Many of this year’s hit movies have been sequels or remakes, though as Kyle Westphal of the Chicago Film Society likes to note, Hollywood has been recycling popular intellectual properties for generations. So for this week’s Movie Tuesday post, I thought I’d spotlight five remakes and sequels in American cinema that actually improve upon their predecessors. These are rare feats, considering that the film-based-on-another-film subgenre has got to be one of the hardest in which to produce an outright masterpiece. How to overcome the sense of familiarity that the source material brings with it? How to create something that feels original?
The answer to these questions seems to lie in reinvention rather than re-creation. The best sequels and remakes (at least those considered here) make allowances for the passing of time since the original was made, which in turns deepens the narrative content. Or they start from scratch and attempt to stand on their own. There are those remakes that stand in dialogue with their source material: Scarlet Street (1945) and Human Desire (1954), Fritz Lang’s interpretations of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) and La Bete Humaine (1938); or Yasujiro Ozu’s Good Morning or Floating Weeds (both 1959), remakes of the director’s own I Was Born, but . . . (1932) and A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), respectively. These films, along with John Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright (1953), a remake of his Judge Priest (1934), use cinema to engage in conversation with other eras and sensibilities. With the second two films of his “Before” trilogy (which have antecedents in Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films), Richard Linklater explicitly meditates on the passage of time by having the characters discuss how they’ve aged since the previous film.
Bride of Frankenstein James Whale’s quirky, ironic 1935 self-parody is, by common consent, superior to his earlier Frankenstein (1931). Whale added an element of playful sexuality to this version, casting the proceedings in a bizarre visual framework that makes this film a good deal more surreal than the original. Elsa Lanchester is the reluctant bride; Boris Karloff returns as the love-starved monster. Weird and funny. —Don Druker
The Maltese Falcon The key film in the Bogart myth (1941). I don’t want to knock it, but what John Huston does with Bogart’s personality and the hard-boiled genre in general has always struck me as pale compared to the Howard Hawks films that followed (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep). The Maltese Falcon is really a triumph of casting and wonderfully suggestive character detail; the visual style, with its exaggerated vertical compositions, is striking but not particularly expressive, and its thematics are limited to intimations of absurdism (which, when they exploded in Beat the Devil, turned out to be fairly punk). But who can argue with Bogart’s glower or Mary Astor in her ratty fur? —Dave Kehr
Son of Paleface Bob Hope repeats as the son of a frontier dentist in this 1952 sequel to his highly successful The Paleface—only this one is much, much funnier, directed by a then recent graduate of the Warner Bros. cartoon shop, Frank Tashlin, and full of outrageous visual gags (a wheel comes off Hope’s car during a chase; he stands up, throws a noose over the side, and holds up the axle—“You’d better hurry up,” he tells the driver, “this is impossible!”). In glorious Technicolor, complete with Jane Russell and Roy Rogers. —Dave Kehr
The Man Who Knew Too Much Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 film has some of the bluntness of a religious tract; it’s sort of a “Handbook on Christian Marriage.” James Stewart and Doris Day are the middle-class Americans caught up in an exotic foreign intrigue: their marriage represents an imbalance of reason and emotion, repression and expression, and secularism and faith. When their son is kidnapped, Hitchcock clearly characterizes it as an act of God meant to test their union. The film is uncharacteristically rigid and pious for Hitchcock; it feels more like a work of duty than conviction. Despite the many famous set pieces the film contains (the assassination in Algiers, the attempt at the Albert Hall), the most impressive sequence, technically and dramatically, is a quiet one in which Stewart tells Day that their child has been taken. With Bernard Miles and Brenda de Banzie. —Dave Kehr
Before Sunset Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), the young American and the Frenchwoman who met on a train and spent the day together in Vienna in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), run into each other again nine years later, this time in Paris. What we see of their reunion (2004) unfolds in real time and lasts only 80 minutes, but it’s so concentrated that the film is about the previous nine years as much as the breathless present. You won’t need to have seen the earlier film to enjoy this to the utmost; in its performances, direction, and script (by Linklater, Kim Krizan, and the two actors), it’s so perfectly conceived and executed that you may be hanging on every word and gesture. Just as romantic and compelling as the first film, this is a beautiful commentary on what might be described as nostalgia for the present. —Jonathan Rosenbaum v