Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Out of the Past (1947) and Against All Odds (1984)

One of the delights about watching a remake is discovering the original source.  Such is the case of Taylor Hackford's AGAINST ALL ODDS (1984) a remake of the Film Noir classic OUT OF THE PAST (1947). The regular moviegoer probably has no idea that AGAINST ALL ODDS is a remake.  I don't think I did when I first saw it in Manhattan Beach, California during college. Give Director Hackford credit for taking on one of the great film noirs ever made. I first watched OUT OF THE PAST the night before I was going to work on a screen test the next day with Robert Redford and Lena Olin for the Sydney Pollack film HAVANA (1990). I was nervous and couldn't sleep so I stayed up and watched OUT OF THE PAST.  I don't remember much of  the film but I know I enjoyed it.

OUT OF THE PAST was directed by Jacques Tourneur with a screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring (under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes) based on his own novel Build My Gallows High (with an uncredited polish by noir novelist James M. Cain). PAST is a taut, well-written film noir with juicy roles for everyone involved from the lead actors Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer to the supporting ones who play cab drivers or hotel clerks. The film moves from the Sierra Mountains to Lake Tahoe to Mexico, Los Angeles, and San Francisco  with ease. The dialogue is sharp. The femme fatales are beautiful and deadly. Tourneur was good at atmosphere having directed the horror classics THE CAT PEOPLE (1942) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). But look at Tourneur's resume and film noir doesn't jump out as his specialty yet OUT OF THE PAST is considered one of the best.

The film opens in the Sierra mountain town of Bridgeport. A man in a black suit named Joe (Paul Valentine) stops at a gas station looking for the station's owner Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum). Jeff is out fishing with a local girl Ann (Virginia Huston) but the Kid (Dickie Moore), a deaf teenager who works at the gas station finds Bailey up at the lake.  Joe works for a gambler named Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, in only his second feature film). Jeff has also worked for Whit before, in his previous life as private detective Jeff Markham, his real name. Whit wants Jeff for a new job and needs Jeff to come up to his Lake Tahoe home to discuss it. Jeff confides to Ann that his shady past as a private dick is what drove him to the isolated town of Bridgeport and the quiet profession of gas station owner.

As Ann drives him to Whit's home, Jeff tells her in flashback how Whit hired Jeff to track down Whit's girlfriend Kathie Moffitt (Jane Greer) who not only shot Whit four times but also stole forty thousand dollars from him. Whit doesn't care about the money. He just wants Kathie back. Jeff tracks her down to Acapulco, Mexico. Jeff floats from seedy bar to seedy bar until Kathie walks in one night and Jeff knows why Whit wants Kathie back.  She's unbelievably gorgeous. Jeff strikes up a conversation with her and soon they're in love. Kathie knows Whit sent Jeff. They talk about leaving together but then Whit and Joe show up. Jeff lies that he hasn't found her yet. Whit wants Jeff to stay on her trail. After Whit leaves Mexico, Jeff and Kathie take a steamer up to the Bay Area. They're about to disappear for good when Jeff's old detective partner Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie) sees him in San Francisco. Fisher follows them to a mountain cabin. Whit has hired Fisher to follow Jeff. Fisher tries to blackmail them and Kathie shoots Fisher, killing him.

The flashback ends as Ann drops Jeff off at Whit's house.  Kathie is back with Whit, catching Jeff off guard. He hasn't seen Kathie since she killed  Fisher. Whit is being extorted by an accountant named  Leonard Eels (Ken Niles) who helped Whit hide a million dollars from the IRS. Whit wants Jeff to steal his tax books back from Eels.  Whit trusts no one but Jeff. Eels secretary Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming) is in on the plot. Jeff is to meet up with Meta who will get him into Eels office.  Jeff smells a set-up. Whit has never forgiven Jeff for taking his girl. Whit not only wants his crooked tax documents back but he wants to frame Jeff for the murder of  Fisher and as it turns out, Eels. But Jeff manages to stay one step ahead of Whit, Joe, and the police, hiding the cooked tax books and hiding out back in the Sierras.  Kathie begins to creep back into his life and flips sides again, turning against Whit to save Jeff. But who will survive this typically noir-ish relationship -- Jeff, Kathie, or neither?

Film Noir emerged in post World War II with tales of the dark underbelly of society with amoral men and dangerous, loose women. OUT OF THE PAST exemplifies this style. Jeff Bailey/Markham is a smart man loved by a good honest woman in Ann but mixed up with sinister gangster Whit Sterling and tempted by the seductive femme fatale Kathie Moffitt. Femme Fatale is French for deadly woman. Moffitt isn't the only femme fatale in the movie. Eels secretary Meta Carson is a second femme fatale who helps get her employer killed.

OUT OF THE PAST has a nice noir triangle where the players will betray one another. Robert Mitchum is perfect as the tough former detective Bailey/Markham and he wasn't even the producers first choice. Like typical Film Noir protagonists, Bailey/Markham knows to steer clear of dames like Kathie Moffitt but he succumbs to her black widow charms nonetheless. Jane Greer is dynamite as Katie.  Kathie's eyes are her best weapon. She seduces men with her big beautiful eyes but when cornered, her eyes turn wild and unpredictable. Kirk Douglas's Whit isn't a big part but he's memorable with his slicked back hair and strong jawline. What careers Mitchum and Douglas would have for the next forty years after OUT OF THE PAST.

Film Noir usually takes place in rain slicked cities but OUT OF THE PAST mixes urban locales like bars, offices and city apartments with the Lake Tahoe mountain scenery. Director Tourneur has the noir imagery down with lots of shadows and back lighting and contrast between light and dark. Writer Mainwaring's dialogue crackles and the plot twists and turns with some nifty surprises along the way.  OUT OF THE PAST is the perfect Film Noir so who would even think of remaking it?

Director Taylor Hackford (WHITE NIGHTS) that's who.  Hackford's remake AGAINST ALL ODDS (1984) has three things going for it.  One is some fantastic Mexican locations that Hackford uses for dramatic effect at Cozumel, Tulum, and Chichen Itza. Secondly, he cleverly casts film noir legends Richard Widmark of KISS OF DEATH (1947) and Jane Greer, the original femme fatale from OUT OF THE PAST in supporting roles.  And lastly, he has the sultry, smoky voiced actress Rachel Ward as this version's femme fatale.  Like Greer, Ward is believable as a woman any man would want as his own and would double cross and kill to keep.

AGAINST ALL ODDS definitely modernizes the OUT OF THE PAST storyline and the film starts out strongly. Terry Brogan (Jeff Bridges), ex-football player, is down in Cozumel looking for the girlfriend of nightclub owner/gambler Jake Wise (James Woods). Jessie Wyler (Rachel Ward) stabbed Jake and stole $50,000 from him. Jessie is the daughter of Mrs. Wyler (Jane Greer), wealthy owner of the Los Angeles Outlaws football team that Terry played for until his recent release from the team. An early flashback reveals Terry is in some financial trouble after getting cut from the Outlaws. His former agent Steve Kirsch (Saul Rubinek), now a lawyer for the law firm that represents Mrs. Wyler and the Outlaws can't help him so Terry reluctantly turns to his questionable friend Jake. Jake sends Terry off to Mexico to find Jessie.

Terry wanders around Cozumel showing the locals a picture of Jessie but she's like a ghost. Then, in broad daylight, he sees her at a local market. They don't hit it off very well but Terry's persistent. Like the Mitchum character in the original, Terry falls in love with Jessie. Before long, they're planning on disappearing from Jake and Mrs. Wyler. While sightseeing (and making love) at the Mayan ruin Chitzen Itza, they get caught by Hank Sully (former NFL football player Alex Karras), trainer of the Outlaws now hired by Jake to find Terry and Jessie.  Sully and Terry fight and Jessie shoots Sully. She flees and quickly catches a flight out of Mexico.

Still hoping to play football, Terry returns to Los Angeles and eventually visits Jake. Jake and Jessie are together again. Jake seems to forgive Terry for not finding Jessie but he has another job for Terry. Jake wants Terry to get into the lawyer Kirsch's office and steal some files that Kirsch keeps on Jake and many other prominent Los Angeles citizens who gamble on football. Jake holds over Terry the threat of revealing that Terry once helped Jake on a points shaving bet by fumbling on purpose in a game. Terry's backed into a corner. He sneaks into Kirsch's office at night but finds some of the files missing and Kirsch shot dead in his office bathroom.

AGAINST ALL ODDS becomes a bit tangled and convoluted in its final third as writer Eric Hughes tries to tie up all the plots and subplots, not altogether successfully. Terry finds Kirsch's secretary Edie (Swoosie Kurtz) at the corner restaurant bar and she helps him hide Kirsch's body and escape Jake's henchmen. Jessie goes to her mother's lawyer and clean-up man Ben Caxton (Richard Widmark) and spills the beans about Jake's plan to frame Terry. Terry takes some of the files from Kirch's office and arranges a final meeting with Jake, Caxton, Jessie, and Jake's right hand man Tommy (Dorian Harewood) up at Wyler's Canyon, Mrs. Wyler's new real estate development that is interwoven throughout this story of double-crosses, football, and revenge in a final confrontation to clear his name.

So how does AGAINST ALL ODDS hold up to its classic predecessor OUT OF THE PAST? It never tops PAST but it's an interesting remake. ODDS successfully updates the 1947 story. Director Hackford does a nice job taking the audience to real exotic Mexican locations unlike the original which due to budgetary constraints had to use a studio backlot and one beach shot to convey Mexico.  Hackford's Los Angeles locales are inspired as well: the Rivera Country Club, Manhattan Beach, Century City skyscrapers, the Hollywood Palace Nightclub, El Segundo, and the canyons above West L.A. all contribute to Hackford's L.A. Noir remake. Hackford and Hughes go for a bit of a CHINATOWN (1974) theme with AGAINST ALL ODDS suggesting corruption permeates all the way from the nightclubs of Hollywood to the law offices in Century City and the country clubs in Brentwood. Everyone from city councilman and environmentalist Bob Somes (Allen Williams) to sweet Mrs. Wyler is rotten to one degree or another.

AGAINST ALL ODDS makes some interesting alterations to most of the characters from OUT OF THE PAST. The secretary Meta Carson who betrays extortionist Eels and helps set up Jeff in PAST is changed into a good character, Kirsch's helpful secretary Edie trying to help Terry stay out of trouble in ODDS. The man gambler Whit/Jake sends to track down the wayward lovers in Mexico changes from Jeff's detective partner Fischer to Terry's football trainer friend Sully. ODDS softens the femme fatale. Jessie is a bad girl from a wealthy family, who moves in with shady Jake to piss off her mother but she's not greedy like Kathie. But like Kathie in PAST, she's incredibly desirable and even smart men like Jeff and Terry succumb to their charms. As Jessie says, "Can't anyone love me without it being life or death?" Not for these suckers it can't. Rachel Ward is a great choice for Jessie with her sexy Kathleen Turner like husky voice and doe eyes. She would play a darker femme fatale again in AFTER DARK, MY SWEET (1990).

The pairing of Jeff  Bridges and James Woods won't make anyone forget the dynamic duo of Mitchum and Douglas but Bridges and Woods pay homage to the original while making their characters different. The biggest departure in character is Bridges Terry Brogan.  Mitchum's Jeff was likable and funny but Bridges' Terry Brogan is a bit of an asshole. Brogan is a professional athlete, cocky, egotistical, and very flawed.  Brogan's not as smart as he thinks he is. Every time he tries to intimidate someone, he gets knocked down a notch whether by Jake, Caxton, or Mrs. Wyler. Bridges performance is occasionally bipolar as he's a jerk one minute and a nice guy the next but he does a fantastic job playing a desperate athlete who believes he can still make a team.

Woods' Jake is a bit more oily and rat-like than Douglas' Whit. Woods had portrayed enough psychos early in his career like THE ONION FIELD (1979) but Jake is a new role for him. Jake is a shady character but he has some humor and humanity to him, not too far removed from Terry. For Jake, Jessie coming into his life made him legitimate.  No more floozies for him. Here was a rich girl from a respected family dating the gambler Jake. No wonder he wants her back so badly, even if she did stab him and steal $50,000.

The supporting characters in AGAINST ALL ODDS are well cast. Swoosie Kurtz as Edie seems like a small secretary part but she plays a vital role later in the film. Saul Rubinek as Kirsch won't improve the image of lawyers, meaning he's convincing. As mentioned earlier, director Hackford tips his cap to the golden age of film noir using veterans Richard Widmark and Jane Greer in key roles. Hackford even throws in some football realism, using ex-football player Alex Karras as the football trainer Sully, probably the most pessimistic, unhappy, sad person in the film, perfect for film noir.

Some classics should never be remade. CITIZEN KANE, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, or CASABLANCA are only meant to be made once.  They're perfect in the era they were made and updating them to 2012 would be pointless. But OUT OF THE PAST was a high grade B movie that became revered later in its life. AGAINST ALL ODDS is a well-intentioned, modern adaptation.  Leave out the insufferable Phil Collins song Against All Odds at the end of the film and it might have been even better. Sometimes remakes work.  Sometimes it doesn't work as when the 1947 noir classic KISS OF DEATH was remade in 1995 starring Nicholas Cage and David Caruso.  I guess depending on the material, it's worth a shot.

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