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Monday 12 January 2009

The Dark Past (1948)

Remakes are just a curse of the modern era, they've been around as long as there have been films and sometimes it takes the passage of time to see where the differences and similarities in old time remakes worked and which didn't. This one appeared to be a gimme, given that it's a Rudolph Maté film starring William Holden, Nina Foch and Lee J Cobb, but then I saw the original, 1939's Blind Alley and I started having reservations. The 1939 version with Chester Morris, Ann Dvorak and Ralph Bellamy was really impressive, with both Morris and Bellamy excelling against type. I didn't doubt that Nina Foch was more than up to playing Dvorak's role, but what about Cobb and Holden?

What I found was that there's much here that improves on the original, but not all of it. The story is essentially the same: we have a professor of psychiatry (Dr Andrew Collins here instead of Dr Anthony Shelby) being held hostage in his own home by an escaped convict (Al Walker instead of Hal Wilson), one who has already killed a number of men. Walker is waiting for a boat which doesn't turn up and doesn't turn up, so keeps the Collins and his family and friends hostage while he waits. For his part, while the professor waits he psychoanalyses Walker and his dreams to find a way out of the situation alive.

The story is basically the same but it's hung better. Some scenes are staged better than the original and there are some better ones added tot he mix. There's a little more depth but mostly the success is in the linking. Scenes are linked together much better so that motivations are more believable and more consistent. There's also a framing story here that's new. This professor becomes a police psychiatrist and our story is one long flashback provided as an explanation to an arresting officer with a bandage on his head why he wants to help the eighteen year old delinquent who caused the need for the bandage.

The acting is where things fall down a little. Nina Foch is superb, which doesn't surprise me in the slightest, balancing care with suspicion and looking like a less iconic Marlene Dietrich. She always looked awesome in a trenchcoat. Lee J Cobb is decent as Dr Collins. Perhaps he's a little too serious at points but then at points he raises his voice in just the right manner and it makes it all right again. He does a good job but I can't say it's a better one than Bellamy did or not. I think sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't.

As I suspected after seeing Blind Alley, William Holden is wrong for the part of Walker, though he's hobbled by a few unfortunate facts that are entirely not his fault. He doesn't look right, for a start: he's too young, as if he hasn't grown into his face yet. If this was his last film, that wouldn't be a problem, but this is William Holden with a memorable career ahead of him. He'd done his supporting slots and was progressing through the lead roles at this point in time. It would be two more years before Sunset Boulevard and the big time.

The language he has to work with isn't right either: it's 30s language full of screwballs and kitchen jockeys, which fits Chester Morris but not William Holden. The last fault is the only one that's really his: he's trying too hard, so that it's obvious that he's acting. Cobb and Foch are natural in their roles but Holden is just too conscious of what he's doing: he says the right things and moves the right moves but he's doing it as precision stuff rather than just rolling with it.

As a film, this has plenty that's better than the original but as a whole it doesn't match it. Maybe remakes worked the same way in decades past, things like The Maltese Falcon notwithstanding.

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