On paper, this looks like a clear winner. A playful caper guided by a proven director, with crackling sexual tension between two of the more iconic stars of the ’60s/’70s? All the pieces are there to assemble a complete package. And yet, Norman Jewison’s 1968 film never really fits together in any meaningful way. Faye Dunaway plays an insurance investigator hired to track down the culprit behind a major bank heist. Eventually she determines the mastermind behind the crime, played by Steve McQueen. As she continues to investigate, however, she starts to fall in love with the wealthy thief. There isn’t much of a script here, and Jewison tries to compensate for that absence with an abundance of flashy direction. Most of the film is told through elaborate montage, with more split-screen use than all of Brian De Palma’s films put together. It doesn’t have any reason to be there, other than to distract from the fact that not much of interest is happening onscreen.
It’s clear that Jewison is banking on the sexual tension between McQueen and Dunaway, but even that isn’t all it could have been. Dunaway doesn’t make her first appearance until over a half hour in, and it takes even longer before she gets to share a scene with McQueen. The standout sequence, really the only part of the film likely to stick around in the memory, is when the two of them engage in a bit of erotic foreplay over a game of chess. But the scene ends up being more silly than erotic, with Dunaway playfully stroking chess pieces and McQueen doing his best to play it cool and not look hot and bothered. And that silliness kind of speaks to the film as a whole: plenty of scenes of beautiful people doing beautiful things, but without much in the way of consequence or interest. Jewison has some strong films credited to his name (In The Heat Of The Night and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming are the two that I’ve always found the most worthwhile), but he really missed the mark here. 4/10.
The fiction of English writer Grahame Greene has inspired quite a few exemplary film adaptations over the years, most notably two films by Carol Reed: The Third Man and The Fallen Idol. While coming up a little short of the mark when compared to those two films, Fritz Lang’s 1944 adaptation of Greene’s Ministry Of Fear is worth taking the time to see. Ray Milland stars as a recently-released asylum patient who stumbles into a local fair, wins a prize cake, and finds himself tangled up in the world of wartime espionage. The labyrinthine plot is very much in the same vein as Hitchcock’s “Wrong Man” films, but perhaps because of the WWII London backdrop, the tone is a little more stranger and sinister, no more so than in its first 20 minutes. Once the action moves primarily to London, the film loses most of its surreal energy, although Lang still finds ways to work in some invention. One scene starts innocently enough as Milland visits a home to acquire information, only to find himself in the middle of a seance, and then a murder. Another scene is set in a tailor shop with a long mirror stretching out over the background, which gives the setting a slightly disorienting feel. These are nice touches and they give the film some much-needed extra character.
Milland is effective as the slightly mysterious protagonist, although I still always think of him as the scheming husband in Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder. He seems more adept at playing darker characters, and although there is darkness from his character’s past in this film that is hinted at in the beginning, it turns out to be more insignificant as the narrative progresses. If Ministry Of Fear feels less remarkable than the Carol Reed films, it’s more than likely because it takes less chances, content to spend most of its time as a fairly workmanlike espionage thriller (it also admittedly ends on a real sour note, with an incredibly lame throwaway moment that doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the film). It’s mainly worth watching for Lang’s sense of style, especially in the standout first third. 7/10.
More often than not, it’s a disconcerting experience watching a new remake of a beloved classic. No genre is safe from the remake virus, but horror films are especially susceptible to its attacks. In the past, I’ve done my best to avoid horror film remakes, but this retelling of Sam Raimi’s 1981 cult classic The Evil Dead drew a little more interest from me than usual. The presence of Raimi and original star Bruce Campbell as producers, as well as the insistence of the new director that the production used as little CGI as possible, hinted at something that could end up more interesting than the average remake. To get the good out of the way quickly, if you’re looking to satisfy your desire for copious amounts of blood and gore, this more than gets the job done (as well as once again raising the question of how films like these avoid the NC-17 rating). But there’s definitely something missing here.
Maybe the playful inventiveness of The Cabin In The Woods is still too fresh of a memory, and this film by comparison feels too familiar and safe. Like the abysmal prequel/remake of John Carpenter’s The Thing, too much of it is built around recycling the same set-pieces from the original version instead of going for something new and daring. Maybe it’s the onscreen absence of Campbell, a void that the bland victims in this new version never come close to filling. Maybe it’s the presence of a budget, which gives everything a glossier sheen but none of the charm of the original’s super-low-budget aesthetic. Sure, it’s all handled with an acceptable level of competence, but there’s no sense of fun here (this is made clear right at the beginning, when everyone gathers at the cabin not for fun and games, but to stage an intervention to cure a friend’s heroin addiction). Really, it’s a combination of all those points, all adding up to a whole that just feels obligatory. Because remaking classic horror films is the common thing to do now, and Raimi’s film was just the next in line. Like so many of these remakes, in a few years’ time it’ll likely be completely forgotten. 4/10.