Remaking the Dream: Splice Volune 5 Issue 1 Winter 2010
It is a well-known truism that there are only a limited number of plots in the creative world, some say twelve and some say two and Shakespeare probably worked his way through all of them. Plots include boy meets girl, parents opposed to boy meets girl, race against time, revenge, rescue and romance. The problem for filmmakers then, is how to make a new film, how to turn an old story into a new one and how to keep the audience returning to the cinema.
“The remake has reappeared whenever the audience attendance has been low or threatened because of the advent of rival technologies like radio, television and video. Hollywood has always had recourse to canned projects that promised to ensure stable audience attendance more than new and riskier projects.” Jennifer Forrest and Leonard R. Koos1
It should not be forgotten then, that making something new, is not what Hollywood, at least, intends as its prime directive, but attracting audiences and perpetuating the money is its major motivation, and that may mean perpetuating the story. It is easy to criticise the mainstream producers for lack of imagination. The Hollywood machine certainly shows all signs of preferring to leave originality and risk to the independent filmmaker. However, perhaps what Hollywood is good at, is the ability to remake and revisit old plots, to use what has gone before (including successful independent efforts) and make it appear as new, and as we enter the biggest recession since the last one, maybe we have to get used to that, and welcome the remake and recognise its value.
This article will look at remakes, specifically remakes in the crime genre, after all it is no secret that the audience has an overwhelming appetite for crime, so why not sell the same story twice, or thrice? What is any crime story, but a remake? A murder, a heist, a mystery, whether it’s Marlow or Morse, Columbo or Porfiry2, real life or even Rick Deckard (Blade Runner, dir. Ridley Scott, 1982) whether it is the detective or the PI, comedy or Se7en (dir. David Fincher, 1995) the elements are the same, murder, mystery and suspense.
It’s over a hundred years since Arrival at The Train Station (1895 dir. Lumiere brothers), but by 1941 The Maltese Falcon (dir. John Huston) had been made three times. Before Huston’s version, there was The Maltese Falcon (Del Ruth 1931) and Satan Met a Lady (Dierterle 1936). A good story, this one based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett (published in 1930) can stand a few remakes, in fact are we not about due for another one?
“The audience for a remake is responding to the paradoxical promise that the film will be just like the original, only better. Two apparently irreconcilable claims: that the remake is just like its model, and that it’s better.”3 Thomas Leitch, P44
There seems to be an eternal optimism that fuels both the audience and the producer into repeating either the same success or the same mistake, or worse, making a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. This article will look briefly at the mechanism of the remake and its context as Hollywood perpetuates the certainty of a well-known story repeated. It will look at how various films and their directors have sought to meet this need to perpetuate, successfully or otherwise.
Psycho (1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Psycho (1998, dir. Gus Van Sant)
Perhaps one of the most controversial remakes of recent years is Gus Van Sant’s remake of the sacred Hollywood shocker Psycho. In 1998, apparently out of a need to increase box office sales, Universal decided on a remake and Gus Van Sant, decided on a scene by scene reshoot of Psycho. The concept was Van Sant’s idea, he had grown tired of the constant need that Hollywood had, to not only remake, but re-version the great classics such as Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942)4. His idea, in reshooting Psycho was along the lines of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. The result was a formal reshoot that was conducted almost like an exercise, rather than a creative film. Van Sant thought that the film would be a blockbuster, although he knew the critics would dislike it, he thought the film would succeed with the audience. It did not and so it did not solve Universal’s financial problems either.
The two films are almost identical, the same screenplay (Joseph Stefano), the same novel (Robert Bloch) the newer film is four minutes shorter, contains some rather odd cutaways, to clouds and cows, of which more later and it is in colour or more clearly COLOUR! Primary colours, dazzling reds and greens, strangely psychodelic shirts and a brightly painted motel with some big flashy neon, the colourists have worked hard, the film is saturated in colour, like a Kodak print from the Sixties. It is a statement of colour that decorates the film as a statement both of modernity and as a concession to its roots. The original Psycho was in black and white, not because it is so old that Hitchcock could not film it in colour, both North by Northwest(1959) and Rear Window (1954) pre-date it in full and glorious technicolor. Despite the availability of colour, Hitchcock chose to film his little shocker in black and white. A bit like his successor, Van Sant’s assessment of the film, itHitchcock too, had a different idea about how the audience would receive it. He had it down as a bit of a laugh, a melodrama, with exaggerated imagery and a hint of comedy.5
The remake sticks closely, almost exactly to the original direction. Shots angles and timing remain the same. However, Hitchcock’s use of angles, strongly signifying the weakness or the power of the characters, does not necessarily combine well with equally strong signifiers of colour used by Van Sant and although the scenes are clearly recognisable, the presence of colour somehow changes the perspective. When Marion Crane and Norman Bates sit down to supper in the parlour and discuss the stuffing of birds, the presence of the stuffed birds is much more overpowering. Whether it is a slightly different emphasis on focus, angle or the use of the colour, the stuffed birds, particularly the owl, never seem to frame Norman Bates in the Van Sant’s film as clearly as they do in Hitchcock’s version. The birds fade into the background, even an unsubtle close up on the owl, does not establish the motif as strongly as it does in the original film, whereas in black and white the stuffed birds haunt the room. It begs the question: would Hitchcock have used different angles and emphasis if he had chosen to film in colour?
It is not that the performances, or the direction in the remake are incompetent, it is a strong cast and, in many ways, a beautiful film. Vince Vaughn makes a powerful Psycho, but his presence in the film has an intensity of menace that Anthony Perkins’ performance does not use. Whilst the camera angles on Vaughn are the same, he never looks as small and lost as does Perkins. The power of Vaughn’s presence is in his size, his presence in the film is dangerous and Anne Heche’s response to that presence is to be nervous and uncertain. Janet Leigh’s Marion, was more self assured, more duplicitous so that Hitchcock could use that duplicity to deceive the audience as to who was the more powerful character. Van Sant’s Marion has less presence, as they sit in the parlour, it is Vaughn who dominates the conversation with a brooding, if good humoured menace. In the Hitchcock version, Janet Leigh, seems almost motherly in her approach and Perkins’ Psycho comes across as a shy little boy, with big brown eyes and a naive delivery. It is only when he discusses his mother that a hint of his instability emerges, but it is not enough to alert Miss Crane and she leaves the scene a more powerful figure, it is Perkins, himself who seems like a wounded bird. Anne Heche is less convincing as a maternal figure of power, she is more clearly the victim while Vaughn is edgy and dangerous, the audience are quick to understand his threat. In contrast, only when Anthony Perkins is on his own, does the audience really become aware of the hidden menace. He is framed against the stuffed owl (which in American mythology is a harbinger of death) and he shifts the picture to expose the peep hole that reveals Janet Leigh as she prepares for her shower. It is at this point that the two films differ substantially in their representations: the Anthony Perkins character just looks, no doubt he should not be looking, no doubt he has done it before, but his voyeurism is not merely lustful, it still has that element of a lost little boy, the harshness in his expression a moment later hints at evil intent, but even at this stage, the audience of the Hitchcock version can be forgiven for not anticipating his next move. In the Van Sant version, Vaughn leaves nothing to the imagination, as he watches Anne Heche he masturbates, the slightly hokey sound of his flies being zipped up as he stands up, leaves us in no doubt, if we had been before. He is a modern, clichéd sexual predator Hitchcock’s Psycho is more complex, less easy to spot. It was indeed Hitchcock’s intention to mislead his audience, such that their concern would be with Marion Crane. The enigmas thus far in the film relate to whether she will be caught by the police, pursued by her employer, or become the victim of some conspiracy by her boyfriend. The audience expect to follow her story throughout, not to see her murdered without ever resolving her personal journey. Van Sant had to deal with the fame of the plot and so there was probably no point in concealing the character of Norman Bates, but this modern version is not as true to the character as the shot by shot repeat of the film suggested the audience could expect.
“But if I look at it now, I see that it’s almost impossible. Even if you try to copy a film shot by shot, you still can’t. It’s still your own film. I’m not really the same type of person as Alfred Hitchcock, and you really need that thing that he was in order for Psycho to work in the way that it should.” Van Sant 6
However, whilst Van Sant is willing to update Bates by adding an explicit lasciviousness about him he does nothing about Milton Arbogast’s (William H. Macy) unrealistic fall down the stairs, although he does add the image of a naked woman and a cow in the road, in the same way as he adds storm cloud cutaways to the shower scene. In addition while they did not appear to redesign the interior of the house, they redesigned the external element and they did not improve it, the oppressive domination of the house in the Hitchcock version, which was, indeed exaggerated is replaced by the slightly more cottage like design, that hints more at the Amityville Horror (dir. Andrew Douglas, 2005) than Bate’s huge and empty house – but why? Bates’s house is now an iconic signifier, its shadow, and reference to it, defines the use of the primitive fear of the unknown house.
Redesigning the house is one thing, but there is also a little redesign of characters, the shot by shot, remake departs from the original when Van Sant adds a little modern touch to Lila (Julianne Moore) by allowing the character to boot Bates in the face, after all who is going to believe that Julianne Moore would just stand there screaming. However, in contrast to that, nothing is done about the language that, by English language standards is archaic, words such as “tranquillisers” comments about wedding rings and general male patronising of the women characters remains, and while Lila has a Walkman, Arbogast does not have a mobile phone.
Perhaps one of the problems with a shot by shot remake is that it allows the audience to do precise comparisons. It acts like a spot the difference picture, such that part of the fascination with the film is that very act of comparing the two, in an intellectual exercise rather than a revisiting of an old story as an old and revered friend. It is not the reimagining of an old story for a new context and audience, or even a re-viewing of the original film, it does seem therefore, that for the remake, context is all.
Cape Fear (1962, dir. J. Lee Thompson) Cape Fear (1991, dir. Martin Scorsese)
“So it’s a very dangerous area to play around with because on one level, with some critics, if you’re doing ‘pulp material’ then they say your slumming and this is what some people have said about me doing this picture. The others say that it’s not true to the ‘pulp material’ because it changes the characters and gives a different Psychological insight and tries to do too much. So you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t on a certain level.” 7Martin Scorsese
Thus spoke Martin Scorsese of the remake of Cape Fear, once again a film from black and white to colour, but this time the remake was not a reshoot exercise, but an update, an update of themes, an update of characters and update in style. The plot remains the same; the original novel (The Executioners, John MacDonald) and the original screenwriter (James R. Webb) are still credited. The main characters are unchanged, but the context has changed and the hegemony of the time, at least the representation of the time, is remade. The film reflects the context of the Deep South of the US of A, touching the nerve of religious fervour and protected privilege, a class system and heat. Moreover, in keeping with the Scorsese ethos, the film is violent and controversial: verisimilitude and melodrama are combined in a heady mix of seduction, guilt and glossolalia.
Cape Fear has a similar pedigree to Psycho, a novel, a screenplay and an original film, although the original is not a Hitchcock, whether that makes it better or worse is for others to judge. However, it is not a shot for shot remake and there are some considerable differences in the script. The 1962 version stars Gregory Peck as Sam Bowden and Robert Mitchum as Max Cady and it makes a fair stab at scary. Mitchum’s performance as the antagonist, is different but sinister, it is understated, perhaps as a concession to the time and context, but equally menacing. Mitchum had spent time on a chain gang as a difficult teen, and a little time in prison for using marijuana, he brings a sense of knowing to the role of Max Cady. Scorsese’s Cady (or De Niro’s) though, is probably one of the most different elements of the film. The modern Cady is brazen as well as vicious, from the moment Cady steps out of gaol and (in the person of Robert De Niro) slams into the audiences’ personal space by walking into the camera, the film is a wild ride of heightened emotions and extremity. That long opening scene, tracking Cady walking, is in the first film. In that case, it is Mitchum walking across town to the courts where he witnesses Sam Bowden (his prey) at work. In the later film De Niro smokes and laughs manically and deliberately, in the row in front of the family at the cinema.
He is also a victim, in a way that Mitchum’s Cady is not.
The new version makes no secret of its remake status by referencing the older version. There is no tenuous link, but there is clearly an attempt to update and to re-imagine the story for a contemporary audience. Everything about Scorsese’s version is extreme, using the original melodramatic music (re-mastered by Danny Elfman), three of the original actors, Mitchum, Peck and Martin Balsam, (who also played Arbogast in the original Psycho), appear, such that we are left in no doubt that Scorsese has no problem in conceding his relationship to the earlier film, but the individuality rests in the differences.
Scorsese has clearly used the original script in terms of structure and some dialogue, the family and the dog all are in place, but Scorsese’s family struggle with the dysfunction. In the first film, the family is a unit, an obedient daughter, sheltered and cute, a functional married couple, innocent of any crimes, unjustly targeted. In the same year he played the lawyer in Cape Fear (in pretty much the same suit), Peck played a lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird (dir. Robert Mulligan, 1962) a lawyer, who stands up for what is right and who suffers no consequences from the choices he makes in his profession, because he is in the right, and in a sense, Peck remakes the same character for Cape Fear, only this guy gets to settle his differences out of court. The 1962 Bowden family represent the post-war American Dream signifying a domestic bliss that is hard to match. They are a well equipped, wealthy American family, who must have seemed to have it all, particularly to a still post-war British audience. However, to the modern audience there seems to be a lot of melodramatic hugging and clinging together, sudden greetings and gasps of women as they look to Sam to save them.
In fact, the film was on the list for a remake for a while and Spielberg was the suggested director, precisely because of the sense of family and its strengths, which he represents so well, either by construct (as in Jurassic Park) or by re-presentation as in Close Encounters or ET. However when Scorsese read the script, he disliked the family. He told the New York Times8, that he had hoped Max Cady would have killed Sam Bowden, in an interviewer that “ I thought, the family is just so nice, you know, I just didn’t believe it! So finally Steve said, “Marti, if you don’t like it, then you can change it.”9 – and change it he did. The new Cape Fear family is a dysfunctional one. It is a family that hints at sexual malaise, a bohemian lethargy infects the wife played by Jessica Lange. The teenage daughter watches strangely violent and disturbing TV in her room, the violence to come is foreshadowed in a Jarmusch style device of small screen reflection. The Bowden parents row with each other, their histrionics depute their daughter to the sidelines of their relationship, a dark history of affairs is hinted at, the mother seeks comfort in a slightly too intimate relationship with the doomed dog. Sam Bowden is not a blameless lawyer, he struggles with monogamy, he is pragmatist who cut a corner to put Cady away and Cady knows it. Scorsese’s Bowden family is only allowed to hug in the last reel. The defeat of Cady includes a fair bit of teamwork on the part of the modern family unit. They are forced together by the threat, they do not cling together out of love, the strongest bond represented, is the one between mother and daughter, Sam is only necessary for the plot.
Aside from the representation of the family, the use of language gives the new film an unerring and unique sense of quality. It has been said that the language of the Southern States is closest in style and lexis to the language of Shakespeare, which might be a polite way of saying that the South has fallen behind in the process of language change; or that it has a more sophisticated use of the English vocabulary, Cape Fear hints at the latter. However trying to tear the script away from its pulp roots risks diluting the story and overlaying it with pseudo intellectualism.
“And of course there’s a snobism about that and of course there’s also a reverse snobism because if you treat ‘pulp material’ and you try and elevate it, then your not being true to that material.” 10
The sophistication of the language raises the challenge of the film as a text and gives it the Scorsese vision and depth of field, both literally and metaphorically. It is the language and dialogue that lifts the newer version, it is a part of Scorsese’s attempt to re-engineer the film from “pulp material” to a more visceral analysis of the human condition, of the relationship between lawyer, client and the law itself. It is a nod to the cynicism of a modern hegemony that lawyers are corrupt, the law useless and criminals larger than life. Thus the antagonists have some great lines, not least the ones delivered by Joe Don Baker as PI Kersek, and in a partial reprise of his role as Darius Jedburgh in Edge of Darkness,11 Baker delivers his lines with the depth of his voice and the intonation of the Deep South, but the lines too have merit. He talks of the system of law as being “slow and skeptical”
At the very end of his documentary The Dirty South, the comedian Rich Hall leaves the last word to Joe Don Baker as Kersek in Cape Fear
“The South evolved in fear, fear of the Indian, fear of the slave, fear of the damn Union. The South has a fine tradition of savoring fear.”
While the location is the South in both films, in the 1962 version the family could have been anywhere, the boat could have been moored at Mystic Seaport in New England, but in Scorsese’s version, the South has a real identity, the people hint at victory rather than loss “Yes, it is a nice house” Jessica Lange as Leigh Bowden, delivers that line with a challenge, the South rises up, some gain and some still lose. Cady, rightly and wrongly is excluded from the new rich and liberated South and he wants his part of it. De Niro’s Cady too, adopts the rhythms of the South with a preacher’s intonation and piety and his reply to Kersek “It is not necessary to lay a foul tongue on me” is redolent with gospel and Southern tradition, the language of Shakespeare rolls through their conversation giving it a poetic threat.
At 49, De Niro built himself up carefully to be the fit and dangerous man he appears in the film, although the film’s internal consistency is stretched to the limit, as he hangs on under the truck for a lengthy journey by road (albeit tied on). Mitchum, on the other hand just sucks his stomach in, when he strips down to his huge boxers, while De Niro has a dramatic and challenging pair or red briefs, hiding little. De Niro’s villain however is a dark and brooding presence in the film, whose lack of subtlety when it comes to violence, contrasts with the cleverness of his use of verbal and implied humiliation.
De Niro portrays this subtlety with true menace in the school scene, instead of apparently chasing the alarmed daughter round the school, he lures her to the drama hall, thus exposing the naivety of the teenager, who cannot help but be impressed by his rebellion. Even when she realises who he is, she cannot tear herself away, allowing him to touch her in a disturbing imitation of the sexual act. Once again Scorsese represents the divisions hidden beneath the surface of the all-American family. Cady here, is using the daughter as a wedge, he knows that if he can get to her he can divide the parents from the daughter, separate her from the protection of the herd. The subtlety of this seduction is not related to the daughter in the first film but to the attack on the girl he picks up and seduces. Mitchum’s menacing representation of a man working himself up to terrible violence, is still a terrifying portrayal of criminal intent, the beating takes place behind closed doors, and the damage done to the girl seems unrealistically slight, compared to the threat implied by Mitchum’s performance. De Niro on the other hand, goes Midnight Express12 on the audience, taking a bite out of Ileana Douglas. The realism of the piece is supported by careful research on sexual assault and battery. Scorsese points out that this crime was not the product of melodrama or the over active imagination of a director seeking sensationalism for the trailer, but an authentic representation of acts committed by men on women. The truly awful rape scene in Scorsese’s version, and the threat of it to the daughter in the 1962 version, goes to the heart of both films. In such circumstances men and women are forced to go outside the law to avenge rape. The alternatives are to be dragged through the courts, exposed to the manipulative eye of the Defence Lawyer (in Scorsese’s version, played with not a little irony by Gregory Peck).
Only towards the end does the visceral verisimilitude of the film begin to lose its impact as the boat battles the water and Cady returns again and again, like Rasputin, to attack the family, each of whom get a chance to defend themselves against him. The hitherto slightly disinterested mother offers herself in the stead of her daughter and each character gains some redemption for themselves and their family unit as they battle the threat. The daughter uses her teenage ingenuity to burn Cady, although this only allows Cady to do a melodramatic re-presentation of the Gordon Liddy act of holding his hand over a candle flame saying “the trick is not to mind”. Cady does it with a lit flare and burning wax pouring down his arm. The seemingly invincible Cady is (eventually) defeated by the man of the house as finally, Sam chains the dragon to the pole, such that he is dragged down (obviously to hell) praying to his god in the tongues of the saints, a snake handling fundamentalist, slap bang in the stereotype of the Southern hillbilly. At last the family cling to each other, united in their pyrrhic victory, just as the daughter most needs, a happy ending at the end of teenage fantasist’s violent reminiscence – quite an essay to read at the beginning of the Autumn term!
Disturbing Voyeurs: Rear Window (1954 dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
The first comment to be made about Rear Window and Disturbia (2007, dir. DJ Caruso), is that Disturbia is definitely NOT a remake of Rear Window – no sir no way no how!
“”The main plots are similar only at a high, unprotectable level of generality,” ruled New York district court judge Laura Taylor Swan, throwing out a lawsuit that accused Disturbia‘s makers of copyright infringement.”13 The Guardian (22.09.2010)
However…what both films do have to do to is isolate their protagonist in their own home, in a manner that supports an internal consistency that can be maintained throughout the story. Both protagonists have to be voyeurs, but in a manner that keeps the audience’s sympathy. Both are men, both see something that arouses suspicion, both have an assistant who can be their legs elsewhere, both protagonists relate to a young woman who appears, at first glance, to be a little frivolous, both are fooled by a false journey created by the murderer for the victim, both protagonists are right, both protagonists win and a little terrier dog appears in both films – judge for yourself.
In actual fact, the copyright infringement in question was brought not by the makers of Rear Window but by the estate of the writer of the original story first published in Dime Detective Magazine, called “It Had to be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich. The script for Rear Window was commissioned by Hitchcock to be written by John Michael Hayes, who took a few liberties himself with the story for Hitchcock’s version, although that version does credit the short story by Woolrich. However, by the time it got to Disturbia, the story had been altered again, to the extent that the court considered only the idea remained similar, and concluded that the idea could not be copyrighted.
“It was really more of an inspiration in a way than “Rear Window.” The “Rear Window” idea is a jumping off point of a guy who’s stuck and has to watch.” 14 DJ Caruso
Caruso does not deny that the essential element of Disturbia is the idea of the voyeur, moreover the court case was not about whether he remade, re-imagined or was inspired by Hitchcock’s Rear Window, it was about whether he had used the original short story as the basis for his film. It is arguable that the two films are very similar, but both films similarity to the original story is tenuous to say the least.
Hitchcock’s Rear Window, predates Pyscho by almost a decade. Made in 1954, it renders the spirit of the age, not least by its cast, James Stewart, an established high concept actor and the darling of the decade Grace Kelly: Stewart was an old hand and Grace Kelly was in her second Hitchcock film, having appeared earlier in the year in Dial M for Murder, and was well on her way to being a Hitchcock blonde. The film is a highly cinematic piece filmed, effectively in one room, or at least on one lot, with a series of set pieces that give it a theatrical almost silent movie atmosphere. Stewart plays a photographer called LB Jeff Jeffries and already the changes from the original story begin. The story was made into a thirteen page treatment by Joshua Logan, who took Jeffries non-existent career and turned him into a sports journalist, by the time the treatment got to John Michael Hayes for the script, the character turned into a photojournalist, rumoured to be based on Robert Capa. Hitchcock had observed the relationship Capa and Ingrid Bergman had had while filming Notorious. He was curious about how indifferent Capa could be to the attentions of a beautiful woman, and this transfers in some small way to the relationship portrayed by Stewart and Kelly in the film. Jeffries converses with his editor on the nature of nagging wives and he and his detective friend discuss the relative merits of female intuition and female psychology in sexist phrases worthy of Don Draper.15 Moreover a photojournalist is an ideal profession for a voyeur, and voyeurism is at the heart of both Rear Window and Disturbia.
The opening of Rear Window includes one of those long tracking shots, from the point of view of the window, into the courtyard, similar to the track into the window in Psycho. The day is hot, and the residents of the courtyard struggle with the heat in various ways, a couple sleep on the balcony, others indulge in nude sunbathing, observed by a helicopter above, Jeff struggles with heat as he gazes out of the window and tries to cope with his huge plaster cast. Strangely enough, the courtyard almost looks familiar as the block and the window of the piano player’s apartment, bares no small resemblance to the window of Rachel and Monica’s flat in the New York mansion block of the Friends16, who do spend some of their time looking across the courtyard into windows of their fellow New Yorkers, including Ross and “ugly naked guy”.
Much of Rear Window owes something to the conventions of a silent movie, the era of filmmaking in which Hitchcock began his career, the camera tracks over the windows from the point of view of Jeff as the residents play out their lives in an almost silent panoply of action. The pretty girl in bra and panties exercises energetically, a lonely woman entertains imagined lovers, she sets dinner for them and holds fantasy conversations. In another apartment a struggling musician, practices piano and through his sloping window a strangely familiar figure can be seen mending the clock. The sound of the piano permeates the audio. Rear Window is a film of subdued activity combined with diegetic sound. In the heat, the retired lady opposite sets out her deckchair and chats to neighbours, a dog gets lowered from a higher apartment in a basket, to do its stuff in other people’s gardens. Snippets of conversation can be heard across the courtyard and one man, struggles with an appalling wife, whose voice carries and when he lowers the blind on her window and her voice is permanently silenced, the over active imagination of a bored photographer goes into overdrive.
The opening of the film would struggle to maintain the interest of a modern young audience. Much of the beginning of the film is devoted to Jeffries boring routine and the visits he receives. The carer discusses her history as a personal assistant in General Motors, she likens her feeling of impending doom to her feelings before the crash of 1929. The bosses knew, she said, that trouble was coming, when General Motors sneezes, she continues, the whole of America shivers, strangely prescient to our current zeitgeist, along with Jeff’s predictions that Kashmir is the next place to go up in smoke, and our hero cannot go due to his condition.
Grace Kelly’s character is another addition to the film version of the original short story, there was no love interest in the It Had to be Murder, first Logan and then Hayes added the female character. Logan called her Trink, Hayes called her Lisa and she was modeled on a woman called Anita Colby, who became an advertising executive in Harpers Bazaar and that magazine gets a decent bit of product placement in the film. Her career, her beauty and her frocks are the cause of some sexist banter between them, as Lisa tries to persuade the errant journalist that she is more than just a pretty face. He thinks she could not cope in the high Himalaya and would insist on high heels and too much luggage, while she is convinced that she is not a bit of fluff he is convinced she is, although the pearls don’t help! However, it is part of her function as a character to take risks to prove to Jeff that she is a tough woman and a worthy partner for an adventurous photojournalist.
A career as a photojournalist enables the use of a massive telephoto lens and perhaps justifies Jeff’s role as a curious observer, rather than a peeping tom, a concept that worried the censors of the time. The film and the camera, suggests that Jeffries’ observations are objective, like those of a serious journalist, rather than leering and voyeuristic, like paparazzi (although they had not been invented in 1954) or worse!
The question remains then, is Disturbia even a little bit similar to Rear Window and if it is, what makes it so different that the Hitchcock’s version can only be credited as inspirational?
“Then that’s when I decided that the whole voyeuristic sort of ‘Rear Window’ element was nice, but at the same time, I was more interested in a character piece about a guy who falls in love with the girl next door.”17 DJ Caruso
Disturbia takes place in a teenager’s back yard, his courtyard is the house of the girl next door, including a swimming pool, so plenty of opportunity for voyeurism. This time the voyeurism is acceptable, because instead of being the observations of a professional journalist and older man, it is the adolescent curiosity of teenage peeper, which, for some reason is acceptable. Moreover this teenage peeper has been tagged, his leg is not broken just electronically tagged, he is a delinquent, although, like all good Hollywood anti-heroes he has a tragic back story that justifies his actions. The ordinary nightmare of the beginning of the film solves the problem of losing the audience to boredom. The disturbed Kale then thumps his Spanish teacher, allowing the teenage audience a moment of catharsis, and by the time he has been tagged and his mother (Carrie-Anne Moss) has cut off his Xbox, iTunes and internet, the younger audience is howling with the injustice and the scene is set for a teen version of the voyeur, inspired by Rear Window.
Boredom sets in for Kale and the tag itches, just as Jeffries’ plaster cast itches. Jeffries uses a wooden back scratcher when he cannot get his hand down his cast, in a manner that suggests to the audience something quite risky. Kale’s foot wobbling rhythmically on a bathroom stool also implies the same risky activity, but once again it is the itching that needs satisfaction.
In Disturbia, initially, it is the girl who is being watched, only as she gets to know her observer does she become part of the plot and this allows for moments of teen comedy as Kale struggles to impress her. Kale assuages his boredom with his observations of her, and in a very clear echo of Rear Window, she moves around the room, braless with her naked back to the viewer. He shares this information with his friend Ronnie just as Jeffries shares his musing on the pretty girl opposite with his assistant Detective Doyle.
The crucial difference between the two films is the demographic and not merely the demographics of the decade. Rear Window is a sophisticated observation of the lives of other people, probably one of the most dialogue driven films Hitchcock made, it offers a window on the minutiae of New Yorkers’ lives, an observation of relationships, a representation of Hitchcock’s most famous epithet: that you are most likely to be murdered by a member of your own family. The film plays on the anxieties of a post war urban landscape, people struggling for success and respectability, repressed frustrations and bitterness. The dog, in Rear Window, unusually for a Hollywood dog, dies (although Cape Fear pulls no punches for the canines either) its next is broken and as it is placed in its basket and, its limp little body is lifted to its owner, she berates her neighbours, accusing them all of a lack of care, of hypocrisy and cowardice just because they dislike the dog. In Disturbia it is a bunny that dies, its neck broken and the dog (same make or similar) that hurried to greet Kale only to be halted by an electronic fence, allows us the reference as Kale declares “You and me both” and that’s the last we see of the canine.
There is no reflection on the nature of neighbours in Disturbia, the disapproving parents remain distant, understandably, from Kale, and it is the nature of parents not neighbours that is indirectly commented upon. That reflection on the nature of parenthood is most evident at the start of Disturbia, and it is its most different element in terms of story and emphasis. It is the beginning of the film that is the biggest clue to its changed target market and demographic.
Disturbia, begins with an idyllic scene and an ideal father son relationship, the older more experienced man teaches his son the skills of fishing (the source of one of the few outtakes on the DVD, where clearly the teaching and to some extent the relationship were reflected in the actors’ attempts to fly fish together). The shock of what happens next grabs the audience, and leaves the Kale, if not alone, at least without a father, existing as an only child mothered by a grieving widow, played by Carrie-Anne Moss. Her presence allows for an in-joke for Matrix18 fans “Mum you crept up on me like a Ninja” brings back memories, for those who know, of Trinity. The comment, is simplistic, but a grieving son left without a father and with little real support from those around him, becomes delinquent (although not in an America History X (dir. Tony Kaye, 1998) manner) but enough to get him tagged for thumping his Spanish teacher who utters the fatal lines “What would your father think?” and the scene it set.
Once his mum has cut him off the Internet, Kale looks out of the window. He sees the new neighbours move in with their teenage daughter and his interest is aroused, as, in time, is hers. He watches and listens as her own relationship with her parents is played out. The audience are given hints of a philandering husband, a struggling marriage and an authoritarian father, all of which drives Ashley (Sarah Roemer) to the boy next door. Like her counterpart in Rear Window, Ashley is a party girl, only this time it’s not Harpers magazine parties that drives her social life, it is the need for school friends, also like her counterpart, Grace Kelly as Lisa, Ashley has to prove herself. In her case, by following their suspect, using live streaming from her phone thus impressing Kale and, like her counterpart, she has a direct confrontation with the antagonist, who uses a very similar move (stealing her car keys as she is about to drive off) as Cady does to Sam Bowden in the Scorsese’s Cape Fear, one can certainly argue that Disturbia is derivative if not a remake!
Thus, to the antagonist himself, here too, the difference is evident. The modern murderer in almost any teen slasher movie is an animal, truly a predator who slices and dices, sometimes slithers and gorges on the blood and torture of many victims. The modern killer is a serial killer, he (and it usually is a man) has a taste for what he does, he is driven and determined to do it over and over again and thus is the killer in Disturbia. David Morse’s murderer is given over to violence for pleasure, and he does it often. However, even despite that, there is something of the Famous Five19 about Disturbia and other similar films, our sweet cheeked young heroes spot a bad man next door and by golly when mum gets kidnapped only our trusty gang can overcome the baddy and present him to the police, ready for an open and shut case. Mum is rescued (so much for Trinity) and family strength is restored, Kale has become his father, a capable and independent man who can defend the family against danger, once again the American family triumphs under the auspices of male patronage.
In Rear Window the murder is a more desolate act and not the act of a predator, it is more an act of desperation, almost an act of self-defence. In Rear Window a man murders his nagging and unpleasant wife, there is not a small hint of misogyny as he tries to get away from a doomed and disappointing life, to free himself from his slavery. In his confrontation with Jeffries, he tries to explain himself, he is a sad pathetic man beautifully understated by Raymond Burr, who does kill to protect himself, including the dog and maybe Grace Kelly, but he is not a serial killer, he is a product of an age old dilemma, a terrible marriage. Morse is a product of that great modern fear, the random killer, the personification of the grim, but non-judgemental, reaper.
“The remake, especially the Hollywood remake, intensifies this process: by announcing by title and/or narrative its indebtedness to a previous film, the remake invites the viewer to enjoy the differences that have been worked, consciously and sometimes unconsciously, between the texts.” 20Andrew Horton Stuart Y McDougal (Intro – Play it Again Sam)
The telling of an original story is a difficult task at the best of times. No doubt, even Chaucer, as he crafted his Canterbury Tales, would have found structure and narrative difficult. Shakespeare raided history and other writers for the sources of his plays, almost none of his work is entirely original, Macbeth is a history, Much Ado About Nothing was an Italian novel (Tales by Matteo Bandello). what is original is his talent as a master of the English language and the telling of a tale. It seems that the phenomena of the remake is similar to the reconstruction of the stories that Shakespeare adapted for the stage, the strength of the retelling is in the strength of the teller not the story itself. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort, unlike the poet or the novelist, the filmmaker works in a team, using the ideas and originality of others as well as their own creativity to create a complete piece that works for all audiences. The individual director, however, may place the stamp of an auteur on the piece but the stories that reach the screen are, most often, the result of collaboration between the creative minds that are brought to bear upon it, and a negotiation with the culture in which the audience is inured. Remakes are the ultimate act of pseudo-individualisation partly because they cannot separate themselves too directly from the culture to which they represent the story. This may be why Psycho, as a reshoot, sits uncomfortably amongst its fellow remakes, too much of its dialogue and attitudes lay in the Sixties, even a man living with his mother is no longer the cultural taboo it used to be, considering almost one third of Britain’s adults still live at home, more of them men. Van Sant attempts to update with colour and sexual connotations, but the result is inconsistent and the remake uncomfortable, lacking the genius of the early version. Scorsese understood that while the demographic of the audience for Cape Fear might remain the same: an audience that identifies with the helplessness that men and women fear when they consider a threat to the family, the nature of that modern family, on film at least, has changed. The definition of a good husband and wife is more visibly blurred, compromise and corruption blend more readily with a man’s genuine need to protect his family. The helplessness of even the most effective of men, in the face of a truly violent antagonist, appeals to the “new man” in the audience. Gregory Peck’s Sam Bowden never seems to lose control, Nick Nolte’s Sam Bowden, never seems to be quite in control.
In all this, the remake and its success has been driven by the audience, Hitchcock considered that he was making films for women, 80% 21of his audience, he said, was women, who dragged their husbands along to the cinema. In fact Hitchcock presided over the rise and fall of the cinema audience. In 1946 80% of the entire population went to the cinema at least once a year, that figure had dropped by 70% by 1960. Whether Hitchcock was right in speculating that the motivation for attending the cinema was down to women, what is true is that 59% 22of people attending the cinema now, is under the age of 35, thus any film that hopes to fill a cinema must appeal, either uniquely or, at least in some way, to the young. Scorsese recognises this by remaking the Bowden daughter as a rebellious teen and Disturbia is all about the world of the teen, while the adults are mere spectators, gone is the sophisticated discussion of morality or temptations at work, replaced by a discussion of the hidden hypocrisy of parents and the unreliability of adults.
What has not changed all that much though, is the remake of the woman, in each of the films the woman, is somehow made to deserve her fate. In Psycho she is a thief, in Cape Fear the attacked woman is a loose woman, eager for a one night stand, in Disturbia the victim is a lap dancer. The supporting women still like fashion and high heels, cooking and home-making. Much has changed in the remake but the representation, of the girl next door, the woman as mother or whore has changed little. Only Jessica Lange manages a more rounded and complex woman, who understands her husband, teaches her child and is by no means perfect, but then no one who has depth is perfect. There is yet room for more remakes, perhaps next time a woman Psycho, a woman lawyer and a motherless teen will move the remakes into a new money making context.
David Boyd, R. Barton Palmer, After Hitchcock: influence, Imitation and Intertextuality University of Texas Press, 2006
Andrew Horton, Stuart Y McDougal, Play it Again Sam: Retakes on Remakes
University of California Press, 1998
Jennifer Forrest, Leonard R. Koos, Dead Ringers: The remake in Theory and Practice
SUNY Press, 2002
Monitor, BBC, 1962 Close Up on Hitchcock, reproduced 1997, Producer Nick Freand- Jones
The Dirty South, BBC 4, Presenter Rich Hall, Producer John McCormack
1 Jennifer Forrest and Leonard R. Koos, Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice P.4
2 Porfiry was the detective in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, now acknowledged by Peter Falk as the inspiration for the character of Columbo.
3 Thomas Leitch, Twice-Told Tales: Disavowal and the Rhetoric of the Remake
5 Monitor, BBC, 1962 Close Up on Hitchcock, reproduced 1997, producer Nick Freand- Jones
11 A BBC mini series (1985) written by Troy Kennedy-Martin and not the Mel Gibson remake in 2010
12 Midnight Express, dir. Alan Parker, 1978 – this film portrays a particularly violent attack at the pivotal moment of the film, once seen not forgotten!
15 Don Draper, the swathe advertising man of the hit series Mad Men (Lionsgate)
16 The long-running Warner Brothers TV series (1994 ff)
18 The Matrix (1999 ff) trilogy directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski, featured Carrie-Anne Moss in a non maternal role.
19 The Enid Blyton series of novels about children able to bring down burglars.
20 Andrew Horton Stuart Y McDougal, Play it Again Sam.
21 Monitor, BBC, 1962 Close Up on Hitchcock, reproduced 1997, Producer Nick Freand- Jones