How to (re)make it in Hollywood: the big-screen reworkings that surpassed the originals

A new film called The Hustle, which was released here yesterday, is actually not all that new. A comedy, it stars Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson as two seasoned con-women who join forces to swindle rich, arrogant men along the Cotes d’Azur. Some reviewers, me among them, had their hackles up before they even saw it, as it’s a remake of the much-loved 1980s comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

That film starred Michael Caine as Lawrence Jamieson, a suave chancer who charms money out of wealthy, gullible females in the south of France, but is not happy when his patch is invaded by a loud American swindler called Freddy Benson (Steve Martin). It was a truly delightful comedy, with Caine matching the superb timing of a master comedian in his prime. In fact, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a kind of mini-masterpiece: The Hustle is not.

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Before we get on our high horses about all theses remakes, it ought to be pointed out that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was a remake itself of a slight but enjoyable 1964 comedy called Bedtime Story, with David Niven and Marlon Brando taking the lead roles. My point is that remakes are not a bad thing at all necessarily, but if you rehash a great movie, you’d better make sure you don’t get it wrong.

Why, you might wonder, do people remake films at all? Tried and tested formulas is the answer, ideas that are proven to work: making movies is very expensive, and studios and producers will do practically anything to avoid taking a punt on a new idea.

The Hustle does at least have one interesting aspect: it’s part of the current trend of remaking classic films with women instead of men in the leads. And while that’s not a good thing here, it has been elsewhere: I quite liked the Kate McKinnon/Melissa McCarthy remake of Ghostbusters, and the all-female Ocean’s 8 was less vacuous than the original Clooney/Pitt films.

Remakes can be fine, but if you’re redoing a good movie, you have to bring something new to the party to make it worth watching. Here are my best – and worst remakes.

Hollywood studios have been remaking their own movies since the very start. Did you know, for instance, that the The Maltese Falcon was a rehash of a 1930s thriller starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels? The 1931 film lacked the killer wit and sublime pace of John Huston’s 1941 version, which also had Bogart, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet going for it.

The biblical epic Ben-Hur has been remade no less than three times. Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, which used the Roman Empire as the incidental backdrop to a celebration of the glory of the Christ, was first adapted for the screen in 1907, when a short silent version fell foul of the lawyers after it was discovered it had been made without the permission of the author’s estate.

A full-length silent version was completed by Fred Niblo in 1925, and was a technical triumph, particularly its chariot-race sequence, which would be much copied.

It was copied virtually frame for frame by William Wyler in his 1959 version, which could claim to be one of the greatest remakes of all. It cost so much to make that it marked the beginning of the end for the epic genre, but Ben-Hur’s scale and magnificent 70mm cinematography made it a thing of beauty. And when you watch it, be reminded that nothing is an effect. The crowds of extras, the horses, arenas, sea battles – everything had to be acted out, using giant sets, model boats, huge water tanks. Not so the watery 2016 version, which told the story of Judah Ben-Hur using non-stop CGI, and was very much the worse for it.

Because it was shown so much on television in the 1970s and 1980s, film lovers of my generation have a fondness for True Grit, the 1969 comic western starring John Wayne as a drunken US marshal who helps a spirited 14-year-old girl hunt down the man who killed her father. Looked at dispassionately, however, Henry Hathaway’s film is pretty ropey, and not a patch on the Coen brothers’ 2010 remake, which restored the beautiful 19th-century American English of Charles Portis’s original novel, and created an altogether more compelling vision of life in the old west.

I didn’t realise until recently that The Wizard of Oz is a remake, of a 1925 film made by the now forgotten silent comic Larry Semon. It had its moments, but little charm and no songs, and is not a patch on the magnificent 1939 version, with its explosions of colour and fine cast led by the sublime Judy Garland. It may, therefore, be the greatest remake of them all.

David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly isn’t too shabby either. The original had been an ingenious but cheap and nasty 1958 B-picture about a scientist who gets his genes scrambled with those of a housefly. But Cronenberg’s version transformed the basic story into a magnificently icky slice of body horror. Incidentally, this is the film that coined the deeply silly poster tagline, “Be afraid – be very afraid”.

In remaking the 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, Martin Scorsese deepened its themes of identity struggle and personal ethics, turning a fine genre picture into a baroque morality play. The Departed starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon as young Boston cops whose lives take very different paths, and Jack Nicholson as the Irish mob boss with whom they become fatally intertwined. It had a certain grandeur to it, no question.

The must-see horror film of 2017, It, was based on a Stephen King novel that was made into a cult TV mini-series in 1990. The TV drama starred Tim Curry as the shape-shifting demon that inhabits the sewers of a small Maine town and lures children to their doom: he was excellent, the production values and special effects less so. Andrés Muschietti’s movie made the most of the story’s visual potential and caught the wicked spirit of King’s novel.

And which A Star is Born do you prefer? There are four versions to choose from, all very fine: the original 1937 melodrama; the 1950s version starring Judy Garland; the denim-themed 1970s Barbra Streisand remake, and Bradley Cooper’s 2018 take. My favourite would have to be the one from 1954, especially the moment when James Mason’s has-been actor Norman Maine staggers onstage during Esther’s Oscar acceptance speech. But I thought Cooper’s remake was terrific, and totally justified its existence.

Not all remakes do, however. The Coen brothers may have got it right with True Grit, but their 2004 ‘reimagining’ of the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers was regrettable, with Tom Hanks attempting to channel the original Alec Guinness performance, and failing dismally. Worse still was City of Angels, a mawkish Hollywood remake of Wim Wenders’ sublime 1987 arthouse masterpiece Wings of Desire.

Though it was controversial in its day, and did poorly at the box-office, Mike Hodges’ 1971 crime thriller Get Carter is now considered one of the greatest British films ever made. It did not deserve the bland and forgettable 2000 remake, in which the remorseless mob hit-man Jack Carter is reimagined as an overdressed gentleman assassin played by Sylvester Stallone.

And the worst remake of all? These things are subjective, but it would be hard to go past Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a bizarre devotional exercise that managed to make a chilling story simultaneously less interesting, and more seedy.

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