This July, Establishing Shot presents It’s Revived!, a miniseries celebrating some of our favorite (or at least some of the more fascinating) movie remakes out there in anticipation of IU Cinema’s fall film series Re:Made. Today, Jack Miller explores how Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujirō Ozu, and Howard Hawks reached back into their own filmographies to make something new.
The remake has long been an ubiquitous part of film culture. It seems that each year we’re treated to a host of decrees announcing that the beloved classics of the past will, in fact, be remade for a new age and with an all-new, shiny cast of contemporary stars. Hollywood’s penchant for revisiting its older properties is far from a new practice; even in the silent days, multiple versions of the same narrative were created with new variations, especially after breakthroughs in storytelling technique allowed for popular narratives to be expanded into the longer feature format. A popular classic like William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) had already been brought to the screen twice during the silent era: early on as a short in 1907 and then again, in more epic form, as Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ in 1923.
More fascinating, from my perspective, is the rare instance of when an auteur chooses to remake or rework material that they had already filmed previously. The special group of filmmakers who have remade their own movies includes such distinguished names as Howard Hawks, Yasujirō Ozu, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Leo McCarey, Cecil B. DeMille, and Raoul Walsh. Usually, artists tend to grow, refining their concerns and techniques as they age, and the auteur remakes in question are interesting precisely for this reason, for what they reveal about a filmmaker’s inner preoccupations. Questions naturally arise within the viewer: what about this narrative attracted this filmmaker? How did their approaches to it differ in subsequent years or decades?
Perhaps the most famous example remains Alfred Hitchcock, who filmed The Man Who Knew Too Much twice, once in 1934 in Britain and later in 1956 in Hollywood. Even more than with most auteurs, it’s remarkably easy to link Hitchcock’s films together in meaningful ways and to find active relationships from work to work. In this regard, a case can be made that Hitchcock’s legacy rests most powerfully on the body of work as an integral whole. His decision to do a second run-though of this same story, 20 years later, is only the most self-conscious example of a tendency toward revision that can be found elsewhere in his oeuvre. Themes and motifs such as the poisoned marriage present in works like Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941) and crop up again in later works like Marnie (1964). Hitchcock was constantly returning to a set of ideas that obsessed him and finding new ways to articulate these ideas through images.
Both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much deal with the kidnapping of a child, taken as blackmail from a couple who knows about an upcoming political assassination. The dangerous consequences of accidentally acquired knowledge represent yet another way for Hitchcock to express his punitive ideas about circumstances that are beyond our control, a theme he deals with in other films like The Wrong Man (1956) and North by Northwest (1959). Both films are good and (like all Hitchcock films) worth seeing, but as with many of his British productions, the earlier film can sometimes feel like a dry-run for the startling formal ideas expressed in the later Hollywood film. In the book of interviews that he did with François Truffaut, Hitchcock reportedly said, “Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” Of course, only one of the two versions provides the unbridled joy of witnessing Doris Day perform “Que Sera, Sera.”
The great Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu is sometimes accused of making the same film over and over again, which isn’t exactly true, though he did actually remake his own movie on more than one occasion; most famously, his classic Floating Weeds of 1959 is a remake of the similarly-titled A Story of Floating Weeds from 1934. Ozu’s more atypical early sound tragicomedy I Was Born, But… (1932) was also loosely remade by him as Ohayo (Good Morning, 1959). The director’s reputation for having a kind of austere sensibility as an artist is complicated by this pair of lovely, comic items. Like many of his films, they deal with the ways that young people come to terms with a rapidly modernizing Japan, but I Was Born, But… counters its social insights with some highly enjoyable slapstick passages, and Good Morning even throws in some fart jokes for good measure. More than most works in his oeuvre, they showcase Ozu’s love of “lowbrow” humor and, by extension, his debt to American genre cinema. The two films would make a terrific double feature.
Howard Hawks’ beautiful western El Dorado (1966) represents not only an instance of a director reworking his own previously filmed material, but also reuniting with the same screenwriter. Leigh Brackett worked on the scripts of this film and the earlier masterpiece Rio Bravo (1959), and the two films share a great deal of similarities. Both films deal with a sheriff (played by John Wayne) defending his station office against encroaching outlaws. In both cases, the Wayne character unites a rag-tag bunch of disparate characters into a cohesive team, the basic unit block of Hawksian cinema. This narrative archetype in which an organically-formed group plays a kind of waiting game in an enclosed space, testing each other’s moral and philosophical boundaries as they strengthen the bonds of the team, was also used by Hawks on earlier outings such as Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and To Have and Have Not (1944). It’s clearly a structure that Hawks liked to play off of, and one that worked well for his idiosyncratic conception of cinema in which forms like genre and the set become springboards for his deeper ideas about performance and human behavior.
In all of these auteur remakes, one finds an emphasis on artistic personality over plot. Rather than churning out a new story for the masses to consume, these filmmakers were clearly more interested in the way that a narrative is told than they were in the particularities of the events depicted. This method of recycling is really not so different from the way that a great painter like Paul Cezanne painted the same landscape repeatedly over a long period in his career. All of these works double as both grand entertainments and deeply personal objects.
IU Cinema previously screened the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 2011, as well as a 5X series dedicated to Yasujirō Ozu in 2020 and various Howard Hawks films like His Girl Friday and To Have and Have Not.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.