Almost a century ago, pioneering French filmmaker Abel Gance brought an epic condemnation of war to the screen. Filmed on some of the First World War’s battlefields – in one case (the battle of Saint-Mihiel) during actual combat – J’accuse (1919) enlisted serving soldiers as part of the mega-production’s famous finale, in which the dead rise from their graves to condemn the wastefulness and futility of their deaths. If you’ve seen Gance’s monumental Napoleon (1927), you’ll be familiar with his everything-including-the-kitchen-sink directorial method, his rapid-attack approach to montage.
The dying days of the war seemed an opportune time for the filmmaker’s pacifist message, but some 20 years later, with history set to repeat itself, Gance clearly felt that few of its lessons had been learned. In 1938, he returned to the story of J’accuse for a remake, retaining the central melodrama of two men-of-war in love with the same woman, but dialling up the hysteria. Once again, Gance unleashes a stunning arsenal of stylistic effects, while issuing an astonishingly prescient warning of encroaching fascism and impending war.
Not all filmmakers who’ve ended up remaking their own films have done so for such noble reasons. More usually, the second take comes about in an attempt to fix old wrongs or simply to update a durable story for a new era.
As the 1938 film of J’accuse is released on Blu-ray and DVD, here are five more great directors who went in for a second pass – and the verdict on whether or not it was worth it…
Take one: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
The biggest hit of Hitchcock’s British period begins with a murder in the Swiss Alps before heading to London for a kidnapping and an assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall – a set-piece culminating with a crash of cymbals. If the leads lean towards the bland, Hitch finds an ace in his villain: a scar-faced, skunk-haired Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role.
Take two: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Expanding the svelte 75-minute original to two hours, and ditching the Alps for Marrakech, Hitchcock’s star-powered refit came at the height of his powers. For evidence, one need look no further than his second pass at the Albert Hall sequence, a directorial tour de force of suspense-driven montage, played largely without dialogue as Bernard Herrmann’s orchestration builds in anticipation of the cymbal crash.
“Let’s say that the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional,” said Hitchcock to François Truffaut during their famous interview together. “Talented amateur” more than underplays the formal mastery on display in the 1934 film – witness the kidnapping alone – but even masters benefit from an expanded budget. Familial anxieties are further excavated, while an unravelling yarn and single gunshot becomes a knife in the back, a frantic series of close-ups and melting blackface. Lorre’s laconic villainy may be irreplaceable and a more circuitous route to the concert hall a mite overstuffed, but once we’re there…
Take one: L.A. Takedown (1989)
A made-for-television film adapted from the epically scaled screenplay Michael Mann wrote before beginning production on Thief (1981), L.A. Takedown started life as the pilot for a cops’n’robbers series that wasn’t to be. Mann’s directorial chops – and terrific work with sound and music – are readily apparent, even if the cast (not least the aptly named Scott Plank as Vincent Hanna) prove no match for what was to come.
Take two: Heat (1995)
With Al Pacino and Robert De Niro on board – appearing on screen together for the first time – Mann was able to bring his script to screen as originally conceived. A muscular, expansive work, it’s not just one of the quintessential crime sagas but also one of the great LA movies. For all the superlative action set-pieces, Heat’s best-remembered scene is also its most straightforward, as cat and mouse sit down for coffee. Though the scene is lifted directly from its predecessor, the face-off between two acting heavyweights elevates Mann’s most iconic sequence far beyond the sum of its parts.
It’s impossible to view L.A. Takedown retrospectively as anything but the prototype for what Mann would fully realise with Heat six years later. At near enough double the length of the earlier film, Heat affords him the luxury of digging deeper into the lives of his characters, fleshing out supporting roles that were mere footnotes to the story in the original take. On a technical level, there’s really no contest: from the sheer scale of the robbery sequences to Dante Spinotti’s stunning cinematography, it’s not just the cast that bring their A-game.
Take one: Judge Priest (1934)
While it’s tempting, given the date, to think of Judge Priest as one of Ford’s ‘early ones’, the prolific filmmaker already had well over 70 films to his name by 1934. Adapted from the stories of Irvin S. Cobb, it stars Will Rogers as the titular district judge in small-town Kentucky at the end of the 19th century. Ford’s regular motif of an emerging civilisation is grounded in the homespun charms of Priest’s moral authority.
Take two: The Sun Shines Bright (1953)
Ford returned to the character of Judge Priest for one of his most winningly nostalgic takes on the notion of community. Determinedly old-fashioned, The Sun Shines Bright was already something of an anachronism in 1953. Not that Ford cared a jot, declaring it one of his favourite pictures. Charles Winninger takes on the role of Priest as a much older man, while Stepin Fetchit returns as his loyal and indecipherable charge, Jeff Poindexter.
As wonderful a film as Judge Priest is, The Sun Shines Bright stands as one of Ford’s masterpieces. He spoke of wanting to return to the earlier source material as a means of including a scene in which Priest saves a young black man from a lynch mob, which he’d been forced to excise from the original. The character of Judge Priest was clearly one close to the director’s heart, as evidenced by the impassioned speech given in the converted church in the later film. The sequence it follows – a funeral procession through the centre of the town – is one of the the most moving in any of Ford’s movies.
Take one: A Story of Floating Weeds (1934)
The film that heralded the beginning of Ozu’s mature style, A Story of Floating Weeds was one of the great Japanese filmmaker’s most successful pictures. It’s a silent melodrama that tells of a troupe of travelling players, the leader of whom attempts to reconnect with the son he sired during an earlier visit to the town. His mistress plots revenge when rejected, instructing her ward to seduce the young man in a bid to shame the father.
Take two: Floating Weeds (1959)
Ozu made few narrative changes when he returned to the same material in 1959. Working for a new studio – one with different expectations – meant a lightening of tone but also the opportunity to work with the great cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa. While he had avoided the move to colour for some time, Ozu finally took the leap the previous year with Equinox Flower. Floating Weeds is on another level – the most exquisitely beautiful of the director’s late features.
More than anything, the two features offer an opportunity to view the work of one of cinema’s titans at two distinct periods in his career. In compositional terms, the films have much in common – with some sequences replicated shot for shot – while the few differences (such as the later film’s heatwave) appear superficially cosmetic. The silent film may pack more of immediate punch in its darker, edgier melancholy, but the remake sees Ozu at the peak of his formal powers.
Take one: High Sierra (1941)
Herne Hill’s finest, the great Ida Lupino, takes top-billing in Raoul Walsh’s terrific High Sierra. A just-outta-the-clink Humphrey Bogart is cajoled into one last job, teaming up with a pair of good-for-nothings and a scene-stealing mutt. Steeped in fatalism, it’s every bit the proto-noir, Lupino sharing femme fatale duties with ungrateful, club-footed naif Joan Leslie. Walsh’s propulsive direction is the real star, barrelling towards the inevitable, defiant showdown atop Mount Whitney.
Take two: Colorado Territory (1949)
A western this time, with Joel McCrea escaping from jail in the opening scenes. The bank job becomes a stunningly executed train robbery; the girl Virginia Mayo’s Colorado. Walsh amps up the fatalism even further, with a nihilistic finale that predates Bonnie and Clyde (1967) by nearly two decades.
Viewed together, the two films serve as a masterclass for genre fans. As both were adapted from W.R. Burnett’s novel, High Sierra, they reveal the inherent flexibility of gangster and western tropes. Not seen nearly enough, however, Colorado Territory is one of Walsh’s very best, unfairly overshadowed by High Sierra’s A-picture credentials. Joel McCrea may be no Humphrey Bogart, but the later film is the more complex of the two – richer in its psychological mining and more fascinating in its play with genre formulas.