Love is lovelier the second time around, as Frank Sinatra used to sing, and sometimes that goes for movies as well. Remakes are the rage in Hollywood these days. While they can make money, the new movies are often pale imitations of the originals. However, there have been a few that have bucked the trend, and here are the ten best of that bunch. For this list, I’ve eliminated English-language versions of foreign-language films since it’s subjective to compare the two. For instance, the Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In and its American version Let Me In are both exceptionally creepy horror films. That the one in English might be seen as more accessible does not necessarily make it better. Instead I’ve stuck with films where both versions were in English.
(*Note: with a couple the newer movies the wind is just a mile or two stronger than the original)
Ocean’s Eleven (Original 1960; Remake 2001)
It’s appropriate, considering the lyric quoted above, to start with one of Ol’ Blue Eyes movies. Also, the inspiration to write this post was the passing of Jerry Weintraub, the producer of the remake. The 1960 original was basically the Rat Pack having a fun time together paid for by Warner Brothers. The caper itself was laughably unrealistic, though the movie did do well at the box office. Warner Brothers, though, had the last laugh. The only parts of the original that screenwriter Ted Griffin kept were some character names, that the gang had eleven members, and the heist is set in Las Vegas. Director Steven Soderburgh created one of the most stylish caper movies ever, and populated it with a dream cast. It wasn’t just having Clooney, Pitt, Roberts, and Damon in the same film, but also Don Cheadle, Elliot Gould, Carl Reiner and the rest of the crew that made this a worldwide hit. Unfortunately, the sequels followed the rule of diminishing returns.
Casino Royale (Original 1967: Remake 2006)
This is a case of comparing rotten apples with prized oranges. Albert “Cubby” Broccoli locked up the rights to all the Ian Fleming Bond books except for the first one, which was actually produced on TV in 1954 with Barry Nelson as American spy James Bond. After the Bond movies became hits, Columbia decided to make Casino Royale as a spoof. It was a classic case of Hollywood excess. There were five directors, including John Huston, three screenwriters, seven uncredited contributors to the dialogue including Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, Ben Hecht and novelist Joseph Heller, and an all-star cast including Allen, David Niven, and Peter Sellers. The only success it had was for Herb Albert, who recorded the Burt Bacharach/Hal David theme song. In 2006, for the launch of Daniel Craig as Bond, Cubby’s daughter Barbara finally had the rights and went back to the original story, while giving it an overdose of adrenalin. It gave the over-40-year-old series its biggest hit with a $600 million worldwide box office and cemented Craig as this century’s Bond.
Heaven Can Wait (Original “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” 1941, Remake 1978)
This time it’s a close call. Here Comes Mr. Jordan starred Robert Montgomery as Joe Pendleton, a pugilist who dies too soon, and Claude Rains as the titular Mr. Jordan, a head angel who tries to repair the mistake by placing Joe’s consciousness into the body of a banker who’s just been murdered by his wife and his personal secretary. It was based on a play entitled “Heaven Can Wait,” and the film was a hit. In 1978, Warren Beatty and Buck Henry decided to remake the story under the original title. They changed Joe’s character from a fighter to the quarterback of the L.A. Rams, with Beatty playing Joe, James Mason as Mr. Jordan, and Julie Christie as Joe’s love interest. Also in the cast were Dyan Cannon, Charles Grodin, Jack Warden, as well as Henry as the angel who grabs Joe too fast. They did keep that Joe had a lucky saxophone, though they changed it from an alto sax to a soprano. The soundtrack was done by jazz great Dave Grusin. The film was number five at the box office in 1978 (behind Grease, Superman, Animal House, and Every Which Way but Loose) and was nominated for 9 Oscars including Best Picture, though this was the year that The Deer Hunter and Coming Home dominated the major awards. Note: Just to be confusing, there is a 1943 Don Ameche film entitled Heaven Can Wait, but it’s a completely different story.
3:10 to Yuma (Original 1957; Remake 2007)
Based on a story by Elmore Leonard, the original 3:10 starred Glenn Ford as the outlaw and Van Heflin as the farmer who must get him on the titular train to collect a reward. It focused more on the battle of wits and will between Ford and Heflin, and it was one of the better westerns during a time when dozens of them were made every year. The remake was done in a much different atmosphere, when westerns are a rarity, and this time it expands the story so the outlaw’s capture and the journey to the town to meet the train takes up 2/3rds of the movie. The story also makes the farmer’s son a major character. Having Russell Crowe and Christian Bale as the main characters ups the intensity all by itself, though the show is almost stolen by Ben Foster as Crowe’s second-in-command, a role played by Richard Jaeckel in the original.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (Original 1934; Remake 1956)
The only person who can safely remake Alfred Hitchcock is Alfred Hitchcock (see – or rather don’t see – 1998’s remake of Psycho, and you can already discount Michael Bay’s upcoming remake of The Birds). Hitchcock’s original was partly inspired by an actual event in England, the Sidney Street Siege in 1911when Home Secretary Winston Churchill sent in the Scots Guards to clear out an anarchist gang, turning Sidney Street into a battleground. In both movies, a family vacation is interrupted by a dying man giving the husband and wife information about a pending assassination. For 1956, Hitchcock completely eliminated the Sidney Street reference and created a wonderfully suspenseful story that starred Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day.
Cape Fear (Original 1962; Remake 1991)
Once again, this is a close call. Based on a John D. MacDonald story, the original had Gregory Peck as lawyer Sam Bowden and Robert Mitchum as Max Cady, the criminal that Bowden helped convict 8 years earlier and who has now come back for revenge. It’s a good thriller, but then Martin Scorsese decided to remake it with Nick Nolte as Bowden and Robert De Niro as Cady. The new version is much darker and deeper: instead of testifying against Cady, Bowden was Cady’s lawyer and threw the defense to get Cady off the streets. De Niro’s Cady is mesmerizing, and the film benefits from an exceptionally strong supporting cast with Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis (an amazing performance), and Joe Don Baker. Scorsese also gives honor to the original by having both Peck and Mitchum take supporting roles, and reusing Bernard Herrmann’s iconic original score.
The Thing (Original “The Thing From Another World” 1951; Remake 1982)
Producer Howard Hawks’ original The Thing From Another World is one of the classic 1950s sci-fi films. It benefited from the paranoia about the Soviet Union at that time, with its final warning to “Watch the skies.” In 1982, another time of worry about the Soviet Union, John Carpenter took the story and wrenched up the paranoia. Instead of just doing battle with an alien (played by James Arness in the original film), Carpenter went back to the original novella by John W. Campbell where the alien is able to absorb the image and memories of anyone it consumes. The body count is much higher, and Carpenter eschews the upbeat ending of the novella and the original movie for a much darker one. Long-time Carpenter collaborator Kurt Russell is excellent as MacReady, the helicopter pilot who leads the fight against the alien.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Original 1956; Remake 1978)
Don Siegel’s original is a great sci-fi film, and can also be viewed as a commentary on McCarthyism with normal people being replaced by emotionless aliens. The final sequence of Kevin McCarthy (no relation to Joe) running down the highway yelling at drivers “You’re next!” rightly freaked out the 1950s movie goer. Philip Kaufman’s remake turns a black-and-white thriller into a richly-colored work of art. The special effects are exceptional, and the cast is excellent (Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nimoy). Kaufman also included a scene with Kevin McCarthy that echoed the end of the first film, and had Don Siegel make a cameo as a taxi driver.
True Grit (Original 1969; Remake 2010)
While the original had John Wayne and Robert Duvall as bad guy Ned Pepper, the Coen Brothers remake stuck closer to the original Charles Portis novel. The Duke may have gotten the Oscar for his role as Rooster Cogburn, but Jeff Bridges out-acted him in the remake and Hailee Steinfeld was more believable as Mattie Ross, in addition to being closer to Mattie’s age in the book. The Coens give the film a more rustic and rough feeling while the scene in the snake pit is the stuff of nightmares. While the 1969 movie had to have an upbeat ending with Wayne triumphant, the Coen’s gave the viewer a more satisfying and poignant one.
The Maltese Falcon (Original 1931; Remake 1941)
This had to be a remake, because there was no other way that Jack Warner would give untried writer/director John Huston a new movie. The 1931 original is entirely forgettable, with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as Ruth. Warner wanted a B movie, and had cast George Raft as Spade. Raft though considered the production beneath him and pulled out, opening the way for Bogart. Huston did something almost unheard of in the movie industry – his script followed the book almost exactly. Huston had accidentally sent a copy of the completed script to Warner, but he was pleasantly surprised when Warner loved the script and gave him the green light to shoot. The cast was fantastic. Bogie, Sydney Greenstreet (in his first film role), Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Elisha Cook Jr., Barton MacLane, and Ward Bond were perfect for Hammett’s hard-boiled classic. It made the finished film the stuff that dreams are made of. Interesting note: three of the black bird statuettes from the film still exist, and are the most valuable props in the world, each valued at a cool million. That means each of them could pay for the production of the original film – three times over.
Honorable Mentions: King Kong, Scarface, The Parent Trap, No Way Out