Acclaimed film maker Joel Cohen and movie star Tom Hanks have defended "mucking around" with The Ladykillers in their widely criticised remake of the classic Ealing comedy.
The film is in competition for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival but was disliked by many American critics when it was released in March and is expected to provoke fury from British movie lovers when it is screened in the UK next month.
Tom Hanks fuelled the cries of irreverence when he admitted yesterday that he had never seen the original.
The film is an updated version of the 1955 Ealing film studios classic which starred Sir Alec Guinness as the leader of a gang of thieves in London who are outwitted by a little old lady. In the version by Joel and Ethan Coen, the scene is transferred to Mississippi and Hanks takes the Guinness role.
Joel Coen conceded yesterday that they had approached the project "very non-reverentially" but that they believed the original was robust enough to take it. "We liked the bones of the story. It's got a great sort of story concept and it will survive our mucking about with it a little bit," he said.
Tom Hanks said: "As a fan of film, I'm aware of the Ealing studios. [But] of the whole school, the only one I can recall is Kind Hearts and Coronets."
Challenged on the wisdom of tackling a film classic afresh, Hanks joked in the verbose manner of his character, who is now named Professor Gold-thwait Higginson Dorr in place of Guinness's Professor Marcus: "Rather than despoiling a work of art, we've elevated it to the level of Hamlet.
"Americans try to do Richard III and Hamlet all the time. Some time it's good, sometimes it's bad. But if we're opening up the body of the great Ealing comedies to a wider American audience, it just pays credit to the original work of art."
Once he had been asked to take the part, he did not want to see Sir Alec Guinness's performance. "The last thing I would have wanted was to have seen the film and have it censoring me and making me inadvertently imitate the great Alec Guinness. There's a reason why he's 'Sir' Alec Guinness."
If it had been a straight- forward remake, he would not have taken the project on, he added. "In this case, we are making a Coen brothers movie and the root source of it was specific in a way but could translate [to an American setting]. I don't think we would look at a remake of the Carry On movies because the verbiage wouldn't translate to the American sensibilities."
Joel Coen and his brother, Ethan, who was unable to visit Cannes because of pneumonia, have an impressive track record in offbeat American movies from Fargo and The Big Lebowski through to O Brother, Where Art Thou.
But their brilliance appears to have eluded them on this project. The normally bankable Hanks and a classic title might have been a dream combination to ensure more than art house success. But the film has taken a modest $38m (£21m) at the box office to date.
The Coen brothers' fondness for The Ladykillers goes back a long way. The original film was the source of a line in their very first movie, Blood Simple. When the detective shoots the bar owner, he says: "Who looks stupid now?" in a copy of a scene at the end of the classic.
ALEC GUINNESS V TOM HANKS
Date of birth:
Guinness: 2 April, 1914, Marylebone England (Died 5 August 2000)
Hanks: 9 July, 1956, Concorde, California
How many Oscars?
Guinness: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) - Best Actor; Honorary Oscar (1980) - contribution to films.
Hanks: Philadelphia (1993) - Best Actor; Forrest Gump (1994) - Best Actor
What the critics say:
The Ladykillers (the original): "One of the neatest blends of the mirthful and macabre I can remember". Fred Majdalany, Time and Tide
"The most stylish, inventive and funniest comedy of the year". Alan Brien, London Evening Standard
The remake: "Like Alexander Mackendrick's 1955 original, this version puts five transcendentally stupid crooks in the house of a little old lady who is doomed to die after she accidentally stumbles on their loot ... Sadly, there will come a time in the film when you cannot wait for them all to die, so that you can finally go home". John Patterson: The Guardian 29 March 2004Reuse content