Posted by David Kalat on May 7, 2011
One of the things that can be fun about watching remakes is the insight it gives into what constitutes directing. Take two movies with essentially the same script, and the differences between them become more clearly the work of the different directors and actors interpreting that script.
Having said that, it’s pretty much impossible to evaluate the directorial style of Rudolph Maté from his work on 1948’s The Dark Past, because the film is a virtual clone of an earlier Columbia thriller, Charles Vidor’s Blind Alley (1939). Maté’s choices = Vidor’s choices. Where The Dark Past does differ, it differs by being a deracinated and miscast work of mimicry. Which isn’t to say it lacks its own merits—The Dark Past has an interesting meta-irony that deserves some notice, and we’ll come to it in due course.
Vidor’s Blind Alley was an adaptation of a stage play by James Warwick—and in its claustrophobia retains some of the limited scope common to plays. It has a whiff of Waiting for Godot to it—the whole thing transpires as the characters nervously await an event that will never happen, and a character who we will never meet.
It’s a hostage drama, about some crooks who invade an isolated country house and hold its occupants prisoner. Similar set-ups have fueled many a gripping drama—films like John Huston’s Key Largo, Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker, or James Landis’ The Sadist each found their own unique ways of milking white-knuckle suspense out of stories of terrorized victims and their sadistic captors. These sorts of hostage dramas all generally descend from Archie Mayo’s 1936 The Petrified Forest–well, most of them do. Not this one. You might as well put those associations out of your head right now—that’s not what Blind Alley is about at all. It’s got a very different program in mind.
Chester Morris plays an escaped convict on the run from a police dragnet. He’s a stone-cold killer with a monstrous body count to his name. He, too, is in the grip of an obsession—a compulsion that at once drives him to kill, and then also haunts (and taunts) him for it afterward. His hand is gnarled in a paralytic clutch as a symptom of his sickness—he writhes in terror when he sleeps, tormented by surrealistic nightmares that make no sense to his waking mind.
It just so happens that the house he’s seized belongs to psychiatrist Ralph Bellamy. This pointy-head knows the secret to unlocking a person’s mind, and rewiring the problems within. Maybe—and here’s Chester Morris’ temptation—maybe Ralph Bellamy can cure him.
Why, sure he can. It’s just that, as they say, this time it’s personal. One of those bodies piled up in Chester’s body count is Ralph’s friend. And Dr. Ralphy has a way of getting justice for his fallen friend—not an eye-for-an-eye physical retaliation, but something more subtle and insidious. As a head-shrinker, he can get into the killer’s head and literally unmake him from the inside out, until he’s no longer the same man at all.
Instead of a more conventional tale of hostages struggling to escape their cruel captors, Blind Alley is in many respects a two-man drama of cat-and-mouse, a chess game between mismatched opponents. One is armed, the other dangerous.
Erm. . .
Well, this is a good description of Blind Alley, but it’s problematic as a description of The Dark Past. But this involves a weird irony–so before we get to how these films differ, we need to establish how much they’re the same.
Writers Malvin Wald and Oscar Saul are credited with the Dark Past script, but given how much has been carried over word-for-word from the 1939 screenplay by Philip MacDonald, Michael Blankfort, and Albert Duffy, one hopes they weren’t overpaid for their contribution.
Don’t take my word for it, though.
Here’s a scene from Blind Alley, where Chester Morris and his thugs take over Ralph Bellamy’s house:
Now let’s see the comparable sequence from The Dark Past, as escaped killer William Holden invades the home of psychiatrist Lee J. Cobb:
As I mentioned above, Maté mimics the directorial choices of his predecessor Vidor. Let’s see how atomistic that can get–here’s a scene from Vidor’s Blind Alley, in which the killer recounts his haunting recurring nightmare:
And here’s how Maté visualized his version of the same scene:
Are you with me yet? Are these two films seeming really similar? Let me add one more comparison, just to lard it up for overkill. If you’re in a hurry, you can skip these clips, but there’s no way I’m doing this blog and not running a clip of Nina Foch, so I’m adding the next two excerpts no matter how redundant they are.
Clip #1: Chester Morris’ girlfriend Ann Dvorak susses out what’s happening and tries to put a stop to it:
Clip #2: Nina Foch plays the same scene for Maté in Dark Past:
OK, now you’re either with me or you’ve given up and you’re doing something better with your time. So I’ll take as read from here on out that The Dark Past is a remake of Blind Alley that barely changed anything. But it did change some things! And those changes made all the difference!
Change #1 is the cast:
Lee J. Cobb (cast against type) thought the script was unsuited to him (he was right), and ridiculed it openly during production. Cobb’s off-putting manner and skeptical hostility to the project undermined the confidence of relative newcomer William Holden (who ought to have known what was coming—he’d worked opposite Cobb before, in Holden’s debut film Golden Boy). Watching the disintegrating confidence of Holden, Nina Foch stepped in to give Holden a private pep talk. Ironically, this triangulation of performers happened to be acting out the very dynamics of power and psychological manipulation that the film dramatizes. Talk about Method acting!
Maté’s most conspicuous variation, though: unlike the older film, The Dark Past is told in retrospect, as a flashback. Film noir loves flashbacks—getting characters to narrate things in voice-over is a handy tool for glossing over scenes the low-budgets found hard to shoot, or for revealing the inner secrets of emotionally complicated men. Here, the flashback gives the title a double meaning. Both killer and shrink have a dark past—a moment in which they were indirectly responsible for the deaths of others. Dr. Lee J. Cobb shrugs off his dark past as merely an object lesson in how no one is beyond redemption—that it is the duty of the justice system to seek to rehabilitate criminals, rather than punish them. Fair enough, but what about the flip side? The possibility that just as every bad guy has a spark of good in them, maybe the good guys too carry around their own inner criminals.
That’s a theme that the film essentially squanders.
Here’s the change that irks me–the one that undermines what The Dark Past could’ve been. Watch this scene from Blind Alley (c’mon, even if you skipped all the other video clips, watch this one. It’s short):
I’d show you the comparable scene from The Dark Past. . . except there isn’t one. All those other scenes, copied word for word. All those other scenes, duplicated as if they recycled the film stock and worked off the same storyboards. But this one moment, where the psychiatrist vows revenge, got dropped. And without it, the idea that Lee J. Cobb could be held culpable for his manipulation of William Holden evaporates. The title The Dark Past should be a double entendre–a reference to both characters. Maté, man, you let me down.
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