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.

Battleground: Real War

I saw an oldie but goody l recently on TCM. Battleground, a 70-year-old film about the siege of Bastogne during WW II. Featured were Van Johnson, Don Taylor, Marshall Thompson, John Hodiak, James Whitmore, George Murphy, Richard Jaeckel and a young Ricardo Montalban. In the end, only a handful of them are still alive.

The story begins with the waiting that comes with war; the waiting for battle, waiting for an assignment, trying to pass the time without one’s teeth chattering in fear and cold. You could feel the cold wet ground of wintry Belgium through their boots. Later you learn that the men couldn’t report to the aid station with frozen feet until they began to turn black. Nice. Well, that was war; it wasn’t an easy life for those men wintering in mud, snow and ice.

Their thoughts are all over the place; going over the rumors they had heard, barking at each other over the wild rumors; the one soldier who refused to change the time on his watch from Springfield, Illinois where his wife and kids were. The one who spent hours cleaning his dentures that didn’t fit so well in his mouth and crackled when he slept.

Then of course there was the rookie, the new guy, played by Marshall Thompson, who didn’t know his can from his elbow, who had no idea where to go or where to lay his bedroll, thrown in with experienced guys on the line, trying to fit in and be accepted. He learns that his buddy in another company was killed in his foxhole before his commander ever learned his name. Thereafter, he made sure everyone in his company knew his name, Jim Layton.

Of course there was the Hollywood-type story of the squad billeting in the home of a young attractive French woman who cheerfully made them coffee and danced with them. Van Johnson went and stole eggs from her rookery and carried them with him to the next campsite, only to have to put off cooking them because they kept breaking camp.

The film was shot in stark black and white cinematography and won an Oscar for its efforts, contrasting the black tree trunks and the white snow of the bitterly cold woods. There was no color where these guys were, except the color of blood when things got rough.

Battleground won two Academy Awards: Best Cinematography (Black and White) by Paul C. Vogel, and for Best Writing Story and Screenplay by Robert Pirosh. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, (William Wellman) and Best Film Editing (John Dunning) and Best Supporting Actor, (James Whitmore).

The reason this movie is so good is that the men are real; you recognize the actors, but they are servicemen out in the cold, freezing, hungry, pining for a hot meal, desperate for comfort, which was provided somewhat by a traveling chaplain (Leon Ames) on Christmas Day. (This was the first movie where I saw Leon Ames play a decent human being.)

The production began with training of the actors by 20 veterans of the actual 101st Airborne Division servicemen, including technical advisor Lt. Col. Henry Kinnard, who was deputy commander of the division stationed in Bastogne.

Only once do the fighting men have the advantage, when, after an ambush, the German troops, dressed in white parkas, advance, not knowing that the remaining squads had circled behind them. As they are cut down by American fire, the bodies disappear as their white parkas hit the snowy ground.

You find that the men don’t even know what country they’re fighting in; but they do learn that the German troops are masquerading as American servicemen complete with uniforms and dogtags. They have to ask every squad they meet all kinds of questions about baseball, movie stars and other Americanisms to make sure they were addressing Americans.

The men are horrified to learn that an American air barrage was to be made where they had left their wounded buddy hiding under an overturned vehicle, hidden by walls of snow; they find him frozen to death the next day.

They are there when the Germans delivered their ultimatum of surrender to the American commander, only to be told “Nuts,” by acting divisional commander Brigadier General McAuliffe, the most famous quote of the whole war.

After the siege is over, when the company is slowly and painfully making their way back to the main army camp, they see replacements marching in the opposite direction. Immediately they straighten their backs, quicken their pace and sound off one of the cadence songs to show the replacements they were still viable fighting men, not fatigued and beaten troops ready for hot meal and a clean bed.

Premieres of this movie were made prior to public release for President Harry S Truman and attended by Brig General McAuliffe, and others who were there.

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.

How To Have a Successful Classic Movie Festival

 

 

Our one-day Classic Film festival has ended and three of us enjoyed five movies in less than 12 hours!

It was TCM Backlot that inspired me to entertain with a classic movie festival, and I thank them with all of my heart.

You need to know that just above my friends here on the couch hangs a gift from TCM Backlot – a print of the old MGM studios with the TCM logo. Here it is:

It was a mini vacation for all of us movie lovers and I recommend it wholeheartedly.  All my films were either purchased at the TCM Shop or recorded from a TCM showing.

Our first film was All About Eve, a curiously relevant story of a young actress’s drive to succeed and replace her idol on the stage and screen. Eve (Anne Baxter), becomes the antagonist in her climb to stardom, taking advantage of the generosity of her supposed idol, stage actress Margo Channing, played by a marvelous Bette Davis.

Eve hides her ambition behind a sweet smile and deferential manner, while ingratiating herself with the people close to Margo, including her husband, played by Bette Davis’s real life husband, Gary Merrill.

While all this is going on, it’s Margo Channing’s skeptical dresser, played by the fantastic Thelma Ritter, who takes our role as the audience, watching what’s going on with jaundiced eyes and states outright that no one could be as sweet and innocent as Eve portends.

Two thirds of the movie later, as the realization of Eve’s manipulations dawns on the players, we see that they are already caught in the web of Eve’s cunning and that their lives and relationships are at a standstill.

The denouement comes at the finale, as Eve discovers that she has made a pact with the devil, one Addison DeWitt, a theatre critic played by the cunning George Sanders, who has done his homework and uncovered the truth about the real Eve.

Justice never felt so good.

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Next up was The Lodger, a silent 1927 film, one of the first directed by Alfred Hitchcock and filmed in Hitch’s England, well before he came to America. Since we’ve seen or heard about Hitch’s more famous movies as his career advanced, you can see the talents of this storytelling genius emerging in this film.

The thick fog of London’s nights becomes one of the characters as the suspense builds, and we strain to figure out who was murdering blond women on the lonely streets. Neon signs blink on and off like silent screams and we’re made to wait as the scene slowly unfolds, introducing a very secretive man seeking a room in a boarding house, the lodger.

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After The Lodger and getting our racing heartrates back to normal, I introduced my friends to one of Barbara Stanwyck’s early films, Ball of Fire (1941), where she plays a New York showgirl full of piss and vinegar and brimming with sex appeal.

Ms. Stanwyck, who was a petite woman just over 5 feet tall, nevertheless casts a giant shadow across the astonished faces of 7 secluded and proper professors residing in a large New York townhouse. She asks if she could stay there on the pretense of hiding from an abusive boyfriend. Actually, she’s hiding from the district attorney who’s investigating said boyfriend (Dana Andrews).

Ms. Stanwyck’s character, appropriately named Sugarpuss O’Shea for her nightclub act, is like a naughty Snow White to 7 clueless dwarves – these elderly professors dedicated to creating a new encyclopedia.

One of the professors, played by Gary Cooper, is a grammarian researching American slang expressions. His exposure to Sugarpuss opens a treasure trove of slang that nearly overwhelms him. We laughed ourselves silly as a surprised Cooper learns what yum yum kisses are and his fellow “dwarves” learn the conga dance.

This screwball comedy features a healthy supporting cast of S.Z. Sagall, Oscar Homolka, Henry Travers, Richard Haydn, Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea.

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It was time to shift gears once again, as we settled in for the beautiful and perfect Laura from 1944, with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price, directed by Otto Preminger. We are told in the opening scene that Laura was murdered in cold blood in her apartment.

Dana Andrews plays Detective Mark McPherson, and spends a lot of hours in Laura’s apartment, trying to understand Laura, her associates, and her playboy fiancé (Vincent Price). He’s mesmerized by the full length painting of Laura over the fireplace and even has dreams about her.

Throughout the film the very recognizable “Laura theme” undulates and seems to tease McPherson into thinking Laura still lives. She’s beautiful and as pure a soul as Clifton Webb, a newspaper columnist,  describes her in his narration of the story.

The tight script reveals the traits and flaws of each character as we try and determine who might have murdered Laura. There was plenty of motivation for some of them. The ending does not disappoint.

*                        *                         *

Next up was The More The Merrier from 1941 starring Jean Arthur, Charles Coburn and Joel McCrea.

A delightful screwball comedy set in Washington, D.C. (my hometown) during World War II, the film could have been set during any turbulent time in any place where there was lack of housing. My mother relayed to me how the severe housing shortage in the nation’s capital was due to the military buildup of the war, bringing thousands of military and government personnel to the city. Mom had reached working age and was eager to join the ranks of the “government girls,” herself and work in support of the war effort within the burgeoning bureaucracy.

The film is the story of one of these government girls, Connie Milligan, exquisitely brought to life by Jean Arthur, who advertised a room for rent in her apartment. Naturally she expected applications from newly arrived women looking for a place to live, but when an amiable and harmless Mr. Dingle, (Charles Coburn) shows up in his rumpled suit and quiet manner, she relents.

But when Connie presents Mr. Dingle (Coburn) with a minute-to-minute schedule for sharing the morning chores as well as the kitchen and bathroom, that’s when things get crazy. The two of them briskly wend their way through the routine, passing each other between the kitchen, the morning stoop for the paper, and the shower. Soon Mr. Dingle gets locked out of the apartment while retrieving the newspaper, and ends up losing his trousers in the confusion.

But that isn’t all, that same day  another man approaches the apartment and Mr. Dingle rents half of his half of the apartment to this stranger, a virile Joel McCrea.  But Mr. Dingle doesn’t tell Connie of McCrea’s existence nor does he tell McCrea about Connie. The madcap happenings of the frantic morning routine, misunderstandings between fiancés, coworkers, and the three roommates started giggles that couldn’t be stopped.

And that wrapped up our mini classic movie festival with fantastic films, delectable food, and the comforts of home!

If you have ideas from your own movie festival — suggestions of films, food and other comforts, please share them in the comments!