This week I’ve been lucky enough to convince author Michael Gutierrez into guest posting. Check out his wonderful book, The Trench Angel (which deserves cinematic treatment of its own).
Back in the early 90s, during a time when there were a spate of remakes of classic films, my grandfather posited: “Why don’t they just redo shitty movies?”
He was right, in a sense. Remaking the greats because you think they’ll appeal to a modern audience is usually a lost cause. His Girl Friday will always be better than Switching Channels, even if you add modern stars like Burt Reynolds (the 80s loved a good mustache). But “shitty movies” are often shitty for several fundamental, inalterable reasons, be it bad acting, poor production values, or, most likely, a terrible story idea. These are films that can’t be saved. Take Showgirls: you can blame star Elizabeth Berkley’s humorless performance or director Paul Verhoeven’s lack of visual dexterity, but the film would probably still blow even if you gave the camera to Scorsese and put Meryl Streep in pasties.
Yet, there’s a middle ground: remake mediocre films, movies that just missed being great for one or two specific, easily discernible reasons. It’s been done before, most recently with Ocean’s Eleven. The original Rat pack vehicle was poorly paced and weighed down by a lazy script, bad jokes, and half-in-the-bag performances. Enter George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh and you’ve got a remake that trumps the original.
Case in point is Alfred Hitchcock, a man who made plenty of just-misses. For every Rear Window or North by Northwest, you’ve got a handful of Suspicions. Hitchcock, himself, had no issue with remakes, re-doing The Man Who Knew Too Much twenty years after his original version. While many of his lesser films should be left alone (I’m looking at you Stage Fright), a few of his other movies were nearly great, but suffered under the weight of one or two specific flaws.
Here are three that Hollywood should re-do and I’ll even give them a hand by telling them how to do it.
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
The Story: American reporter Huntley Haverstock (Joel McCrea) is sent to Europe to dig up a story on the continent’s impeding war. While there, he finds himself caught up in a sinister international conspiracy, falls in love with the chief villain’s daughter (Laraine Day), while palling around in the Netherlands with fellow reporter Scott ffolliett (George Sanders).
The Good: There’s a great cat and mouse chase through a field of Dutch windmills and some fantastic Sanders scenes where he binge-eats the scenery.
The Problem: The romance between McCrea and Day has all the sexual charisma of an arranged marriage. In addition, Sanders steals the film. Even Hitchcock seems to realize he cast the wrong star, and pretty much turns over the last third of the film to the charming Englishman. Finally, the end transforms into a piece of pro-war propaganda, trying to convince America to join the fight against the Nazis. It made sense at the time, but now it dates the film.
The Solution: Cast Ryan Gosling and Marion Cotillard. Besides being capable performers, they’re both so pretty to look at. Plus, you could actually shoot the film in Amsterdam. Why aren’t there more films in Amsterdam?
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The Story: Young European Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is travelling home via railway to get married. On the trip she befriends Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who suddenly disappears in transit, though the train has made no stops. Henderson and fellow passenger Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave) investigate, only to find themselves caught up in a sinister international conspiracy.
The Good: It’s a great set-up with some tense scenes, red herrings, and a bouncy tone. Plus, you’re on a train and trains are awesome.
The Problem: Lockwood doesn’t come across as someone willing to challenge a waiter, let alone a cabal of killers. It should have been Myrna Loy or Katharine Hepburn. Redgrave’s fine, but Cary Grant would have been better. There are also some really hokey special effects where the train looks like a child’s model set and Hitchcock spends too much time setting up the story and gives away the villain too quickly.
The Solution: I know they re-did this film with Jodie Foster as Flightplan, and I’ve heard it isn’t bad, but I can’t watch movies set on airplanes without a heavy, accompanying dose of Xanax, so let’s keep it on the train because trains are, as you know, awesome and put in Reese Witherspoon and Ethan Hawke. Give the characters some age and gravitas. Or if they won’t do it, Cotillard and Gosling will do.
The 39 Steps (1935)
The Story: Robert Hannay (Robert Donat) finds himself caught up in a sinister international conspiracy. There’s a lot of running through fake Scottish moors, an evil dude with half a finger missing, and Madeleine Carroll going full Stockholm Syndrome on Donat after he kidnaps her.
The Good: It sounds bad, but it isn’t. Seriously. It’s just not great. Even if the moor scenes were filmed on a sound stage, the running is fun and the scene at the end in the Palladium when Mr. Memory reveals the secrets of the 39 Steps organization is brilliant.
The Problem: How many memorable movies have you seen with Donat or Carroll? There’s a reason. Hitchcock once famously referred to actors as “cattle” and he must have gotten these two off the slaughterhouse floor. At times, you’re rooting for 39 Steps to kill Donat, while Carroll’s quick turn from kidnap victim to doting lover is super uncomfortable.
The Solution: Keep the missing finger, film on real Scottish moors, and bring in Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy. A Mad Max reunion. Unlike Donat, Hardy looks like he could actually land a punch and Theron seems like she’d take a little more convincing to fall in love with her kidnapper than a charming smile. Or, hell, just cast Gosling and Cotillard. That should work.
by Michael Gutierrez