Hitch and the Remakes
Article by Alain Kerzoncuf
Suspense: the stretching out of present time between two opposing possibilities in the imminent future.
- Jean Douchet
NOT ALL THE WORKS of Alfred Hitchcock are 'suspense' films. Nor are all the 'remakes' of his films. Nonetheless it's helpful to bear in mind Douchet's definition, which stands as one of the best to date of this word so inextricably linked to the master of the genre.
On the subject of definitions, let's clarify one point. Remake = a film which tells the same story, often with the same title, as a previous production. Also, insofar as Hitchcock rarely wrote his own screenplays, readily using material from outside sources (such as novels, plays, ideas from scriptwriters), the 'remakes' that we'll be looking at here were based, as a rule, on the same source material as the original films.
An example of a 'remake' is Hitchcock's own second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), based on his 1934 film and its screenplay by Charles Bennett. Note that we shan't consider here simple 'mentions' of Hitchcock films, such as occurs in A Kiss Before Dying (James Dearden, 1991), where the actress playing the dual role of the two sisters (Sean Young) watches none other than Vertigo on television. 
We might also consider 'veiled references' to earlier films, and 'sequels' (more about these later). However, we'd best limit ourselves to the essential, except from time to time, when to give in to temptation will be a forgivable pleasure. This is the case with films like Roadgames (Richard Franklin, 1981), made by the director of Psycho II (1982), in which Janet Leigh's real-life daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, is nicknamed 'Hitch', not (ostensibly) for 'Hitchcock', but for 'hitch-hiker'. But then, two thirds of the way through the film, as she puts things in order in the truck driver's cab, we catch a glimpse of a copy of the 'Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine', a monthly collection of stories of mystery and suspense ...
Now, let's get back to the essentials. It is true that, apart from The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock did not copy his own work, unlike some other film-makers. So much the better, since each new film, originating in the spotlight of his obsessions, was a kind of rebirth. His work constitutes a large family, with many children but only one set of twins. Just because a director has a consistently recognisable style does not mean that he repeats himself.
Okay, but how do we classify a film like Psycho ('B'?) (1998), by Gus Van Sant? It is undoubtedly a fairly accurate copy of the original, and virtually the only one in this genre. Must we ask 'why bother?', or just understand, and accept, that spectators want 'colour' films, especially on television? (Some viewers these days even phone a TV station during a black and white broadcast to check that their TV is not playing up!)
Well, let's not throw accusations at television: it has allowed many of us to discover the talents of Sir Alfred, and for a number of years has produced 'TV films' in great quantities, though, alas, not always of great quality. A considerable number of the remakes discussed here belong to this category.
Only some of these productions attempted to revive a particular style, that of the 'suspense' genre, as defined at the outset of this article. Few of those proved notably successful. The other 'remakes' fared better, probably because the subject or the story was more appropriate to the style, or the directors pushed their films in a new direction, leaving the original behind.
High quality productions are all too rare. Among those originally intended for theatrical release, we find some pleasant surprises, but once again only those in which the films (and their directors) differentiate and distance themselves from the original productions. The truth is that, regardless of the chosen medium, the more one follows in Hitchcock's footsteps, the less successful is the result likely to be, which is only logical.
Strangers on a Train, Rebecca, and The Lodger
So, where shall we begin? The simplest way would be be to follow chronological sequence, at the risk of creating a catalogue. But let's take, to start with, a quantitative reference point by asking which is Hitchcock's most 'revisited' film? Two or three of his films have inspired at least three 'remakes' ...
Strangers on a Train
Let's exclude Danny DeVito's Throw Momma from the Train (1988), a veritable parody of Strangers on a Train (1951), from consideration here. This isn't to deny that DeVito handles the parody reasonably skilfully, and doesn't take himself too seriously. The latter cannot be said of three other directors who have tackled Patricia Highsmith's story. Once You Kiss a Stranger (1969) is attributed to Robert Sparr (whose assistant director on this film, Howard Kazanjian, was employed by Hitchcock on Family Plot seven years later). The tennis champion is now a golfer, and Bruno has become a woman, Diana. Even more startling, in Once You Meet a Stranger (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1996) the two protagonists are both women: one is called Sheila Gaines, and the other, Margo Anthony! There had also been two female protagonists in Accidental Meeting (Michael Zinberg, 1993).
In the TV film of 1962, James Mason is Maxim de Winter and Anna Massey is Mrs Danvers. 1978 brought the version by Simon Langdon, in which Anna Massey was, once again, Mrs Danvers (Massey, of course, played the tie-murderer's victim in Frenzy ). In 1997, Jim O'Brien's film presented Rebecca (wait for it!) alive, or, one could say, raised from the dead! Several long shots provide a glimpse of her silhouette, and she talks! The perverse Mrs Danvers (here played by Diana Rigg of 'The Avengers', totally unrecognisable in the part) no longer hides her Sapphic preferences. This is not the case for Mrs Van Hopper, played by Faye Dunaway, who is very 'natural' in the role. Charles Dance (otherwise not bad in White Mischief ) here appears as an insipid Maxim, forcing in vain a tormented look.
In 1932 Ivor Novello was directed by Maurice Elvey (also credited as co-writer) in a version whose alternative title was The Phantom Fiend, and which is reasonably faithful to the novel by Marie Belloc-Lowndes. Here, the serial killer accepts himself for what he is, and this sound-film stands as a fair transition between Hitchcock's silent version of 1926 and John Brahm's production of 1944, the latter all too seldom shown on TV in the United States and Europe. The reputed high quality of the Brahm film is deserved. Appearing in it are George Sanders (as the Scotland Yard Inspector), Merle Oberon (as Kitty) and Laird Cregar (as the lodger); it also has Barré Lyndon as scriptwriter, and Lucien Ballard as Director of Photography. Some critics would point out certain anachronisms concerning London monuments - which is their privilege. We can still appreciate the lighting, the musical score, and the innovative narration. Here is a truly good film among our selection of 'remakes'.
The most recent reworking of this story dates from 1953: The Man in the Attic, directed by Hugo Fregonese, better known for his Gary Cooper/Barbara Stanwyk vehicle Blowing Wild (also 1953). Jack Palance is not too surprisingly cast as the notorious strangler. In fact, he looks so much the part that it's immediately obvious that he is the villain (unlike in the 1926 version). All that remains is to wait for the moment when he is revealed and commits suicide, which takes eighty minutes. The music is, to say the least, imposing and descriptive of the action, endeavouring to set a chilling tone.
However, it doesn't amount to much, not being helped by the fact that the action is intercut with two music hall song-and-dance numbers, and an interlude featuring a street singer. These musical interludes aren't integrated into the action, unlike those in the film by Brahm. Also produced by Fox, this version appears as a copy of the previous one, with even certain shots apparently repeated from it. There are some successful scenes, including the sequence in the Scotland Yard museum, yet no sooner are we drawn into the action each time than the tension begins to dissipate. A shame!
These three incarnations of Jack the Ripper (there are at least five other productions about the character, but without any connection to the original novel), are filmed in black and white, perfectly suited to the depiction of foggy, anguished London nights. On the other hand, colour is consistently used in the several remaining 'remakes' of Hitchcock films.
Let's digress for a moment to comment on the hard work of the 'film summarisers' (how else should we call them?) who plague the columns of our magazines, and in particular our television magazines. The idea of describing a plot in four lines, while at the same time throwing in a quick critique of the direction and the performances, makes the mind boggle. And it is here that we find the origins of that newly coined (and barbaric) term 'remake': yes, one must save time and space, but what a price to pay!
The Thirty-Nine Steps, Shadow of a Doubt, and Dial M for Murder
These films come in at second place in our selection of remakes, each with two later versions of the original Hitchcock masterpieces.
The Thirty-Nine Steps
For the first of the 'remakes', it's better (for reasons of tact) to leave description to the Truffaut-Hitchcock interview: a few sentences sum everything up, with the unfortunate Ralph Thomas given a good thrashing. Now, in Thomas's version of 1959, a certain Don Sharp is credited as sound editor. Could he be the same person who directed the third film of the title, in 1978? The latter film is of a slightly higher standard, this time without following the original script so precisely and preferring to set the action in the Belle Epoque (pre-1914), thus closely matching the John Buchan novel. However, as in Hitchcock's film, we see the addition of a heroine (not the case in Buchan's novel, in which the story revolves around men).
Shadow of a Doubt
One of the 'remakes', by Karen Arthur in 1991, is not up to much, due, once again, to the fact that it is no easy task to rework the original, all the more so in this case. Admittedly, it is shot in colour, Uncle Charlie sports a very nice walking stick, the staircase collapses as expected, and the waltz music reminds us of something ... but we are a little bored all the same.
A specialist of the Western genre, Harry Keller, directed another version of this drama, entitled Step Down to Terror (aka The Silent Stranger) in 1958, set in Santa Rosa. But although the script is, as in the original film, based on the Gordon McDonell story, the character of young Charlie is replaced in this film by Johnny. Since this film is very difficult to come by, our disappointment can only be minimised.
Dial M for Murder
The same goes for the 1981 version of Dial M for Murder (by Boris Sagal), though here, unfortunately, Margot Wendice is played by (believe it or not!) Angie Dickinson. Ah, Rio Bravo! Not to mention episodes of 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' and the 'Alfred Hitchcock Hour' - what fond memories they bring back! Thank you Angie! In France we must still hope that this film will be programmed on television some day.
Another actor, Michael Douglas, clearly had his turn in breaking hearts, but in a contemporary setting in this case, and more where women were concerned. A Perfect Murder (a recent film, dating from 1998) was again adapted from the play by Frederick Knott, and shows Douglas in the role of a husband endeavouring to rid himself of his young wife. Why on earth do Ray Milland and Michael Douglas want to murder women as beautiful as Grace Kelly and Gwyneth Paltrow? For money? Inconceivable! Impossible! In any case, this film doesn't hold a candle to the original: it is yet another fashionable film of the moment. The London husband of 1954 appears much more depraved than his 1998 New York counterpart, even if the latter has a hard time convincing us of this fact.
Suspicion, Notorious, Jamaica Inn, and Under Capricorn
The first three of these are British, all of them made for TV. The TV remake of Under Capricorn is an Australian production.
Andrew Grieve is an accomplished Welsh director, having made a considerable number of TV-films, but who in 1988 stooped to mere imitation of the original film Suspicion (1941). It's clear that Anthony Andrews as Johnnie Aysgarth cannot measure up to the memory of Cary Grant (even in a 'colourised' version). Betsy Blair also stars, but her Lina misses by a mile! Original writers Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison, and Alma Reville feature in the credits: so they should, as it is they who do all the work. Incidentally, two other titles are often mentioned as being 'Suspicion-like': Love From a Stranger (Richard Whorf, 1947) and The Spiral Staircase (Richard Siodmak, 1946).
The 'remake' (1992) was made for television, with the action this time set in France. We can note the perhaps surprising presence of Jean-Pierre Cassel as Alex Sebastian. He pulls through quite well, in any case better than Marisa Berenson, who plays not his mother but his sister (also a poisoner)! A little aside: the director Colin Bucksey gave his name to a film with a premonitory title, The McGuffin (1985)! Curiously, Anna Massey appears here in a minor role. Life is full of surprises!
1982 saw the return of Jamaica Inn, in a very long version (originally over four hours, cut down to three), directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark and again adapted from the novel by Daphne du Maurier. It now revolves more around the adventures of the pretty young orphan, Mary Yellan (played by Jane Seymour), and less around the ghastly Sir Humphrey Pengallan (eminently played by Charles Laughton in 1939). As there is little chance that the reader may see this film, we may as well reveal the key to the puzzle straight away: this time it's the minister (John McEnery) who is the leader of the gang of pirates. It remains a rather regrettable film.
In the same year, Under Capricorn was reworked (directed by Rod Hardy, also credited with a new version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, starring Michael Caine). This time it is a television mini-series, another lengthy production (more than two hours long). This series, like Hitchcock's film, was based on Helen Simpson's novel and the play by John Colton and Margaret Lindon. Sadly, Ingrid Bergman's character is played here by Lisa Harrow.
Sabotage/'The Secret Agent', and Secret Agent/'Ashenden', The Lady Vanishes, etc.
In 1996 the Joseph Conrad novel 'The Secret Agent' provided the basis for a new 'version' of Hitchcock's own adaptation called Sabotage (1936). This time, though, the Franco-British production kept the title of the novel. Indeed, writer/director Christopher Hampton seems to have endeavoured to differentiate himself from the earlier film in other ways, to create an original product altogether free of Hitchcock cross-references. This in itself is noteworthy, due to its rarity. First of all, Hampton followed the story line of Conrad's novel more faithfully. Additionally, the policeman character played by Robin Williams (pure Dostoyevsky) shows a depth and strength far surpassing that of Verloc (here played by Bob Hoskins, otherwise excellent, but not managing to erase our memory of the disturbing Oscar Homolka). It is worth noting the almost wishy-washy interpretation of the character called Ossipon, played by Gérard Depardieu.
To complete our collection of 'secret agents', we must not forget (though perhaps it is forgettable!) the TV-film by Christopher Morahan (a very drawn-out four hours), produced in 1991 and employing as its title the name of the Somerset Maugham character, Ashenden. Hitchcock had adapted several of these stories to the cinema screen as Secret Agent (1936).
In the meantime, in 1979, the British director Anthony Page transformed a comedy-thriller into an enjoyable over-the-top comedy, thanks to the presence of Angela Lansbury, Elliot Gould and Cybill Shepherd, who ham it up with great gusto. The story is the same, the title unchanged, but certainly we are faced here with a dressed-up interpretation of Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1937).
Let's not talk about the remake of Rear Window (Jeff Bleckner, 1998), with Christopher Reeve in the James Stewart role. We have to draw the line somewhere! Well, perhaps not, as one of the episodes of the British crime series 'The Detectives', entitled "Rear Window", surely overstepped the mark: in it, we see a policeman, confined to a wheelchair, witnessing a crime in a building opposite. Yes, they dared to stoop so low!
The Farmer's Wife, Number Seventeen, and The Manxman
Let's come back to earth, and mention some interesting rarities, though in quite different respects.
The Farmer's Wife
First, this film by Leslie Arliss, made in 1941. It was mentioned among the director's works in 'The Times' in 1988, at the time of Arliss's death. We have, therefore, every right to assume it to be a film of interest, if not of importance. In any case, it is the only 'talkie' version (on which Arliss is credited as co-writer) of Eden Philpotts' play - the play that also served as inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock's 1928 silent film. Yet Arliss's film, it seems, is hardly ever screened. It surely warrants a revival of interest.
At another extreme, since the reputation of its director is not exactly comparable, is this film made by Geza Bolvary in 1928 (who the following year reportedly directed a German version of Champagne, starring Betty Balfour). Georges Sadoul described him as 'a mediocre specialist at Viennese operetta. More than 50 films, before, during, and after Hitler'. Say no more.
Notice, though, that we have here perhaps a one-off case: in 1932, Alfred Hitchcock 'remade' a film by another director (both versions adapted in turn from the play by J. Jefferson Farjeon). We all know how much Hitchcock distanced himself from his theatrical and literary sources (truly reworking the original material), but Hitchcock's film has all the outward appearances of a remake just the same.
Are there any other examples? Possibly, for The Manxman (1928) comes to mind. Certain film scholars (including Charles Barr) believe that Hitchcock had seen, and was inspired by, the 1916 adaptation by George Loane Tucker (who, incidentally, made the controversial Traffic in Souls ). This is plausible, but since no copy of Tucker's version seems to have survived (it, too, was shot on the Isle of Man), the matter remains unresolved.
Blackmail and Mary
At this point, we cannot ignore two productions that could be considered 'immediate remakes': Blackmail (1929) and Mary (1930). Why 'immediate'? Because the silent version of the former was made at virtually the same time as the talkie version. Additionally, we can observe a number of scenes that have been modified (remade?), owing to the use of new technology. As for the other film, it is widely known that Mary is the German version of Murder!, filmed at the same time, using the same sets, from practically the same script, but played by German actors.
Sequels: The Birds II, Psycho II, III and IV, Bates Motel
Concerning The Birds II, we'll be brief. It was made in 1994 by Rick Rosenthal, under the conventional pseudonym of 'Alan Smithee' (was he ashamed?). The only amusing things about the film may be the presence of 'Tippi' Hedren, and the representation of Bodega Bay.
As for the remakes of Psycho (1960), we are in different territory. It is not easy to let oneself be taken in by the story, to be afraid one more time. It is difficult to accept (also for the nth time) Bernard Herrmann's musical score, and the (at first a little, then extremely aged) face of Anthony Perkins, who directed Psycho III in 1986. [Psycho II (1983)|Psycho II]] (Richard Franklin, 1983) is no doubt the most successful of the three.
Psycho IV (Mick Garris, 1990), is to be considered separately, due to the flashback incorporated in the film, admittedly hardly plausible, but which works. Not to mention the happy ending, all too rare in this genre. It's worth noting that Joseph Stefano appears in the credits of both this version and the 1960 original (for which he had adapted the novel by Robert Bloch).
There was also a thoroughly bad TV movie, Bates Motel (Richard Rothstein, 1987) ...
Homages, imitations, spoofs, borrowings, etc.
What about Brian De Palma, you may ask - and Jonathan Demme, Robert Benton, Nicolas Roeg, and even Mel Brooks and Steven Spielberg? The list goes on. What about the influence of Hitchcock and the 'Hichcockian' atmosphere? And that raises the next question: how many times have we seen the adjective 'Hitchcockian' slung about? How often does it appear in publications devoted to the subject of cinema? It could feature in the 'Guinness Book of Records'! Alfred Hitchcock is certainly worthy of it, but is this term always used appropriately?
I admit that I consider De Palma to be talented enough to make a film that is 'true De Palma', and not a mere 'Hitchcock-derivative' film. Of course, we can establish similarities between Obsession (1976) and Vertigo (1958); Carrie (1976) and Marnie (1964); Sisters (1973) and Dressed to Kill (1980) and Psycho. Of the other directors' films, one could mention Last Embrace (1979) and Still of the Night (1982), as well as Don't Look Now (1973), which is another Daphne du Maurier story, and, at an extreme, Bad Timing (1980). On a different note, why not (a little ashamedly) have a laugh at High Anxiety (1977) and Arthur Hiller's Silver Streak (1976), a spoof of North by Northwest? An even more obvious example, in which the allusion is woefully heavy-handed, is Danny DeVito's already-mentioned Throw Momma From the Train.
Each time we see one of these films, we can't help thinking, 'Hey, I've seen this somewhere before.' The problem is that one can endlessly multiply these references and allusions to Hitchcock. The English term 'rip off' may even be appropriate here (in French, 'dérober' or worse). Allusions appear in scripts, characters, situations (for example, in Final Analysis , and even The Spy in Black , and Contraband ), within a particular musical score by Bernard Herrmann, and so on. Understandably, the term 'voyeurism' is very often used in connection with these 'Hitchcockian' allusions and the 'remakes' themselves. The word 'suspense' (or, at times, 'thriller') is used almost as often. But, all things considered, isn't such terminology a little too simplistic as commentary on the work of Hitchcock?
Equally, some of the these films and their directors are too easily dismissed because they come from television! To return to Steven Spielberg, wasn't his film Duel (1971) made originally for television, and not intended for release in cinemas? Is not the anecdote concerning the unexpected appearance of his image reflected in a telephone booth (which was apparently cut from the film for its theatrical release) a telling one? Spielberg was questioned, somewhat mischievously, as to whether he had intended to imitate Hitchcock by appearing in this way in his film!
Does the real frustration with the 'remakes' come, indeed, from the fact that Hitchcock does not appear in them? This is no doubt why the 'remakes' of his 1955-62 TV series 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents', in 1985-86, always included his presence at the beginning and end of the action, as in the original programmes. The funniest of the series is incontestably "South by Southeast" (not actually a remake at all, like several others of the series), a summary par excellence of the many 'veiled references' to Hitch.
In conclusion, the question we may ask regarding these remakes is this: why have only some of Hitchcock's films inspired reworking (sometimes many times)? Perhaps we could add: thank God more than half of them have escaped such a fate! Of course, it is difficult to reply on behalf of directors and producers. But the classic hypothesis, in which they would proclaim: 'Let's redo what has already proved successful, as this will increase our own chances of success' cannot be discounted. 'So long as we keep the original title!' It's worth noting that the majority of these productions are English (others are American, and occasionally Australian), and that five of the 'remakes'/variants are based, as were the original films, on Daphne du Maurier stories. This may just be a coincidence, or could it be that the works of this slightly dated author still hold some special attraction for audiences?
So, let's wait for the next 'remake'...
©2000, 2001, by Alain Kerzoncuf
- Editor's note. Dearden's film was itself a remake of a 1956 film, directed by the estimable Gerd Oswald and starring Joanne Woodward and Robert Wagner. However, on this occasion the two sisters were played by two different actresses.
- Editor's note. Not altogether surprising in this case. The film was again a 'remake', this time of the 1936 English film - and play - of the same name, from the story 'Philomel Cottage' by Agatha Christie. The play version had been adapted by Hitchcock's actor friend Frank Vosper. The 1936 film, ably directed by Rowland V. Lee, was actually based on the play, and included in the cast Donald Calthrop (Blackmail, Number Seventeen). (Another likely influence from this period on Hitchcock's Suspicion is Emlyn Williams's play 'Night Must Fall' and the 1937 MGM film version [director Richard Thorpe], starring Robert Montgomery.)