Remakes — Which is D.O.A.?

In my opinion, most film remakes do not measure up to the original, except perhaps in the field of special effects. When dealing with storytelling, most times a modernized story attached to a remake complicates the story to the point of being ridiculous.

Let’s consider the film noir D.O.A. While the original movie from 1949 —starring Edmond O’Brien and Paula Britton — has a very simple storyline, whereas the version from 1988, starring Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan and Daniel Stern, twisted and turned and had enough plot to sink a ship. I think it sank an otherwise good movie.

The opening scenes of the two versions are similar, both filmed in black and white and, in the case of the Quaid vehicle, more compelling, with the viewer seeing the world as the dying Dennis Quaid is seeing it, blurred, fuzzy and jerky images as he staggers his way into a police station to report his own murder. In the O’Brien vehicle we see him stagger into the station from behind, obviously sick or inebriated.

Both characters had been poisoned by a radioactive substance that had been dropped into their drink and have only a day or two to live.

And that was the end of the similarities between the two films. The 1988 vehicle tells the rest of the story in color; the 1949 film remained black and white, with an ominous atmosphere, with significant shadows haunting Edmond O’Brien as he tries to piece together the moment when he ingested the poisonous “luminous substance,” called radium chloride in the latter film.

Edmond O’Brien was already a mysterious character. He works as an accountant with a girlfriend/secretary, who we suspect he’s stringing along. He books a vacation without her. We don’t know why. Along the way he meets a woman at a convention in the hotel and they seem to hit it off.

The 1988 film was obviously a vehicle for stars Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, married at the time. It’s in color and takes place on a college campus where Quaid teaches English. He’s in the middle of a divorce, which he does not want to go through with. It’s obvious he still loves his wife, but she has moved on with her life. Quaid is living a boring existence, one that has made him jaded and unmotivated to do anything.

Insert here a student, Nick, who is trying to get Quaid to read his manuscript and Quaid brushing him off. Back in his office Quaid just prints a red “A” on the document without reading it. Then he learns the kid has committed suicide. Quaid discusses his guilt about not encouraging the kid with a fellow teacher who’s celebrating his just having made professor. After sharing congratulatory drink, Quaid throws the manuscript in the wastebasket. Later Quaid ends up at a local bar and shares drinks with a another student, Sydney, (Meg Ryan) who has a crush on him.

Both O’Brien and Quaid wake up after drinking and partying not feeling well and see a doctor. There they learn that they have been poisoned and have only a day or two to live, they panic and leave the doctor’s office to find out who poisoned them.

Here’s where Quaid’s storyline goes haywire. His soon-to-be-ex-wife is murdered; Quaid is also suspected of pushing the suicidal student off the roof. It’s gets truly bizarre, all while Quaid is fighting the incredulity of dying from poison.

In the end, both men discover who poisoned them. And while we see O’Brien succumb to the poison, Quaid simply walks into the night and back into the first scene where he staggers into the rainy night.

I believe the O’Brien version is a superior vehicle due to a tighter story line, the suspense and tension never letting up, and unlike Quaid, O’Brien doesn’t let any of his friends know what’s happening to him; he’s stopped trusting anyone. He’s all alone with his terrible secret.

Which one of the two do you appreciate more? Feel free to comment below.

On Dangerous Ground – Saving Robert Ryan

I’ve never known what to make of Robert Ryan. His performances never look like acting. He IS the character on the screen. One thing’s for certain, you can never take your eyes off that rugged face displaying the myriad emotions experienced by the character he’s playing. And, if he’s not on the screen, you want to know where he is and where he’ll show up next.

Ryan has been quoted that he’s played types that are diametrically opposed to everything he stood for – bigotry, intolerance, corruption, greed and brutality. He was the man who had to make the hard decisions as a general in Battle of the Bulge; the man with screaming paranoia when a stranger comes to town asking questions in Bad Day in Black Rock; the western gunslinger with nothing left to lose in The Naked Spur, the bigoted Army sergeant who terrorizes a Jewish man in Crossfire.

I’m going to go into depth on the film On Dangerous Ground, directed by Nicholas Ray and an uncredited Ida Lupino. In it, Ryan plays Detective Jim Wilson whose relentless days of encountering predators, sleazy backroom bosses, gamblers and murderers takes its toll on an otherwise good detective. He resorts to “getting the job done” by beating up his suspects until they confessed, resulting in charges brought against the department for police brutality. He explains his actions saying that no one likes cops, not the good guys or bad guys. You can see he’s begun to hate himself.

His partners on the squad see the writing on the wall and try to get Wilson to calm down, relax, take up activities outside the force so as not to bring the work home with him. The final blow comes when his superior officer, played by Ed Begley Sr., sends him on assignment upstate to help a local sheriff solve the murder of a young girl. Wilson calls it Siberia, a place of exile. And it is.

The Search

This is when you realize we’re not looking at Robert Ryan anymore. It’s Jim Wilson the detective driving out of the city – out of the familiar environment that’s been poisoning him. It’s a long way to his destination. As Wilson’s car travels the long, narrow dark ribbon of road, there’s no sound, no partners, no radio, no sirens or flashing lights. Wilson comes upon some road construction and, as he waits, we see his piercing dark eyes reflecting the lonely and empty life he’s been living. It’s as if Wilson is traveling back in time, out of the city to a rural isolated environment.

A young girl has been stabbed to death and the killer still at large. As Wilson begins to question the victim’s family members, the angry father, played by Ward Bond, adamantly objects. He wants action, not questions; he wants revenge, not justice. Wilson is not welcomed as a savior, but finds himself confronted by the same anger, distrust and hate that he had for the criminals he’d arrested, only now it’s directed at him. He’s treated as an interloper, someone letting the killer get away.

The suspect steals a car and Wilson has no choice but to follow him with the girl’s father. The camera is focused on the road, which is black and wet, then gray and slushy, then pure white with snow, making driving hazardous. The father is beside himself, shouting at Wilson to go faster, waving his loaded shotgun that will “get the job done.” But Wilson is out of his element and crashes the car after skidding on the icy road as the father pounds the dashboard yelling about the killer getting away. The killer had already crashed his stolen car, and they start following the killer’s footprints through the snowy forests and rocky hills.

Mary and Jim Wilson

The tracks lead them to an isolated farmhouse where they find Mary Malden, a blind woman (Ida Lupino) alone in the house. Wilson and the father find men’s clothes upstairs which Mary says belong to her brother who is away for a few days. The father goes back outside to search the outbuildings. Alone with Wilson, Mary says you can tell a lot about a person from his name. Wilson asks her whether she’s lonely and she senses his loneliness, saying one can be lonely in a room full of people.

Wilson becomes protective of Mary, making sure the furniture is where it should be and the fire rebuilt. This emotion is new for him. Mary thanks him, then, in confidence, she tells Wilson that her younger brother has mental issues and is in hiding nearby. She realizes that he’s done something terrible and asks Wilson to promise to protect him from harm and get him the help he needs.

Wilson struggles with this and has a hard time promising such a thing It’s an unfamiliar position for him:  “protecting” the suspect – but because of his feelings for Mary, he willingly changes his modus operandi in order to do the right thing.

Nicholas Ray uses the stark landscape to play another character in this film. Filmed in black and white, the contrasts are even more stark – white snow, black road and black rocky hills. Wilson’s trek through the snow after the suspect contrasts with fast driving through New York in a police car. Speed is not possible here, and Wilson has time to think about what he’ll do when he catches the perpetrator. Meanwhile, Mary’s home, with its comfortable fire and lantern light is a welcome respite from the harsh outdoors.

Wilson finds that the world is not black and white as he’s looked at it in the past. You see this realization on his face. People are not all bad or all good. Even murder victim’s father’s furious anger melts away when he sees the suspect is “just a kid.” And Mary, who was concealing the suspect, cannot be blamed for protecting him.

The contrast is quite obvious when Wilson heads back to New York and the road turns from a snowy ribbon to a rainy highway filled with cars and buildings, people and crime. No wonder he wants to turn the car around.

This gem of a movie is also enhanced by Bernard Herrmann’s music score. If you listen closely, you can hear echoes of North By Northwest, scored by Herrmann eight years later.

The Letter: Exposure In The Tropics

Many fans have written about The Letter, the 1940 film masterpiece directed by William Wyler starring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson and Gale Sondergaard. Most extol the talents of the actors in their respective relationships with each other on the screen, but they fail to mention two other characters, the tropical moon and Max Steiner’s haunting musical score.

In the infamous opening scene, it is dusk on a rubber plantation in Singapore. You can see and hear the drip, drip, drip of white sap from the tapped rubber trees into waiting containers; native workers are relaxing in hammocks in their open-air quarters as music plays; and everything is bathed by a stark white light as the full moon rises above the palm trees. It creates sharp shadows and gives everything an eerie appearance. The main house, its windows illuminated with the soft golden light of oil lamps, has as its overcoat the same stark moonlight. The stage is set.

A single gunshot rips through the darkness. A shadowed man staggers out of the doorway, and as he grabs at the stair railing, Bette Davis, as Leslie, strides with purpose after him, pumping five more bullets into the body of the man, now a heap at the foot of the porch steps.

Her pistol empty, Leslie notices the moon emerging behind the wispy clouds, exposing her crime for all to see. Like a puppeteer, the moon makes the music score rise, creating gooseflesh and dread as it crescendos. The pair have a symbiotic and paralyzing effect on Leslie as she realizes her world has been changed forever.

Before we viewers know the full story behind the killing, Leslie appears distraught as she sends her servants to retrieve her husband from a far part of the plantation as well as the authorities. When later she relates to them what happened, her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall), their friend Howard Joyce, (James Stephenson), and the police official sympathize with her story of how the dead man, Geoff Hammond, their plantation foreman, tried to sexually assault her and that she shot him in self-defense.

Title: LETTER, THE (1940) BETTE DAVIS, Dir: WYLER, WILLIAM Credit: [ WARNER BROS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]
Robert especially, declares his love and admiration for her bravery amid the sheer terror she must have felt. He begs Howard, his best friend, to represent Leslie as her defense attorney. Howard agrees, but you can see some concern on his face, especially when Leslie dismisses questions about how the Hammond’s behavior that night was so unlike his character. The first seeds of doubt are planted.

After her account of events, Leslie is told she must turn herself in to the authorities in Singapore, where she will be charged with manslaughter and jailed pending her trial. She repairs to the bedroom to pack a bag. That’s where the moonlight invades, its cold light coming through the slatted shutters, painting the bedroom floor with the bars of a prison cell. Leslie gazes up at the moon with pleading eyes as if to say she was justified in what she did.

While Leslie is in jail awaiting trial, she keeps herself occupied with her “lacing,” a skill that requires extreme concentration and patience. Delicate white lace emerges from her busy fingers as if nothing has changed in her life to throw off her rhythm. In fact, she tells visitors she really doesn’t mind the incarceration because it gives her uninterrupted time to pursue her craft. We notice also that she is extended every courtesy by the prison matrons. Her husband is a well-known in the rubber industry, and after all, Leslie was forced to defend herself against sexual assault by Hammond, who had recently married a Eurasian woman — taboo in British society.

Leslie’s composure is interrupted when Howard is informed by his law clerk about a letter allegedly written by Leslie requesting that Hammond come to the house the same evening he was killed. The letter was being offered for a price by a representative for Mrs. Hammond, the widow, with the assurance that the prosecution would not get hold of it. Howard reads a copy of the letter, and extremely concerned, confronts Leslie. At first, she denies writing it, but as the music score rises and fills the room like a guilty conscience, she comes clean, with the explanation that it was only to ask Hammond’s assistance in securing a birthday present for her husband Robert.
By then, Howard and the viewers realize that all this time Leslie had been weaving a story as full of holes as the lace bedspread she is sewing.

Bette Davis and Gale Sondergaard in The Letter (1940)

 

Leslie begs Howard to risk his career by procuring this damning evidence, so she won’t hang, and to keep its contents from Robert. She offers their entire savings to do so, again without her husband’s knowledge. At that point, Howard becomes just as caged as Leslie by his loyalty to Robert and his guilty conscience.

Leslie, released to Howard’s custody, accompanies him to Chinatown to purchase the letter from Mrs. Hammond. The Eurasian woman appears in heavy mask-like makeup, dressed in Asian silk, and adorned with numerous necklaces and bangles. She drills her small steely eyes into Leslie’s wide ones, daring her to pick up the letter that she has disdainfully dropped on the floor. There is no escape for Leslie. The cold moonlight outside is guarding her escape, and, the music swells throughout the room, paralyzing her. Although she is swathed in white lace, Leslie knows that everyone in the room, including Howard, believes her guilty of cold-blooded murder.

Although Howard can barely get through his closing statement in Leslie’s defense at the trial, the jury declares Leslie not guilty. Robert and their friends, delighted and full of congratulations, plan a homecoming party for Leslie. Then Robert announces his plans to start a new venture far away from Singapore where he and Leslie can start a whole new life. He explains his intention to use their savings as a down payment on this new venture. Both Leslie and Howard try to talk him out of it, because they know that the savings are gone.
But it’s no use, Robert is adamant and asks why they are so against his idea. Then he learns about the savings, and purchase of the letter, and demands to see the letter. That’s when it all falls apart…

Leslie reveals the true message behind the letter and why she killed Geoff Hammond, her longtime lover who had broken off their affair to marry a Eurasian. Robert is crushed, but he decides to forgive her.

In the final scene the homecoming party is underway, but after a few minutes, Leslie can no longer face her friends, her husband, or herself. She retreats to the bedroom, dark except for the moonlight slicing though the slatted shutters. The shadows cross her face and Leslie feels her entrapment. Drawn outside by the moonlight, she leaves the bedroom through the garden door into the gardens, fearful of the shadows that threaten to engulf her. And with the music score rising like a tidal wave, Leslie pays the ultimate price for killing Geoff Hammond.

Like a judge and jury, the tropical moon and music score close the final curtain on a life gone wrong.