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Movie Remakes (1)


John Huston's classic, The Maltese Falcon, was a remake of an earlier film. So were such popular favorites as The Wizard of Oz and the Frankenstein that made Boris Karloff famous. Indeed, for almost as long as men have made movies, they have remade them.

Currently, Hollywood is going through an especially fecund period of deja vu, with over a hundred old titles in various stages of development, ranging from the recently released Cat People and the soon-to-be-released The Thing to pending remakes of Psycho, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Dodsworth.

Money (Double) Talks

The most frequent reason for recycling a film is financial. Since a film's profits are realized only after production, promotion, and exhibition fees are paid, a movie must earn close to three times its budget. Since an average feature film can cost as much as $15 to $20 million, and movie audiences seem to be dwindling, many companies aren't willing to take too many chances. "Doing a remake is easier and cheaper than writing an original," says Wilbur Stark, who coproduced Cat People (1942) and The Thing From Another World (1951). "You have the story. You have the characters. All you have to do is contemporize them."

But does the financial potential of remakes justify them? Don't they close off the avenues of original work, especially with fewer films being made each year?

"You've got to replenish the cash flow in the industry," says a spokeswoman for Paramount. "One way to do that is with surefire hits. Once that money is back in the business, then you can afford to take the Apocalypse Now risks. And the remakes aren't getting in the way of such films as On Golden Pond and Shoot the Moon."

Of course, remaking a film is no guarantee it will be a hit. "The story is there," says John Tarnoff, senior vice president of motion-picture production and development for MGM, "but that perceived advantage can be deceptive. You can be seduced by the fact that the picture worked once and not properly make it work on its own terms. "

Consider the 1976 version of King Kong, for instance. The 1933 movie's most famous image is that of Kong precariously straddling the Empire State Building's phallic tower and fighting off rickety W orld War I biplanes, all for the love of heroine Fay Wray. The modern remake, a semi-spoof, changed the location of the climax from the Empire State Building to the World Trade Center, but battling super-powered jets on the top of the boxlike World Trade Center could not compare in power and symbolism with the first image. Moreover, the new version played the story's beauty-andt-he-beast theme more for laughs than for suspense.

Improving On An Original

Tampering with a classic can be very risky, but if the original film is unknown or undistinguished, a director with vision can bring home a winner. Dashiell Hammett's crime novel The Maltese Falcon was filmed twice – in 1931 (as Dangerous Female) and in 1936 (as Satan Met a Lady) – before Huston made the definitive version in 1941, starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre. There were two black-and-white silent film versions of The Wizard ofOz, but Victor Fleming had sound, color, and music – and Judy Garland – to work with when he directed the 1939 version we all know and love. Frankenstein was first made in 1908 as a silent film. James Whale's 1933 sound version, using improved makeup techniques for the monster, became a seminal American horror film.

Blake Edwards's recent hit, Victor/ Victoria, is a remake of a 1933 German movie (Viktor/Viktoria). "The remake can suffer, depending on how famous the original is," says Tarnoff. If you're going to remake Gone With The Wind, watch out, but a great many people, however, hadn't seen the first version of Victor/Victoria. The new version has a 1980s sensibility and is more open in its treatment of homosexuality. "The subject matter, in 1933, could have been called promiscuous," says Allan BucHhantz, the owner of all remake and ancillary rights. "The new movie is awfully close to the first version, but what couldn't be done then, we do now-but better. Robert Preston plays a gay man who is delighted with himself. We're not shocked by him. We're not laughing at him. We're laughing with him."

On the other hand, more explicit sex is not always enough to make a new version of a film better. The Postman Always Rings Twice was made in 1946 during a period in which the film censors would not allow the sort of steamy sex described in the James M. Cain novel on which it was based. The 1980 version was more faithful to the novel in its vivid seduction scenes but, by leaving nothing to the imagination, lacked the suggestive eroticism of its predecessor.

Technological Advances


Cat People and The Thing, two of the newest remakes, have classier special effects than those of their predecessors, which Alan Ormsby, screenwriter for the new Paul Schrader-directed Cat People, thinks is a necessity nowadays. "Today you're dealing with a situation where each film is trying to outdo the one before, and the audience has come to expect that, especially in terms of technology and state-of-the-art effects. That's one of the reasons why people will leave the house to go to the movies. " The low-budget original version of Cat People, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur in 1942, only suggested that a woman was turning into a panther; the new movie shows it.

Director Schrader believes that a remake, though derivative, can be very original. In a recent interview in American Film, he said: "Remakes, sequels, parodies, are what I call back-born movies. They come off something else....Cat People, though, has had its story and sensibility totally rethought."

In the case of The Thing, producer Stuart Cohen felt the original did not deal with the central concept of the John W. Campbell story on which it was based. "The creature has the ability to assume the exact likeness and behavior of any life form it has consumed," he points out. "Nor did the producers use the psychological aspects of Campbell's novel. As much as we like the first film, the remake – apart from the Antarctic setting – bears very little resemblance to it."

The Remake As Homage

Money isn't the only motivation for remaking a movie. Sometimes it is a filmmaker's love of the original. "What's happened in the movie business," says MGM's Tarnoff, "is that we've come of age. We now have a body of films to look back on, films that have a timeless appeal."

Philip Kaufman's 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for instance, was a remake of a 1956 B-movie starring Kevin McCarthy, directed by Don Siegel. The new film improved on the original's special effects, but kept the thrust of the first story, only making it darker and more universal. Kaufman's respect for the original was apparent, and he even included cameo appearances by Siegel and McCarthy (in a reprise of his original role, which moved the remake closer to sequel status).

"The audience reacts to the repetition, the familiarity, very warmly," notes Tom Mankiewicz, screenwriter for three James Bond movies and creative consultant on the Superman movies.

And, as producer Stark points out, it has been said that there are really only 27 basic plots in the world. "You can give the same story to five different directors, and it will turn out five different ways," he says. "They could all be good. But then again, they could all be bad."