If the Chuck Heston interpretation of Ben-Hur is comparable to a Classics Illustrated comic book, MGM’s new digital facelift should never have left Turner Network Television. The third (and hopefully final) theatrical reboot, this Ben hurts! Running 90 minutes shorter than its predecessor — the Jack Hawkins subplot didn’t make the cut — the film feels twice as long.
Set in 26 BT (Before Tripod), director Timur Bekmambetov overcondenses the familiar parables, his antsy coverage a case study in state-of-the-art bobbling. Judah (Jack Huston) referring to Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) as a “progressive” earned a snicker as did a CG horse brought to its knees during the smeary mimeograph of the chariot race.
Poor Morgan Freeman, reduced to acting the part of willing participant in this theft of your time. The jarringly awkward cutaways to Freeman cheering Judah’s jalopy to victory — they couldn’t have taken more than 15 minutes to shoot — are worth a lifetime of laughs.
With Ben-Hur’s opening box office left gasping in the dust and the sounds of a “new” take on The Magnificent Seven — itself a retread of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai — thundering around the corner, I thought it might be challenging to come up with 10 remakes that outclass their originals.
1) The Maltese Falcon (1941). By the time John Huston got around to cracking Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled crime story, Warner Bros. already had two versions in the can: Roy Del Ruth’s saucy pre-code account, released in 1931 and featuring Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as Miss Wonderly (pronounced “Wonderlay”), followed five years later by William Dieterle’s crackerjack adaptation Satan Met a Lady, starring Warren William and Bette Davis. The Huston/Bogart conversion will forever stand as the definitive reading. Until the last page — the Production Code wouldn’t tolerate an intimation of sex between Spade and Effie — it’s as faithful an adaptation of a novel as any to hit the screen. Other than a spoof (The Black Bird), there’s never been talk of a remake, television or otherwise.
2) The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934/1956). Alfred Hitchcock famously told François Truffaut that his 1934 version was “the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” The 12-minute Albert Hall sequence is the single greatest example of sustained suspense ever committed to film.
3) A Star Is Born (1954). One would think that a director who spent so many years at MGM would have been assigned at least one musical. But George Cukor was saving it up for the brothers Warner. When, in 1952, producer Sid Luft presented him with the prospect of a musical replate of A Star Is Born for his wife Judy Garland, the director jumped at the opportunity. Cukor’s version was preceded by Lowell Sherman’s What Price Hollywood? (1932) and William Wellman’s 1937 boilerplate. Barbra Streisand tried her hand in 1976, but we won’t go there. If Hollywood has its way, a fifth version, this one starring Lady Gaga, will be coming soon to a multiplex near you. Stick with Judy!
4) His Girl Friday (1941). Legend has it one night at a dinner party, Howard Hawks passed out copies of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page to read aloud while the guests digested their meal. With not enough masculine attendees to round out the predominantly male cast, the role of Hildy Johnson was assigned to an unidentified female guest. Hawks claims that it was here that he cooked up the idea of turning it into a love story simply by changing the character from a man (as he is written in the play and subsequent 1931 screen version) to a woman. Two more versions would follow: Billy Wilder’s dreary 1974 stage adaptation featuring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and Ted Kotcheff’s surprisingly enjoyable Switching Channels, with Kathleen Turner playing Hildy opposite Burt Reynolds’ grumpy Walter Burns.
5) The Fly (1986). David Cronenberg puts a transmutable spin on standard ’50s sci-fi schlock by turning the tables on Kurt Neumann’s tale of a scientist who becomes the titular household pest. Cronenberg’s deformed facelift kicks things up a few notches, catapulting the story into the dizzying heights of dark, romantic sex comedy. It helps that his stars Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis were madly in love during the making of the picture — the feeling shows in every frame.
6) A Fistful of Dollars (1964). In seven films as a director, Sergio Leone invented a cinematic language all his own. Not even Akira Kurosawa could have made that claim. Fistful not only introduced American audiences to Spaghetti Westerns, it gave rise to a TV cowboy who to this day remains the biggest, most successful crossover stat ever to make the leap from small screen to big. As much as one admires Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, it’s but a patch on what would become Leone and Clint Eastwood’s “Dollars” trilogy.
7) The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005). One had but to compare the bathroom scenes in James Toback’s otherwise delightfully repugnant Fingers and Jacques Audiard’s misogyny-tempered French reboot to detect an improvement.
8) The Thomas Crown Affair (1999). John McTiernan turns Norman Jewison’s flashy romantic crime drama — the cinematic equivalent of a bored model fanning through the pages of a fashion magazine — into a brisk romantic caper for adults. Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway fit the costumes, but it’s Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo who make good on the passion.
9) Heaven Can Wait (1978). Warren Beatty, in his first tour behind the camera, this time aided and abetted by co-director Buck Henry, takes a routine romantic comedy from the ’40s (Here Comes Mr. Jordan) and instills in it enough enchantment to make it one of the decade’s most enduring romantic comedies. Not unlike The Fly, one needs a welding helmet to dodge the sparks flying between Beatty and real-life love interest Julie Christie.
10) The Manchurian Candidate (2004). It was a neglectful Frank Sinatra and his failure to renew the rights to the John Frankenheimer original, not the Kennedy assassination, that kept this cold war thriller out of circulation until a wide-scale theatrical reissue in 1988. It’s not a film that withstands the test of time — particularly those cheesy Henry Silva karate-chops and Frankenheimer’s Playhouse 90 direction. This may not be the “major overhaul” of the “mush-brained, wish-fulfillment plotline” my predecessor Duncan Shepard hoped for, but it’s an upgrade nonetheless.