Director's block? Dial H for Hitchcock

Paul McCann Media Editor
Sunday 18 October 1998 23:02

ALFRED HITCHCOCK himself was sanguine about the reverence his films were held in. He once said that even his failures made money "and became classics a year after I made them". But he might have raised an eyebrow at the sudden flurry of Hollywood directors going back to the master's work and copying it.

Last week saw the UK release of A Perfect Murder, which is a re-make of Dial M For Murder with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow taking Ray Milland and Grace Kelly's places as the fatally unhappy couple. In December Gus Van Sant, director of My Own Private Idaho, has a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho released and filming has just started on a new Rear Window with the paralysed actor Christopher Reeve in Jimmy Stewart's voyeur role.

It is not the first time his work has been re-visited. The 39 Steps was updated twice, in the Fifties with Kenneth More and in the Seventies with Robert Powell. Hitchcock even re-made one of his British films, The Man Who Knew Too Much, when he moved to Hollywood.

Ian Nathan, editor of Empire magazine, believes the vogue for the re- make is at least partly to do with a fear of originality: "It speaks of a lack of creative ideas and a harking back to old times. Hitchcock films have a value in their name, and they are much easier to market because we know what it is - they can just say it's Dial M For Murder with Michael Douglas. They are desperately scared of original concepts in case they are difficult to sell to people."

Nathan also believes that Hitchcock is attracting an element of creative gamesmanship from directors. Psycho is the most studied picture in American film schools, it defined the modern horror film using Hitchcock's idea that: "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it."

"Film-makers are rather laying their heads on the block taking on Hitchcock," says Tom Ryall, author of Alfred Hitchcock and British Cinema. "Because obviously everyone will be looking at the original. This has already happened with A Perfect Murder, the makers are trying to deflect criticism by saying it wasn't one of Hitchcock's greats. It will be even more focused on Psycho."

Dial M For Murder was based on a stage play and was made as a 3-D film at the height of the Fifties' 3-D wave. Hitchcock had to use a heavy 3- D camera which limited his usual flexibility and made the film more like a one-set play. Nevertheless Hitchcock has been lauded for creating a tense,claustrophobic atmosphere around the star, Grace Kelly.

To minimise any criticism of the new Psycho, its makers, Universal, has refused to give an advance screening to film critics - the tactic employed with the turkey The Avengers.

The reaction to A Perfect Murder was at best lukewarm. Roger Ebert, America's most influential film critic, described it as: "A `Fatal Basic' film. Like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, and their imitators, it's about sex between bad people who live in good homes."

Tom Ryall is unworried about the new films: "There is nothing new about it in the sense that he has always been quoted filmicly and been referred to ever since the French New Wave took him to their heart. A full remake is just people doing homage."

Michael Douglas, star of A Perfect Murder, is not so modest. He told Channel 4 this week: "I think if you go back and look at Dial M For Murder you'll find you like our picture a lot better."

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