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Monday, February 4, 2008

The American Version (originally published 5/02)

The movie industry has been called the world's biggest floating crap game, with every new release a high-stakes roll of the dice. Because the ante is so high and the risk so great, studios are constantly on the lookout for anything that can give them an edge.

One trick that seems to work is to look for a movie that has already been made and enjoyed success in a foreign country, then remake it domestically. The recent release of "Insomnia," a remake of a 1997 Norwegian thriller, is the most recent example. This transatlantic version of the sincerest form of flattery is not, however, unique to the entertainment conglomerates that control modern studios. The practice was alive and well even in the old days of the studio system. If you're curious about how we borrowed movie plots from overseas in the old days, here are some titles to look for.

"Intermezzo" (Sweden, 1936) and "Intermezzo" (USA, 1939). It would perhaps be a bit of a stretch to call Swedish director Gustav Molander the Ingmar Bergman of his day - that title probably belongs to Victor Seastrom - but he was a significant and influential figure nonetheless. His single most enduring influence on world cinema, however, came by way of the Swedish actress who starred in this sentimental tale of love and sacrifice. The main character is a pianist who falls in love with a renowned concert violinist. Although the violinist is married, he asks the young woman to tour with him, acting as his accompanist. Knowing that he will leave his family to be with her if she asks him to, she must decide if she can live with the guilt of breaking up a happy home.

The actress who played the lead role was a striking beauty named Ingrid Bergman. American producer David O. Selznick was so taken with her performance that he brought her to Hollywood to star in the 1939 remake. Her costar was Leslie Howard, who would also appear that same year as Ashley Wilkes in "Gone With the Wind."

"Pepe le Moko" (France, 1937) and "Algiers" (USA, 1938). Director Julien Duvivier's "Pepe le Moko" is a fascinating precursor to the film noir tradition of the cinematic femme fatale, which would be taken to extraordinary heights (or depths, perhaps) in the American cinema of the forties. The setting is Algiers, during Algeria's period as a French colony. Pepe, played by Jean Gabin, is a local gangster who operates out of the Casbah, or native quarter. As long as he remains within the Casbah, he is untouchable, but the wily Inspector Slimane has noticed his fascination with an alluring woman named Gaby, who is visiting from Paris. If only Gaby can be used to lure Pepe from his safe haven, justice can be served.

The part of Pepe was originally offered to Charles Boyer, who turned it down. When the American remake was cast, Boyer was again approached, and this time he accepted. And yes, this is the film that inspired the famous line, "Come with me to the Casbah." But, like the equally famous Casablanca line, "Play it again, Sam," it's never actually said in the movie.

"The Wages of Fear" (France, 1952) and "Sorcerer" (USA, 1977). Henri-Georges Clouzot's existential suspense tale involves four down and out men languishing in a rotten South American backwater. An American oil company needs four drivers to transport nitroglycerin to the site of an oil well fire, but the fire is some three hundred miles away over wretched, bumpy mountain roads. Our protagonists, enticed by the large wage being offered and with nothing much to lose, take on the job. This is an unspeakably tense film, not for the faint of heart.

Director William Friedkin's remake, "Sorcerer," features Roy Scheider as one of the drivers. Hardly anyone seems to like this film, but I've never understood why. No, it isn't as good as the original, but the suspense still works, and Friedkin's affection for Clouzot's classic is unmistakable. That, it seems to me, is the single most important factor distinguishing "Sorcerer" from my other examples. "Algiers" and Selznick's "Intermezzo" were, primarily, economically motivated. "Sorcerer," on the other hand, was homage, one filmmaker saluting another. Personally, I'm pretty clear on which type of remake I'd rather encourage.

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