Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Silly Season: 10 best ever remakes.

Well, there is some context here. Next week, we get to see the much ballyhooed remake of Total Recall. Mind you, there is always a remake out. So, no attempt to make today’s silly season post relevant is necessary. This …

Sun, Aug 19, 2012, 19:54


Well, there is some context here. Next week, we get to see the much ballyhooed remake of Total Recall. Mind you, there is always a remake out. So, no attempt to make today’s silly season post relevant is necessary. This is not the first time I’ve asked everyone to calm down when moaning about this subject. Every six months or so some radio show or other will phone me up to ask for comments on the current vogue for dredging up items from Hollywood’s honourable (and, often, not-so-honourable) past. Each time, I calmly — and no doubt pompously — explain that cinema has always been in the business of remakes. There were, apparently, three version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1920 alone. As you will see below, many of Hollywood’s greatest films belong in this category.

That said, it is hard not to sigh when the studios decide to disinter Spider-Man after a decade and fail to offer any sound artistic reasons for their decision. Please demonstrate some degree of fresh thinking when polishing off the classics.

Now, a few points should be made about rules. I am not including films loosely “inspired by” earlier pictures. So, there is no place for A Fistful of Dollars or The Magnificent Seven. Most painfully of all, I have had to exclude Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which I can’t quite sell as a remake of Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows. By the looser definition, you could (albeit somewhat mischievously) argue for Taxi Driver as a remake of The Searchers. Remember that Paul Schrader has admitted that he used John Ford’s film as a template. We have, however, not stuck so strictly to the definition as to exclude all films based on the same source material. That would offer a considerable challenge. Virtually nothing in the list below would make it in. Also, I should note that we are not considering films merely on the basis of how well they live up to the original. That said, I think only two of the films below are weaker than their predecessors.

Enough yacking. In no particular order…

THE THING (John Carpenter, 1982)

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Veteran readers will remember that, on release, many critics argued that Carpenter’s film was too explicit to bear comparison with Christian Nyby’s (or do we mean Howard Hawks’s) The Thing from Another World. On reflection, though the 1951 picture is first-rate, the Carpenter picture now seems superior on every level. Yes, it’s gooily disgusting, but it also has long stretches of aching tension.

THE MALTESE FALCON (John Huston, 1941)

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Yes, suh, I, Sydney Greenstreet, am here to tell you, suh, that the version you all love of Dashiell Hammett’s most splendid crime novel, is not even the second adaptation. No, suh. It is the third. Please, have a seat to digest the news and try and make sense of the plot.

THE FLY (David Cronenberg, 1986)

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One of those rare — well, reasonably rare — examples of a talented film-maker turning efficient schlock into a masterpiece. To be fair, I remember, as a child, being enormously unsettled by the 1958 film. But Cronenberg managed to take that fairly uncomplicated piece and fashion a horrible comic masterpiece about disease and mortality.

A STAR IS BORN (George Cukor, 1954)

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Unless the terrifying prospect of a new incarnation featuring Tom Cruise and Beyoncé comes to pass, we must regard this as the middle version of the classic tale. As it happens, I still prefer the 1937 film starring Frederic March and Janet Gaynor. (Only maniacs favour the Streisand atrocity.) But the Judy Garland film deserves its lofty status. Here’s the best number in the film.

THE WIZARD OF OZ (Victor Fleming and others, 1939)

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Hold on to your hats. By some calculations, this might be the seventh version of Frank Oz’s book. Among other things, the picture stands as a kind of pre-emptery rebuttal to the auteur theory. Nobody’s entirely sure how many were involved in directing the thing. But it remains delightfully peculiar. Apparently Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon acts as a perfect accompaniment. Well, I suppose Floyd have to be good for something. A Sam Raimi variation will be with us next year.

FRANKENSTEIN (James Whale, 1931)

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The first version of Mary Shelley’s book from 1910 was produced by Thomas Edison’s own company. That short is properly spooky. But the best take on the story remains this vital, mock-Gothic take. However often the story is remade, the monster still appears before the imagination shrouded in Jack Pierce’s extraordinary boxy make-up. I won’t go on about the superiority of the sequel.

SOME LIKE IT HOT (Billy Wilder, 1958)

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Just to get things straight, Wilder’s timeless comedy is a remake, but it is not a remake of the earlier American film of the same title. It is derived from a little-known French film entitled Fanfare d’Amour. As I mentioned recently in a column, I remain a little uneasy about Marilyn Monroe’s baby-girl sexuality. But the film is, of course, a hoot from beginning to end.

NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (Werner Herzog, 1979)

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So, here’s the question. Is Herzog’s superbly odd — and characteristically messy — take on the vampire story a remake of all previous Dracula adaptations or is it only an remodelling of F W Murnau’s  Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens? The Murnau never officially acknowledged its sources. So, it’s a reasonable question. Either way, it’s a terrific film. Check out the superb score by the mighty Popol Vuh in the opening credits.

IMITATION OF LIFE (Douglas Sirk, 1959)

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The world is divided into people who appreciate the gorgeous subversive decadence of Sirk’s mighty melodramas and people who shouldn’t be allowed to vote or own property. This is the one about the caucasian woman who takes in an African-American girl who can “pass” for white. It’s both lovely and bitter. Lana Turner walks as if in a dream. The colours are exhausting. The 1934 version is also pretty good.

TRUE GRIT (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2010)

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A classic in the returning-to-the-source-material school of remakes, the Coen brothers version of Charles Portis’s novel is dirtier, more ambiguous and more peculiar than Henry Hathaway’s take on that much-acclaimed book. It also deserves note for disinterring the western. Not that anybody paid attention. Studios are, tragically, still depressingly afraid of Hollywood’s most neglected genre. Great mumbling from Jeff Bridges. Super cameo from our own Domhnall Gleeson.

With apologies to The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Departed (2006), Scarface (1983), The Man who Knew Too Much (1956) and Let Me In (2010).