of visuals, couldn’t be trusted to reject the takes where actors placed emphases on the wrong words in sentences), it was filled with wonderful / awful performances, with both qualities sometimes evident in the very same speech. Also, the central problem? As the climax makes perfectly clear, the convicts and female railroad worker trapped on the titular uncontrolled vehicle never were doomed; there was a quite simple way to save themselves, visible from early on, that would have saved them quite a bit of trouble if they’d just thought of it as soon as they realized what their situation was.

None of this matters. It is a splendidly visual feast, and a resonant melodrama, with thrilling action.

The scene you’re about to see is one of the best in the career of Jon Voight (who, I contend, gave what was simultaneously his best and worst performance). The younger runaway convict played by Eric Roberts has just told Voight’s mad dog that he’s gonna go back to civilization, get himself some fine clothes, and go out night-clubbing with all those fine bitches. Voight’s character gives him a reality check: one for the lifetime-achievement highlight reel.


“Why we didn’t fly, I’ll never know.”

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Poseidon Adventure  (1972). Directed by Ronald Neame and Irwin Allen. Written by Wendell Mayes and Stirling Silliphant, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, others. 117 minutes. ***

The Poseidon Adventure (2005). 2-part TV-movie. Directed by John Putch. Written by Mary Church, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Adam Baldwin, Rutger Hauer, Steve Guttenberg, Peter Weller, C. Thomas Howell, others.  Extended version, god help us, 173 minutes. *

Poseidon (2006). Directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  Screenplay by Mark Protosevich, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Josh Lucas, Kevin Dillon, Andre Braugher, Emily Rossum, Mia Maestro, others. 98 minutes. * 1/2

Other Related Films: Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), sequel, starring Sally Field and Michael Caine, a critical and box-office bomb about salvage crews who discover more peril and more survivors after entering the capsized ship minutes after the survivors of the first movie are airlifted out; and, believe it or not, Sylvester Stallone’s flooded-tunnel movie Daylight (1996), which strands its cast in a situation Irwin Allen originally intended, many years earlier, to befall the various unlucky survivors of the first film, while they’re reunited on a train on their way to testify in court about the disaster. (You don’t wanna travel with those people any more than you wanna share a holiday with John McClain.) There was also an off-off Broadway musical, where an actor playing Mrs. Rosen in drag sings about how, in water, she’s a very skinny lady.

*

So there you are, chilling aboard a luxury liner on New Year’s Eve, singing your Auld Lang Synes, when all of a sudden, a whopper of a disaster hits, and the freaking ship turns upside down. Everything that was above you is now below you, everything that is below you is now above you, conversations about what was where now become comically and horrifically convoluted, and the ocean – motivated, perhaps, by an angry God – starts whipping up bigger and faster ways to kill you and the few others who happen to be left. Your only hope is a desperate climb to the hull, where there might, repeat might, be a way out. But the ship is not cooperating. The ship wants you dead.

This was the premise of The Poseidon Adventure, a bestselling novel by Paul Gallico that has some elements in common with,  but is otherwise very different from, any of the movies derived from its initial premise. It introduces characters like the tough cop Mike Rogo, his sexy but troubled wife Linda, the crusading preacher Reverend Scott, the crowd-pleasing old Jewish lady Belle Rosen, and the Shelby family, whose daughter Susan is here raped by a young crew member driven to temporary insanity by the trauma of the disaster. (She forgives his trespass immediately, tries to stop his subsequent self-loathing suicide, and upon surviving, hopes to keep his child; seriously, yuck.)  In this original version the ship capsizes due to a massive displacement of water caused by an undersea earthquake, and sinks much more slowly, allowing a much larger complement of survivors. It certainly has its degree of religious allegory, complete with a Christmas tree reconfigured as ladder to salvation, an angry Reverend so intent on his activist version of Christianity that he self-righteously knocks the tree over again, after all the people who helped raise it have already climbed, to prevent it from being used by those who hadn’t helped. (Nice guy.)  It, too, builds to a climax in an engine room that has become a vision of Hell, and subsequently to Reverend Scott’s death after angrily denouncing God.

The biggest surprise for the remaining survivors of Reverend Scott’s band is that after they emerge from the hull in tattered clothing, reeking of grease and oil and mourning their various dead, they see a much larger group (the ballroom passengers?) being rescued from the other end of the ship, where it seems not listening to Reverend Scott afforded them a much less troublesome disaster. But there are others. Among other things, Scott turns out to have had a secret sweetheart, who had looked forward to marrying him.

Clergy. Whattaya  gonna do.

This plot, somewhat altered for disaster-movie formula and dramatic license, became the 1972 film, which was such a monster hit it made twice as money as the year’s next biggest contender, Deliverance. Still one of the best films of its type, it was remade thirty years later, not once but twice in rapid succession,  less than a year apart, once as a two-part TV-movie, and once as a special effects extravaganza, both times (spoiler alert), poorly. None of them are high art. All three have capsizing sequences of equivalent effectiveness, within their respective resources and levels of technology. All three have cheesy characterizations and that gremlin of survival-under-impossible-odds stories, the sometimes too-easy-to-predict next person to die. All three present us with a pop song, sung by a contemporary chanteuse, just before the ship turns over on New Year’s Eve. All three have good actors who do everything they can with the material along with others who do everything in their ability to try to sink it.

You will certainly find any number of people willing to present even the original as, at best, a guilty pleasure, and at worst as an icon of monumental awfulness. But the truth is, it tells its story and largely tells it well. It is instructive to examine exactly why the remakes fail to rise to its standard.

The first movie: The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Few films illustrate the general decline in the quality of popular filmmaking since 1972 more than the quality of the original Poseidon Adventure, in large part because it was never intended to be great. Granted, it’s got broadly-drawn characters, scenes staged for the highest possible level of melodrama, a couple of impressive non-performances mixed in with the genuinely good ones, and dialogue that occasionally lowers itself to the level of the ludicrous.  But precisely because it was never intended as a great film, but rather as an entertaining potboiler, its strengths stand out in sharp relief opposed to the deficiencies of so many high-concept blockbusters released today. To wit: it takes time to introduce its players, making sure we have reason to care about what happens to them; it pauses regularly during the action, to make the drama about more than outrunning explosions and great walls of water while shouting simplistic catch-phrases; it stages its action scenes with enough clarity to ensure that we know where the people stand in relation to the dangers facing them, and how their actions affect how they survive (or don’t); it has enough respect for issues of life and death to make sure that its people are touched by the tragedies they overcome, and are still affected by them at the end; and it bothers, really bothers, to try to be about something, even if that subtext is calibrated to such a level that many, if not all, of its viewers will fail to consciously register it.

Contrast this to a modern-day blockbuster of similar disposability, where all too often something must be exploding on screen at every available moment, and action scenes are all too often spastically-edited sequences with shots of one second or less where even frequent recourse to a DVD remote’s pause button may not be enough to clarify what’s happening to anybody.  And the level of its achievement, compared to the general decay of the art, becomes frighteningly clear.

We’re not old fogies saying that they haven’t made a good movie in forty years. They have. But most throwaway popcorn movies have certainly gotten worse since the S.S. Poseidon first turned upside down, and there are few better ways to illustrate that than with the various things this throwaway popcorn film bothers to get right.

Take, for instance, the character of Mike Rogo, the tough cop and general antagonist played by Ernest Borgnine in this film. He is very much a “type;” loud, blustering, often wrong, always negative. His courtship of his much-beloved and difficult wife Linda (Stella Stevens), changed from the novel’s Broadway performer to an ex-prostitute who he says he kept arresting until she finally agreed to marry him, is revealed in a few lines of clumsily-delivered exposition, of the sort that has two characters with a shared past discuss facts that are known to both of them just so the audience can keep up. It is not great dialogue. But by the time it’s over, we know the kind of guy he is and we know that he’s not just the story’s designated asshole. Sure, he’s got his rough edges, and he’s uncouth in the way that only a character played by Borgnine (let alone Borgnine lit from below), can be uncouth, but he’s also an emotionally vulnerable guy, a genuinely well-meaning man, and the loving husband to a woman who rides him mercilessly because (we have no problem seeing) that’s the only way she knows how to express love. How much more satisfying is this, than a one-note shithead of the sort we will come to meet in Wolfgang Petersen’s Poseidon?

Now examine the dramatic pacing. In this film, the rogue wave that capsizes the Poseidon arrives at the best possible time, dramatically: a little less than half an hour in. By then, we have spent a few minutes with each of the important players and have a functional picture of who they are. We know that Reverend Scott (Hackman) is in trouble with the Church for preaching about a God who generally doesn’t get involved with human affairs and who wants us all to solve our own problems. We know about the raucous state of the marriage Rogo, and about Linda Rogo’s self-consciousness over her criminal past. We know that the Rosens are a nice couple headed for Israel to see their young grandson for the first time, and that Mrs. Rosen is a genuinely compassionate woman. We know that the Shelby kids, here traveling on their own for reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, bicker in the manner of any infuriating kid and long-suffering older sister. We know that James Martin (Red Buttons) is an affable lonely guy. These are not deep characterizations – and much rests on the shoulders of those performers gifted enough to invest these characters with their own vivid personalities, as opposed to a few like Carol Lynley who are definitely not. But it’s an adequate amount of time.

We also know, in that half hour, that the Poseidon is dangerously top-heavy, thanks to a tyrant from the cruise line’s front office, a stand-in for the Titanic’s real life J. Bruce Ismay, who refuses to let the put-upon Captain (Leslie Neilsen) take on additional ballast.

As audience members, we already know that the ship’s gonna be turning over sooner or later, and may resent the time spent on what we consider soap-operatics. But all of this is very necessary, so the characters on screen take on the appearance of people instead of actors getting out of the way as soon as possible so the stunt men and special effects wranglers can take over.

Then, once the ship turns upside down a few minutes after the coming of the New Year, and the dazed partygoers in the ballroom start to dig out from under the wreckage, the movie takes even more time,  almost half an hour, before the major players complete the process of figuring out what has happened to them, processing the tragedy, discussing what to do, figuring out that climbing to the engine room just might be a good idea, and finally climbing the Christmas tree to begin their fight for life.

Think of that. By this point the movie is almost half over. But nobody’s been running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Everybody has acted, if not exactly like people act, then at least close enough to how people act to wring recognizable drama out of the proceedings.

And even in the hour that remains, an hour marked by rising water, cliffhangers, explosions, death scenes, conflict between Scott and Rogo, and – as we’re about to see – more religious allegory than you can shake a stick at, the action frequently pauses long enough to allow everybody to interact, to contemplate everything that’s happening to them, to show their personalities and to agonize over whether what they’re doing is the right thing.

It’s flawless pacing, really. Seen for the first time or for the tenth, enjoyed on its own level or as an icon fit for mockery, it has almost no dead spots; everything is there for a reason. Even the water stops rising at the engine room, to accommodate the much-more-important impersonal dramatics at the end.

And then there’s the other element, the one that lifts this film above its follow-up The Towering Inferno and the  increasingly gamey disaster films of the 1970s: a religious subtext that energizes everything in it even for those viewers who choose not to notice it.

Reverend Scott Dies For Our Sins

Stirling Silliphant, who co-wrote the screenplay (and who also worked on The Towering Inferno, to larger but much lesser effect), was no slouch; he had written a genuinely great film, In The Heat Of the Night. He saw the levels of religious symbolism already at play in Gallico’s novel and reconfigured them, to very deliberate effect.

So what we get here is a Reverend Scott who lays out the general thesis with a multidenominational sermon on the ship’s deck: “Let God know that you have the guts and the will to do it alone. Resolve to fight for yourselves, and for others, for those you love. And that part of God within you will be fighting with you all the way. “

After the disaster – itself a literal act of God — we have the debate over the best route to survival couched in terms of doubt versus belief. The complacent purser thinks help must be coming. The Reverend, prompted by lonely bachelor James Martin, passionately argues that everybody needs to climb out – specifically, toward a spot near the propeller shaft where the hull is only one inch thick, as opposed to two inches. Pinning all their hopes on this slender chance of survival is, for Scott’s followers, an exercise in faith that some other force will provide deliverance once they travel most of the way. 

The first step, which could not possibly be more symbolic: climbing the Christmas tree.

The various adventures along the way include constant arguing between the doubting Rogo and the crusading Reverend, and at one point an encounter with other passengers who are “headed the wrong way.”

Mrs. Rosen dies saving the Reverend’s life, but without getting to the promised land –  not just the engine room, but her intended destination, Israel – herself. Her last bequest, which she begs Scott to bring to her grandson, is her Chai necklace.

The engine room is, as in Gallico, a vision of Hell, complete with leaping flames.

Linda Rogo, the reformed sinner, falls at the last minute to her death in the fires.

Mike Rogo, who has been the voice of doubt all along, cries out in rage at the religious figure who had briefly infected him with faith.  “You! Preacher! Murderer! I started to believe in your promises, that we had a chance. What chance?”

A sudden explosion sends a jet of scalding steam against the wheel valve that is the last barrier between the survivors and the engine room.  Outraged, the Reverend confronts God directly, leaping to the wheel and turning it by hand in an act of personal sacrifice that, given the temperature of the steam involved, must mean burning the shit out of his hands. 

He shouts: “What more do you want of us? We’ve come all this way, no thanks to you. We did it on our own, no help from you. We did ask you to fight for us but damn it, don’t fight against us! Leave us alone! How many more sacrifices? How much more blood?  How many more lives? Belle wasn’t enough. Acres wasn’t. Now this girl! You want another life? Then take me!”

Tell me that this scene, shown below, is not a crucifixion.

He offers his life as a sacrifice while dangling from something with wounded hands. And, just in case you fail to get the point, the red wheel that closes the steam valve is also hanging there, right above his head, like a cartoon halo. Sound at all familiar?

Rogo, backlit by flames, is lost in his own personal hell until James Martin challenges him to “do something constructive for once.” He turns his back on the fire and rejoins the others in their fight for life.

It is then, and only then, that everybody gets to the room with the propeller shaft, where they are heard by a helicopter crew that has landed on the hull, and who cut through the steel, admitting the light from above. (And finally, the helicopter takes them to safety, which amounts to ascending into the heavens.)

None of this is at all subtle. It is, once pointed  out to someone who has failed to consciously notice it, almost painfully obvious. But it is there. It is perceived on a subconscious level if not necessarily a conscious one by the audience who came to see Shelley Winters and Ernest Borgnine interact with rising water and explosions. It gives weight to everything here, and gives the story a psychological impact that most disaster films miss utterly.

(Incidentally, if you want to see great acting that you’ve likely never noticed, go back to the moment where Rogo curses the good Reverend, and FORCE yourself to look away from Ernest Borgnine long enough to check out Jack Albertson (“Manny Rosen”) who’s standing right behind him. Remember that, only about ten minutes earlier in the film, Mr. Rosen had lost his own wife; that they haven’t traveled far from the spot where her body fell; and that he can likely see her from where he’s standing. Now it’s just happened to another guy, in front of his eyes…and Albertson brilliantly acts Manny Rosen, desperately wishing there were something adequate to say. Because what Borgnine is doing is so compelling, NOBODY who sees the movie is looking at Jack Albertson at that moment. His performance hearkens back to the time where movies were not just a series of extreme close-ups, unconnected to anything any other actor is doing…but performers reacting to one another even when they were not themselves the center of attention.)

The TV-Movie: The Poseidon Adventure (2005)

Three decades later, the vagaries of rights and permissions resulted in not one but two separate and competing remakes coming out only a year apart.

Both fail miserably, but for different reasons, indeed diametrically opposed reasons.

The first remake, a two-part TV movie, suffered all the sins often endemic to creatures of that kind, among them woefully pedestrian direction, of the sort that will never stage anything in an interesting way if the obvious way is available first.

The dialogue is also substantially weaker, and the performers, who include types like C. Thomas Howell as the ship’s doctor and Peter Weller as Captain Paul Gallico (ha, ha, ha), are not up to fleshing out a pale teleplay with the mere force of their personalities.

The pacing is also a problem. The two-part network TV format requires that the film take a pause for commercial interruption every twelve minutes or so, all in service of a story that must delay the actual disaster until as late in Part One as possible, to make sure that there’s plenty of stuff worth tuning in for during Part Two. So the flipping of the ship doesn’t take place until about the fifty-minute mark, and the decision to try to climb out doesn’t take place until about twenty minutes later.

It is, we suppose, more than possible for the show to have filled that long wait with stuff an audience would have wanted to watch (see James Cameron’s Titanic, for a film many hated that nevertheless pulled off the trick at even greater length), but that’s not exactly what’s happening when the chief interpersonal story we have to sit through on the way involves the marital problems of Richard Clarke, a philandering novelist played by Steve Guttenberg. (If you have to lead with Guttenberg, you’ve already lost.)

The rest of the lead-up to the disaster comes from a fundamental misunderstanding by the filmmakers, who had read somewhere that tsunamis are only a couple of inches high out at sea and therefore jumped to the conclusion that the setup of the 1972 version was literally impossible. (They were wrong, in that what capsized the original Poseidon was not a tsunami, which indeed would have been impossible that far out, but a rogue wave…which can easily achieve the heights posited by the first film.)

What results from their flailing-about for another mechanism of capsizing the ship is a series of jaw-dropping, self-destructive story decisions.

They resorted to a terrorism subplot, which of course leads to many scenes of swarthy third-world types in the Poseidon kitchen exchanging meaningful looks as they plan to set their charges.

Yes. The makers of this film thought their version would work a lot better if the disaster was a terrorist plot.

The film’s Mike Rogo (Adam Baldwin) becomes a Sea Marshall working undercover to guard against such a plot. There are intimations of a troubled marriage, but his wife is back home and he is all business, just another steely-eyed, grimly determined hero of no particular distinction.  In place of Reverend Scott we get Rutger Hauer as Bishop August Schmidt, an affable and easy-going man of God who, when the disaster happens and the desperate climb to survival begins, is just another guy working alongside Rogo who is never really at odds with Rogo at any time.

Yes. The makers of this film thought their version would work a lot better if Rogo and their replacement for Reverend Scott were substantially duller people, who never argued. 

Even as the survivors strive to climb up through the decks, the focus shifts to land-based authorities striving to figure out what’s happened to the Poseidon, to locate it via satellite camera, to dispatch a nearby fishing trawler to its location, and to get a team of Navy SEALS to the site of the wreck in order to rescue people.

Yes. The makers of this film thought their version would work a lot better if we weren’t trapped alongside the people in a claustrophobic sinking ship, and were regularly reminded that the authorities were bending heaven and earth to send help.

There are uncounted other dumbnesses. This version’s Acre, a replacement for the doomed steward Roddy McDowall played in 1972, has time to indulge Richard Clarke’s aspiring-filmmaker son, a kid who’s attached to his camcorder and is here not only permitted to film his cheesy vampire film in restricted areas of the ship, but who is able to enlist Acre and other busy crewmembers as cast members. Somebody is able to send an e-mail to authorities from the capsized ship’s internet lounge, even though the broadcast towers are now underwater. Wonky shipboard geography leads to badly flooded areas of the ship several decks above areas that still remain dry…not just as the oddity that permits the last act of the original, but as an inexplicable regular thing. Suspense is torpedoed by the crowd in the ballroom not meeting their fates until very late in Part Two, and by a second group of characters leaving that room much after the first and still managing to catch up, thus underlining this movie’s criminal lack of urgency. (The ballroom doesn’t go under until the last few minutes. More bleeding urgency.)

Many of the original film’s set pieces are duplicated here, to much lesser effect because everything around them is so lame. We get the swim through the underwater corridor, the brave sacrifice of Mrs. Rosen, and Acre’s death in the shaft, which are here all unforgivably dull. And the death of Clarke’s mistress in the engine room, under circumstances that echo the prior film’s death of Linda Rogo, here acquires an ugly subtext as Mrs. Clarke seems downright satisfied by it.  (The implication is supposed to be that the marriage is saved, but seriously, if I were a philandering husband and saw that look on my estranged wife’s face immediately after my mistress’s horrific death…I would change my name and move to another state. That bitch is cold, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep in the same bed with her again without endless sweaty worrying about where I put the garden shears.)

The biggest problem, though, is that the makers of this miniseries completely misunderstood why characters with personal problems are included in this kind of story in the first place.

Here is an elementary lesson.  Stories illuminate character; character is put in sharp relief by stories. Even in action scenarios, you must have that or you don’t have a story.

In the original Poseidon Adventure, all that stuff with upside-down staircases and flooding compartments was there, in dramatic terms, to illustrate a movie-length argument between Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine. It is why the water seems to stop rising after Mrs. Rosen’s fateful underwater swim – because the argument is about to come to a head with the death of Mrs. Rogo, and more scenes of incoming water would only muddy the issue. That movie wanted a dramatic climax, not an action one…and in large part that’s what remains so memorable about it today. Please understand that we’re not saying it qualified as great drama, by any stretch of the imagination – but it was a story, dammit. It fulfilled the basic requirements of a story.

By contrast, this movie presents us with, naming one character at random, the reality-television producer played by Bryan Brown, who is so determined to have the little kid capture everything on his camcorder, for a possible future documentary. It presents us with that character and then does nothing of note with him. He is not tested. He is not revealed. He is just there. The same thing with the Bishop. He is not tested. He is not revealed. He is just there. And Rogo. He is not tested. He is not revealed. He is just there. And so on.

The only real dramatic arc is the one involving the marital woes of schmucky Steve Guttenberg…and, frankly, we know nothing more about his character at the end than we knew at the beginning.  Except that, you know, he had better spend the rest of his life hiding the Krazy-Glue.

There is one good moment, which deserves mention largely because it is the only good moment: a line or two spoken by Belle Rosen to the terrorist personally responsible for bombing the ship. Rogo goes to incredible lengths dragging this one-dimensional, sneering piece of shit up through the various levels of the ship, with an eye to making sure he lives to be interrogated about his backers. In the only words she ever speaks to the man, Mrs. Rosen says, I paraphrase, that her late husband had always told her that there were no evil people, only people in terrible pain. What, she earnestly asks him, hurt you so badly that you would want to do such a thing? He doesn’t answer; just stares back at her with hatred in his eyes. 

It would be nice if he took the bait,  even if his answer turned out to be a load of crap, because her question is the first time anybody in this entire movie comes close to having an interesting conversation. (See, for instance, the self-justifications of Gary Oldman’s evil terrorist in Air Force One. That’s what stopped him from being a one-dimensional villain, and made him a recognizable character, even if he was still so hateful that we cheered when he got thrown off the plane.)

 

The Attention-Deficit Summer Movie: Poseidon (2006)

There’s very little that needs to be said about the final version, except that if the middle one failed in large part because it was ponderously slow, this one failed because it never wanted to slow down.

It should have been much better. Wolfgang Petersen, who directed, is an accomplished maker of intelligent action films whose Hollywood work includes In The Line Of Fire and the aforementioned Air Force One. And he made one of the best underwater films of all time, a genuine world classic, Das Boot.

But his attention span, or his understanding of his target audience’s failing attention span, badly betrayed him here.

Check out the timeline. In this one the ship turns over (from another rogue wave) at approximately the fifteen-minute point, and the team of would-be survivors has started to climb out within the first half hour.

It thus only gives itself only about fifteen minutes to set up its characters, who are here largely defined not by their problems, but by their labels: a completely new set for this film, the beautiful stowaway, the ex-Mayor of New York, the suicidal gay guy, the young lovers, the dashing gambler, and the Designated Asshole.

It is possible for good actors to lend heft to such roles, but they need a certain minimum to worth with, and nobody here (not even Richard Dreyfuss, for pete’s sake), is more than a placeholder, here to shout urgent lines while dodging various dangers.

This is especially true of Andre Braugher, who plays the Captain. He dies early, of course, as the Captain in this story is supposed to, but the gap between a performer’s talent and the thinness of the character he’s been appointed to play has never been so vast. Is this what it’s come to, since Homicide? Doesn’t anybody have anything better for Braugher to do?

The Designated Asshole, played by Kevin Dillon, is a case that deserves special scrutiny. He is not an abrasive but essentially decent guy like Rogo, who causes problems because he has his own opinions. He is just a Designated Asshole. He acts like an Asshole, he dresses like an Asshole, he demonstrates he’s an Asshole, and – after demanding to be the first to cross a rickety structure – he dies, on cue and unmourned, an Asshole. The film doesn’t have any interest in characterizing him, or even the more important characters, any better than that.

There are some impressive set pieces. The struggle to cross a flaming scenic elevator atrium is more elaborate, in staging and in visual verve, than anything in either of the prior films. And the Dashing Gambler saves the day with a stunt that might have been considered over-the-top even in a superhero movie. But so what? With nobody to care about, and dialogue that from this point to almost the end of the film has been reduced to shouts of “Look out!” and “This way!”, it emerges as loud, colorful, fast-paced, and just as dull as the TV-movie.

There are some interesting, original situations. The only scene from this version that emerges as both new to this take and as great as anything in the original film is a period spent trapped in a vertical air shaft, as the people crammed near the top struggle with the grating that keeps everybody trapped in rising water. That’s a killer suspense sequence, and yes, fans of the original will be delighted to notice that they escape that trap by using a cross as a screwdriver.

There’s this, too. Unlike the folks from the 1972 version, these people actually start out with a plan for getting out once they reach the propeller assembly, one that makes sense within the context of the film. That’s good thinking, and in its own limited way an improvement on the original story. (It also, unfortunately, eliminates the faith angle, but hey, it’s a legitimately innovative plot point.)

It is of course woefully convenient for them that the disaster has conveniently left an inflated life raft floating a short swim from where they finally get out, one that indeed even has a working flare gun for their convenience. This is painful even though nothing that takes place before that point is even remotely convenient and it’s arguably just as convenient in the first film for Borgnine and company to reach the bottom of the ship just in time to hear the people walking around on the hull.)

But again: aside from the revelation that fireman-turned-mayor Kurt Russell is willing to die to save his daughter, and a suicidal subplot for the Richard Dreyfuss character that goes away as soon as the ship turns over, there are no character arcs here. These people are not tested. They are not revealed. They are just there.

By forsaking human drama, by failing to give its characters personalities, by eliminating subtext and by reducing almost the last hour and especially the last half-hour to shouting and yelling, with only scattered moments of identifiable human interaction, this version underlines exactly what has gone wrong with popular film since 1972. In 1972, Irwin Allen sank a ship with people on board. In 2006, Petersen sank a ship populated with stand-ins for people. In 1972, there was something going on behind the story. And in 2006, there were explosions going on instead of it.

The Captain’s Log

1972 version, a fine entertainment that looks better every year. 2005 version, three hours of made-for-TV lameness. 2006 version, a headache-inducing mess.

And now, the wife comes edging along the upside-down catwalk…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Poseidon Adventure  (1972). Directed by Ronald Neame and Irwin Allen. Written by Wendell Mayes and Stirling Silliphant, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, others. 117 minutes. ***

The Poseidon Adventure (2005). 2-part TV-movie. Directed by John Putch. Written by Mary Church, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Adam Baldwin, Rutger Hauer, Steve Guttenberg, Peter Weller, C. Thomas Howell, others.  Extended version, god help us, 173 minutes. *1/2

Poseidon (2006). Directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  Screenplay by Mark Protosevich, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Josh Lucas, Kevin Dillon, Andre Braugher, Emily Rossum, Mia Maestro, Alex Kingston, others. 98 minutes. 1/2

In 1972 I was 9 years old and wasn’t allowed to go to movies by myself quite yet.  My mother, at the same time, needed someone to go see movies that my Dad just wouldn’t stir himself to see.  Bingo!  The weekend and days off school movie duo was formed. Thanks to this mother/daughter bonding,  I got taken to see such amazing fare as “The Bad News Bears” and The Towering Inferno.  But the one that makes this retelling of childhood interdependency important was The Poseidon Adventure.

Now, I can’t remember what day of the week this happened, but I can remember the theater, the snacks and the sound system fritzing in and out during the previews.  My mom threatened to walk out if the sound wasn’t fixed PRONTO! (Actually said from her seat as loudly as possible).  That can really make a film outing memorable.

Well, the sound got fixed, the movie rolled and my nine year old’s brain swore off ship travel for the everlovin’ future.

This film was my Jaws.  I thought that every Ocean liner was going to roll over in the next high wave.  I cried when my grandparents took their next cruise.  That year was absolute water hell for me.

So, did the original film make any kind of impression on me? Naah, not at all.  Just because I didn’t want to get on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues  ride for fear of drowning, had nothing whatsoever to do with The Poseidon Adventure.  Right?

Jump ahead to 2010.  Adam and I are discussing the prospective films to cover in this blog and up jumps good ole Poseidon.  I knew about the film remake, but had never heard (or had completely blocked from my mind) the TV mini.  So, we agreed they were ample fodder for our cannon of comparison.  Then, I won a free cruise.  Boy, can childhood trauma jump back and bite one’s butt.  Adam was ready to cover these early this year, but I begged off the watching until long after we returned from our trip. Did it make any difference?  Not really, but I may have actually enjoyed the cruise a bit more, not having the reminder looming in wait. (And yes, I fear being trapped in high rise fires too)!

OK  Garbage reminisces out of the way on to the work at hand.

Poseidon (1972):  Still a great adventure.  Fully developed characters, great effects and a story that says something about the constant struggle within each of us to balance survival with our humanity.  With the recent rewatch the Wesley effect of the child shall lead is a bit too thick, but I loved it back then.  The film also reminds everyone to never trust the guy wearing the uniform he’s always wrong and will die soon enough. (Show me a surviving crew member here).

Poseidon (2005):  Great idea in theory.  Make a 2-part miniseries (or maxi movie) using the source material.  Great, but what happened to the novel?  Somewhere in developmentland, some brainiac said “ditch the story, blow stuff up and make it less preachy”.  So they did.  They also slowed the action down to less than a turtle trot and added crap that was pure distraction.  Why steal from the original film’s key scenes, if they no longer tie the story together?  Nobody really took the time to read this script front to back.

Poseidon (2006):  Wow.  What can go wrong here?  Everything!  Lose the characters, dive into the emergency and never give your actors a chance to perform.  Here its all stunts and special effects.  Is anybody looking for story anymore?

Its fantastic that we live in an age where computers can seemingly generate anything we can dream up, but letting the effects run ramshod over the story, the settings, the very characters that make up any film is probably the main reason why I prefer the films from  the 30’s and 40’s.  Sure, the whole group of disaster films from the 70’s still fill my heart with nostalgia, but to me now they signal the beginning of the end.  This is when the MEGA movie began to take over and I began to lose interest in much of Hollywood’s output.


Doing everything exactly the same, and still getting it all wrong

Can you imagine any movie trailer like this, today?

 

Newcomers were led to expect a fast-paced roller-coaster ride of shocks. Sorry.

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Psycho (1960). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, and Vera Miles. 109 minutes. ****

Psycho (1998). Directed by Gus van Sant. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, and Julianne Moore. 109 minutes. *

Other Affiliated Films: Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986), Psycho IV: The Beginning (TV-movie, 1990), all starring Anthony Perkins; A Conversation with Norman (2005). There is reportedly a making-of-Psycho dramatic film also in the pipeline, but who knows if it will ever be completed?

*

Your name is Marion Crane. You’re a good girl aching for domestic bliss with your lover, a man from another town who returns your affections but is financially unable to commit. He tells you that until he can pay his father’s debts you will have to be content with stolen moments, the occasional hour of passion in a motel room, and the promise of a better tomorrow. You cannot wait. But then a boor doing business with your employer flashes a wad of cash, you are entrusted with the task of getting it to the bank…and you succumb to a moment’s mad temptation. You take the money, pack a passport, and hit the highway, hoping to talk your man into escaping the country with you. It’s a desperate and poorly-thought out plan, one that begins to fall apart even before you make it out of town. But your temporary madness is nothing compared to the greater madness that awaits you, in a small out-of-the-way motel with no guests and a desk clerk who seems as vulnerable, and as trapped, as yourself. It is where you will meet your annihilation…because this story was never really about about you. The story’s about the sad, lonely, and stammering little desk clerk, who harbors a madness dangerous to any who cross his path.

The original film Psycho is often given the directorial possessive, and listed as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, as if he was solely responsible for creating Norman Bates and structuring the plot. Entire forests have been cut down to print the articles and books crediting him with the genius required to get audiences invested in the fate of Marion Crane, and then to have her brutally murdered in a shower only one-third of the way through the story, changing the direction of the tale completely. It honestly isn’t so. The story wasn’t ushered into being by Hitchcock, but by one Robert Bloch, a veteran writer of pulp thrillers whose career included Lovecraftian fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, Star Trek episodes, a couple of the best stories ever written about Jack the Ripper, recognition as a grandmaster of both science fiction and horror, and a declaration frequently misattributed to Stephen King (who had provided attribution to Bloch when he said it), that he had the heart of a small boy…pickled in a jar on his desk.

It was Bloch who read of the gruesome murders committed by a Wisconsin loner named Ed Gein, speculated on just what kind of madness might have driven that strange man to furnish his home with such art objects as an armchair constructed of real arms, and applied his rich imagination to the creation of one Norman Bates, an affable homebody deadly only to those who cross his path. It was Bloch who was contacted by Hitchcock’s representatives, and not told just who had taken an interest in his story…Bloch who was paid a few hundred dollars for the story that he would soon see hailed worldwide as the manifestation of another creator’s genius.

Nor was this hogging of credit entirely Hitchcock’s sin. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano’s contribution to the original film was superb, but when discussing the film in interviews during his later years he would go on at length about the train of thought that led him to make certain story decisions, as if he and not Bloch had been the one to originally decide that Marion Crane would steal the money and meet her fate in that shower. Trust us, folks; Stefano and Hitchcock and the various actors all contributed to the splendid collaborative stew that is the 1960 Psycho, but as far as the grand outline of the story was concerned, they “decided” little. Again, it was Bloch who had his seeming protagonist, one Mary Crane, steal that money; it was Bloch who had her stop at the Bates Motel and befriend its pathetic proprietor; it was Bloch who had her lose her life in the shower; it was Bloch who arranged everything that happened with her sister, and Sam Loomis, and “Mrs. Bates” after that. Against pretty much the entire body of literature that’s been written about the movie in all the years since, Stefano and Hitchcock were interpreters: interpreters deft enough to qualify as artists, but still interpreters…and Bloch was swindled not out of the full payday he deserved, but also of the wider popular recognition he merited for his pivotal role in the creation of Norman Bates.

Which is not to deny the stamp that Stefano and Hitchcock put on the material. Bloch’s shower scene is very minimal, and ends almost as soon as Marion Crane realizes that she’s being attacked. The shock moment consists of two sentences, which I here paraphrase from memory: “The knife came down, cutting off her scream.” Paragraph break. “And her head.” I’m sorry to say, that’s pretty much it.  From that, Stefano and Hitchcock crafted one of the most indelible scenes in motion picture history.

Once, this was the most shocking movie moment anyone had ever seen.

Don’t feel too sorry for Bloch, as he enjoyed a long and productive and reportedly happy life, and did indeed profit from Psycho,  if not from the movie’s earnings then in increased book sales for the rest of his career.  It doesn’t mean Hitchcock behaved well in obtaining the rights, or in minimizing Bloch’s contribution afterward. As epilogue we note only that when Gus van Sant announced the plans for a shot-by-shot remake, there was no thought of rewarding Bloch’s estate with any additional payment…until a public outcry, way beyond the usual level of popular concern for what a writer might be owed, forced the backers to begrudgingly open their pocketbooks. Every once in a while, justice prevails. Or somewhat prevails. Given the millions the studios made from Psycho and its film sequels, Bloch still deserved more.

van Sant’s 1998 remake was ballyhooed as a thought experiment, dedicated to finding out whether a new version using the 1960 screenplay, as well as the 1960 Bernard Herrmann score, and the 1960 set design, that matched the Hitchcock version shot by shot, would have the same impact. Or at least, that was the rationalization, the one that may have motivated him as he pointed his camera. The motivation of the money men was more crass. By that time, we had a new generation of filmgoers with little respect for the past, who despite an unprecedented wealth of home-video opportunities open to them had nothing but revulsion for anything made before they were born…especially if it was in black and white.  And yet Norman Bates himself remained a familiar, marketable name, one that had driven a number of inferior but financially successful sequels, not to mention attractions in theme parks where macabre film-lovers could, among other things, buy Bates Motel towels and shower curtains imprinted with the murderous silhouette of Norman in the guise of his mother. A new color version that hit all the same beats as the original was, they thought, just the right thing to revive the brand.

It wasn’t. I saw it during its theatrical release out of sheer perverse curiosity, not expecting much, and was stunned by the hostility it received from a large audience that went in expecting to see their idea of a horror movie, and was bored beyond endurance by this lame, slow-ass story where the killings were few and far between and reprehensibly bloodless by the standards they had come to expect. Though van Sant has claimed that it eventually broke even, it is remembered as a bomb and has largely disappeared except as a cautionary tale. It is certainly almost never seen on television, whereas Psycho 1960 still plays in revival houses and pops up regularly on all the classic-oriented movie channels, to be cooed over by hosts and enjoyed anew by viewers who recognize it as a still very much living relic.

But the question remains. Why doesn’t the remake work?

Smallest Problem: The Tin-Eared Updating From 1960 to 1998

For the most part the updating manifests as how much things cost. Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane steals $40,000;  Anne Heche’s steals $400,000. There are similar adjustments to the price of a used car and the cost of a cheap, no-name motel room. That’s reasonable.

Other updates are just tin-eared, like Julianne Moore’s Lila Crane declaring, “Let me get my Walkman,” before accompanying Sam Loomis to ask the local sheriff some pointed questions. (Yes, when your sister’s vanished into thin air following the theft of a large amount of money, and you don’t know whether she’s alive or dead, your first thought should be having some tunes to bring along.) 

One of the minor plot points that remains intact is Marion’s boss at the real-estate firm (Rance Howard) telling his client to join him in his own office, the only room which happens to be air-conditioned. In 1960, it was reasonable and believable for a real estate office in downtown Phoenix, of all places, to reserve air-conditioning for the boss, and force the rest of the firm’s employees to sit in the general reception area and sweat. The lack of air conditioning was after all a key requirement of a great movie Hitchcock had made only a few years earlier, Rear Window. In 1998, air conditioning was far more ubiquitous. The girls in the front room, not to mention the drop-in customers waiting to be helped, would have not only expected but demanded it. (I suspect that matters will change back in the coming decades.) Again, this is a small point. But since it doesn’t really affect the flow of the story one way or the other, why not omit the line or adjust it in some way?

At least one other change that assaults the ear has to do with an entire word leaving the popular vocabulary: in the original film, the dogged private detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) tells the evasive Norman, ”Well, if it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jellin’.” As was also pointed out in the recent film Julie and Julia, people don’t really eat aspic anymore and for the most part have no idea what the word means. So the remake’s Arbogast (William H. Macy) says, “If it doesn’t jell, it isn’t jello.” Which may be more current, but still lands with a thud. The solution may have been to just use the “aspic” line as is, accept that it’s a bit odd to the modern ear, and let its essential meaning come across through context; either that, or drop it completely.

What may be more serious is the second film’s Arbogast dressed in a snappy blue suit with matching hat that together look positively antiquarian to the modern eye, telling Lila that he could trail her undetected because it’s his job to avoid being seen; a plot point that makes sense in the original film when Arbogast is an average-looking guy who dresses like everyone else and makes less sense in the remake when, in context, he looks like an escapee from an old-time movie. In truth, Lila should respond, “You haven’t been unnoticed, mister. I’ve been noticing your  hat everywhere I went all day.”

Nor is that the only generational fashion faux-pas. When the second film’s Marion Crane gets out of her car and unfurls a pink parasol to protect her from the Arizona sun, my audience audibly snorted.

Larger Problem: The Terrible Miscasting of Norman Bates

One of the biggest changes between the original novel and the first film was the physical look of Norman Bates. Bloch’s Bates was a pudgy little man in the first throes of middle age, obvious to Mary Crane’s eyes as a guy who had been so dominated by the mother over the years that he’d never had a life of his own. It was believable that she felt sorry for him and saw him as no threat. Faithful adherence to Bloch’s description would have resulted in the casting of Rod Steiger, or maybe even Ernest Borgnine. Today, it might have been Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Stefano and Hitchcock decided to go another way. They decided it was critical for their audience to like Norman Bates and feel empathy for him. So they cast a slight, boyish young actor named Anthony Perkins, who had played young leading-man roles as, among other things, the young town sheriff opposite Henry Fonda in The Tin Star. As Bates, Perkins projected a loneliness and a vulnerability that rendered Marion Crane’s immediate compassion for him entirely believable. It made sense for this young woman, on her own with 40,000 reasons to be afraid, to agree to join this total stranger in his parlor, to listen to him and to feel for him, and to see in his tale of a life trapped with a deranged mother not a potential danger that would lead her to get back in her car and drive away as fast as possible, but an object lesson in the trap she’s made for herself and a reason to return home to face the consequences of her actions. It made sense, all in all, for her to like Norman, even when she suggests institutionalization for his mother and gets a flash of anger in return. Who wouldn’t like that Norman? Watching the scene, it’s even possible to believe that had she left the motel alive, returned to Phoenix with the stolen money, avoided serious legal consequences  and then come back to town to settle down with Sam Loomis, she would have sought out Norman again, this time as a concerned friend, and tried to help him.

All of this was central to the impact of the story as intended. Marion’s subsequent murder in the shower really does come off as a shocking twist, even if it’s already been spoiled for us by reputation or previous viewings. And Norman’s subsequent horrified reaction and desperate efforts to clean up after the killing do come off as the trapped actions of a man trying to protect his homicidal mother. It even comes off this way if you go in already knowing that Norman pretty much is his mother. His horror feels genuine.

You know who would have been able to project the same qualities while making the performance his own? Ed Norton.

Instead, van Sant went with Vince Vaughn, a big guy far broader and more imposing than Anthony Perkins, who looks even more massive when photographed alongside his film’s Marion Crane, the petite Anne Heche. He is able to manage a goofy, frat-boy affability during their initial meeting, but after that, when he presses Crane to join him for dinner and later discusses his sad circumstances with her, the likeability goes away and all that’s left is a seething, oversized man-child whose eyes go cold and distant when he talks about his mother.

Yeah. I can totally dig Marion being willing to share a roof with this guy.

It is difficult to tell whether this more sinister characterization of Norman is a poor acting choice by Vaughn or a directorial decision on the part of van Sant, reflecting the inescapable fact that most of the people who saw this movie would enter the theatre already aware that Norman Bates kills people. But it’s fatal to the scene and a serious blow to the movie. An ominous Norman Bates makes Marion Crane look like an idiot. In 1960, when Janet Leigh tells Anthony Perkins that she can’t have breakfast with him the next morning because she needs to get an early start, it’s an attractive woman being kind to a stranger who doesn’t get to speak to many attractive women, and who she can tell already harbors a substantial crush on her. In 1998, when Anne Heche has the same conversation with Vince Vaughn, it’s a tiny woman who has become profoundly creeped out by the big hulking man…and who out of incomprehensible recklessness doesn’t change her plans to spend the night in his hotel. Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane honestly doesn’t think she has reason to fear. Anne Heche’s Marion Crane is rendered nervous, but remains in a room next to the office of the scary hulking man with the master key. It’s a spike through the very heart of the story, harming everything that follows.

And it’s not the only one.

Stranger Problem: Changes Crass, Repulsive and Nonsensical

van Sant’s mission statement of directing a line by line, shot by shot remake to the contrary, the changes he made to his Psycho are not only obvious, but gross.

Some are understandable. For instance, he extends the climax slightly. When Lila Crane finds the mummified corpse of Norman’s mother and Norman rushes in wearing wig and housedress to murder her, Van Sant’s Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortenson) needs to struggle with him a little bit more in order to subdue him.

This makes perfect logical sense in that this film’s Norman Bates is a bigger guy, larger in fact than this film’s Loomis.

And it also makes commercial sense in that the generations of thrillers since the original Psycho have trained  audiences to expect more substantial action climaxes than the mere moment or two Hitchcock provided in the original. (It still wasn’t enough, as per the reaction of the theatrical audience I saw it with, when they realized that the struggle was already over…but it could have been worse; van Sant could have gone whole hog and constructed a climax more in tune with the new era’s sensibilities, complete with an extended battle in a burning house and a bad guy who kept coming to life after being presumed dead.)

Some of the other changes are unfortunate, but forgivable. The original shower scene is justifiably famous for implying extreme violence while never actually showing the knife touch Marion’s flesh. This film’s version duplicates it almost shot by shot (the exception being a few inexplicable inserts of rolling clouds), but makes sure that we see the gaping wounds in Marion’s back as she collapses over the rim of the tub.

Some are repulsive and unnecessary. It was creepy enough, in the original film, when Norman Bates peered through the hole in the wall and spied on Marion in her room. We didn’t really need to see him hyperventilating or hear the vivid moist sounds of masturbation…in part because it’s vulgar, and in part because it prematurely erases any sympathy we might feel for the man. (This is by far van Sant’s most irritating move.)

And finally, some are nonsensical.

This scene is also known as WTF: THE MOTION PICTURE.

What on Earth was van Sant thinking, when he added a random shot of a cow on a highway, and another of a blindfolded woman reclining on a bed, to Arbogast’s murder on the stairway? What did he think this communicated, other than random film-school absurdity?

The Fatal Problem: We already know who Norman Bates is 

Scroll back up and watch the trailer for the remake again. Does it hide Norman’s nature, or trumpet it? Is this now a story driven by an unexpected twist at the one-third mark and shocking one at the conclusion, or by the dreary inevitability of an icon behaving exactly as we expect him to behave?

The 1960 Psycho was not born already imbedded in amber. It was paced for its time, driven by twists unexpected at the time, and appreciated as something new by the audiences of the time. Though now devoid of surprises, it can still be appreciated for the better mousetrap that it is. By contrast, the 1998 version was for audiences who could never be fooled into thinking that the movie was about Marion Crane’s theft, or a fundamentally innocent man trying to hide the crimes of a deranged mother. Remade beat for beat for people who know going in that Norman Bates was a crazy murderer, but too interested in paying obeisance to that original to offer them anything but strict adherence to that blueprint, it completely failed to achieve audience identification with either the main victim Marion or the just as sympathetic killer Norman. It played the notes but did not make the music. It’s no wonder that modern audiences, expecting a modern horror film, sighed with exasperation at the dullness of everything they saw on screen. van Sant did not have to emulate the murder-every-fifteen-minutes pacing of Friday the 13th with his Norman Bates, but what he made was as lifeless, really, as Norman’s mother, moldering in her rocking chair in the basement.

It might have been possible to remake Psycho in a manner that incorporated its main secret as already common knowledge. In fact, it’s been done, in a way. Starting in 1983, Anthony Perkins made a series of sequels that began with Norman Bates released from the mental hospital as “cured,” and went on to elicit thrills over uncertainty over just how unstable he really was. They weren’t great films – in fact, they were largely derided by critics – but they were all far more entertaining than van Sant’s distorted carbon copy remake. I liked Psycho II, in particular,  quite a bit, for presenting us with a story where Norman really is trying to atone for the insane crimes of his past despite Marion’s vengeful relatives  trying to drive him back to a state of madness. It was easy to feel sorry for Norman, in that movie. There was nothing in van Sant’s subsequent straight remake that matched the sheer geeky wit of that endearing moment in Psycho II when Norman Bates, desperately struggling to behave better now, declines to slice a female guest’s sandwich, telling her, “I have a problem with c-c-cutlery.” Anthony Perkins acts the hell out of that moment.

Norman does ultimately return to killing, of course. And he is returned to the asylum at the end of Psycho III. But I always took deep satisfaction in the final moment of the final sequel, Psycho IV: The Beginning, a made-for-TV movie – also written by Stefano — about the events that twisted him in the first place, where the Norman Bates of the framing sequence, mysteriously paroled from the asylum again, ultimately seems cured for good and ready for an unlikely but still gratifying happy ending that includes marriage to a loving young woman and the implied birth of his child. This redemption made almost no psychological or real-world sense, but I liked Norman enough to embrace it. I’m a wuss that way.

For what it’s worth, Robert Bloch’s own version of Norman’s aftermath, the novel Psycho II, was quite different. It’s all about a series of murders that follows Norman’s escape from the asylum. Norman, who is off-stage after the first couple of chapters, seems the obvious culprit, but the book ends with the revelation that he died soon after going over the wall, and that almost all of the recent killings attributed to him were committed by another character entirely. It’s an interesting use of a legendary monster as mere red herring, but feels like a betrayal. Ambivalent as Bloch may have been about his signature creation, Norman Bates really did deserve better than that.

In any event, van Sant received more than his share of abuse by people who called him a talentless hack for his stunt, but let us be honest about this much. He tried something that failed. That’s all. And he has more than earned his way out of purgatory with some of  the work he’s done since then, including the splendid biopic Milk.

As for the man who really started all this, crazy old murderous Ed Gein: he continued to have a tremendous impact on the world of motion pictures, as his crimes also separately inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill from Silence Of the Lambs.

*

And now, the wife’s ominous silhouette comes into view behind the shower curtain…!

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Psycho (1960). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, and Vera Miles. 109 minutes. ****

Psycho (1998). Directed by Gus van Sant. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, and Julianne Moore. 109 minutes.

Other Affiliated Films: Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986), Psycho IV: The Beginning (TV-movie, 1990), all starring Anthony Perkins; A Conversation with Norman (2005). There is reportedly a making-of-Psycho dramatic film also in the pipeline, but who knows if it will ever be completed?

Thank you so much, my loving hubby.

Who decided that Psycho needed to be remade?

Was this one of those late night drunk then wake up in the morning kinda What have I done deals?

It had to be for the remake to so totally miss the mark.

OK, An updating is never a totally bad idea, but you gotta go all in or fold the hand (too many hours playing online poker).  The folks here knew they couldn’t best the original, so they decided to copy and tweak it.  Fine, but again come on and play like ya mean it.  Everything is mixed between 50’s and 90’s .  The dresses look like someone went to a 60’s vintage shop and said give me the ugliest ya got plus the accessories.  And every PI tries to blend in by wearing the Ward Cleaver off to work look.  I mean they are going from a sweltering city to an unused motel and nobody seems to feel that shorts and a t shirt might fit a bit better?  And, besides some older ladies and a few younger Latinos, I have yet to see a parasol in regular sun use. And I live in the Sunshine state.

The big surprises in the course of Psycho worked back then because they were surprising.  Now, the shower/murder scene comes across as toothless as a defanged vampire.  All bloody and wet, but not very scary. And lets face it, Vince Vaughn doesn’t look like he’d have any problem lifting away Anne Heche’s remains. I mean at least the movie goer had a reasonable doubt whether Tony Perkins could actually manhandle Janet Leigh’s body ( and I mean that in the nicest way possible guys).

Oh, AND ONE MORE THING, who the hell decided that the Daliesque images enhanced the fall down the stairs?  Talk about throwing the scene out of whack.  Is it supposed to be his memories or just some random last thoughts?  HUH?!?!  I just didn’t get it.  Did anyone?

Alright, So two guys walk into a bar and one guy says Hey, I’ve got a few million lying around, lets make a movie.  The other guy says sure and they begin to drink.  That’s the joke and the punch line was this remake.