Alfred Hitchcock remains high on the list of legendary filmmakers, three decades after his death.
Given the director's legendary status, it's surprising how many of his films have been remade. Whether it's a testament to how effective the stories were, a tilt at some reflected glory, or sheer foolhardiness is arguable, but we've seeing the latest now: a new Netflix screen adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca opened this week at Dendy.
The original novel is a classic and has had TV adaptations, but the 1940 film version - Hitchcock's first in the US - is also renowned, even if the director himself felt it wasn't really his, since he was under the tight control of producer David Selznick. It might be fairer to say some remakes, especially of pre-existing properties, are new adaptations of the original material unless there are obvious connections or allusions. And some movies are, ahem, "inspired" by others and always have been (Rebecca itself is reminiscent in some ways of Jane Eyre).
Rear Window was based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich - not high art, perhaps, but a respected genre author. It was remade for TV, retooled for a paralysed Christopher Reeve, and was an obvious inspiration for the teen flick Disturbia (kids, watch the original instead!)
Lifeboat got a sci-fi TV remake as Lifepod and another du Maurier adaptation, Jamaica Inn, also had a TV redo.
Brian De Palma's film Obsession (1976) was heavily inspired by Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and even had the same composer, Bernard Herrmann.
Hitchcock himself, of course, remade his 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956, and remarked, "Let's say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional." The later film - with a fairly different script, though the basic scenario is similar - is certainly more lavish but also feels long at a solid two hours. And Hitchcock used some motifs and scenarios repeatedly, like the innocent man on the run: The 39 Steps (1935), adapted from John Buchan's novel, has had a couple of cinema versions and one for TV but the original is still the classic.
The Lodger (1927), based on a 1913 novel has also had several adaptations: here's one case where the non-Hitchcock 1944 film starring Laird Cregar might be the best-known rendering (being a sound film didn't hurt).
Perhaps the most infamous - and direct - Hitchcock remake was Gus Van Sant's Psycho (1998). Van Sant had gone from indie director to mainstream success with Good Will Hunting and decided to use this new clout to make a long-pondered project. Not only was Van Sant remaking one of the classic Hitchcock movies, he was proposing to do it (almost) word for word, shot for shot. Perhaps if he had stuck tightly to that, it might have made for a better experiment, but he did make quite a number of changes of his own - updating it to the present, filming in colour, adding bizarre cutaways - that added nothing of value. Another problem was that the central roles were miscast. Vince Vaughn was too brawny and overtly creepy as Norman (casting someone more like the balding, middle-aged Norman of the original Robert Bloch novel would have been more interesting). Anne Heche was too young and lightweight for the role of desperate Marion.
Were there any improvements in Van Sant's version? Not really. William H. Macy was good as the PI (but so was Martin Balsam) and Viggo Mortenson as Sam was a better actor than the stiff John Gavin. Psycho had three sequels starring the indelible Perkins, a prequel TV series and a couple of spin-offs. But it's the Hitchcock original that had the greatest impact and endures.
Dial M for Murder, based on Fredric Knott's play, was pleasant but lesser Hitchcock and has had a couple of remakes, in 1981 for TV with the original title and in 1998 as A Perfect Murder.
One of Hitchcock's best British films, The Lady Vanishes (1938), made use of an old urban legend in which all evidence of a woman's mother in a hotel room vanishes and nobody remembers seeing her. It was also an adaptation of the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins. Other films exploited the same idea of a person disappearing: So Long at the Fair (1950) was adapted from a novel of the same name and Flightplan (2005) was a modern variation set on an aeroplane. The 1979 film The Lady Vanishes starring Cybill Shepherd, Angela Lansbury and Elliott Gould, was an acknowledged, if not exact, remake of the Hitchcock film. Despite the starry leads it has fallen into relative obscurity.
While Hitchcock adaptations usually focused on popular rather than highbrow works, Joseph Conrad has an impressive literary pedigree. Hitchcock filmed Conrad's espionage novel The Secret Agent as Sabotage (1936) with the spy's sex shop turned into a cinema for the film and making impressive use of a Disney cartoon. It was remade under the book's title for the cinema in 1996 and there have been a couple more TV versions.
Shadow of a Doubt was remade twice, once for TV and once for the cinema, the latter as Step Down to Terror (1958). It starred Rod Taylor, later in Hitchcock's The Birds, which has had a sequel but not a remake, though its influence was felt in many nature-runs-amok films and it might conceivably be remade with new technology,
While Hitchcock is far from sacred or flawless, few of the derivative films have been remembered anywhere near as well as those of the Master of Suspense. And I don't think we'll be seeing any rejigs of some of his lesser work: does anyone really want to see a new version of Topaz or Torn Curtain?