Three Hitchcock Films Worthy of a Remake
Is it ever a good idea to remake the work of perhaps the most venerated filmmaker of all time? To step up to an oeuvre of some of the most enduring products of the studio system, still enjoyed to this day, and say: “I’ll do you one better”? A remake of the classic Hitchcock romantic thriller To Catch a Thief has recently been announced, set to star Gal Gadot, and this has reignited a swath of anti-remake fury. “Why do they keep remaking classics?” Well, they want the recognizable title or prestige, the workable premise, and the lengthy time since release in which audiences have defamiliarized themselves with the films themselves.
Despite all this, Hitchcock-remakes do seem prone to disaster. Gus Van Sant’s Psycho was a much-derided experiment, Boris Sagal couldn’t get a grip on Dial ‘M’ for Murder, even the relatively well-received Disturbia only suffers from comparisons to Rear Window. One thing is for sure, these downright hallowed landmarks were not the right films to remake; but there are a number of Hitchcock movies at the appropriate crossroads between salvageable, recognizable, and short of sacred.
The Man Who Knew Too Much
The Man Who Knew Too Much has the distinction of having been remade by Hitchcock himself. Originally a pretty poor 1935 thriller with a difficult to follow plot made up of individually interesting set pieces strung together out of basically incidental material; the result, though a staid thriller, is stiff. Remaking his own film in 1956, Hitchcock altered the plot significantly, and brought his more recognizably glossy Hollywood-period directorial sensibility, but the remake is a little too at ease with itself, playing out without verve. As Hitchcock put it; “The first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.”
A modern adaptation may stand a chance to land somewhere between the deliberate, gripping tone of the original, and the improved, experienced handling of the remake. If Hitchcock himself could admit that a story had room for improvement and could so thoroughly shake up the foundations in his attempts to make it so, there should be no complaints in hearing that another filmmaker feels he’s cracked it.
The final stretch of Hitchcock films, his late career “dark age” as it’s been called, is often maligned for being populated with films that were not bereft of potential, but which were weighed down by Hitchcock’s own direction. Behind the times, losing a certain edge and working without the requisite passion we expect, the aging Hitchcock came to be known for diminishing returns. Working without much of his collaborators in editing, scoring, and cinematography, the director returned to the espionage thriller, a genre which had experienced a complete overhaul by the emergence of James Bond. Undeterred, Hitchcock made a thriller that was realistic, but dull and limp.
Torn Curtain starred Paul Newman as an American physicist sent to East Germany under the guise of defection, in order to gather intelligence before escaping back to the West. Followed by his out-of-the-loop fiancée, Julie Andrews, as can be imagined, the mission and escape plan are quickly complicated. Lacking energy and overly focused on entirely the wrong elements of the genre for this director to be highlighting, at the end of the day even Hitch was not happy with Torn Curtain. Perhaps with some distance from when it was first conceived, a filmmaker who isn’t chasing trends could do this psychologically primed premise a little more justice.
To Catch a Thief
This may seem like contrarianism, but To Catch a Thief really is one of the Hitchcock films best suited for another go-around. Following a retired cat burglar as he attempts to clear his name by uncovering his copycat, the original isn’t an unadulterated masterpiece like some of Hitch’s best remembered films, it’s a light and breezy coast-side vacation of a film, lifted up by its gorgeous scenery and Robert Burke’s dazzling cinematography. Cary Grant and Grace Kelly trade off playful banter throughout, and their chemistry buoys the glamourous old Hollywood charm. The sumptuousness of it all helps a relatively unexciting story go down with ease, but a premise like this could really stand a chance to be handled with a great many more thrills than the master of suspense provided here.
A film does not have to be poor to warrant a remake, and To Catch a Thief, being an adaptation of a novel in the first place, seems ripe for a new look. Yes, please keep the beautiful faces, the halcyon setting, and the gamesome tone, but… Could unmasking the thief be less anticlimactic? Could the extended car chase escape the constraints of studio back projection? Could the remake turn the machinations of the plot into a source of intrigue, rather than have it coast on appeal? Not likely but let’s hope.
We’re all a little tired of the domination of IP, of the narrowing selection of new ideas. It’s a fair complaint, but don’t let that bleed into criticizing fairly logical choices for remakes. It’s been nearly 70 years since To Catch a Thief was released, even then a clear example of pure escapism. The film is not sacrosanct, and it has the potential to be re-envisioned as a first-class entertainment today. No film is above remaking. If the material is behind us by a few generations, the approach is novel, and the new film is good, what’s the worst that could happen? We’ll always have the originals.