When You Re-make a Classic

CAUTION: Contains “spoilers”

I wonder whether Taylor Hackford knew what to expect when he agreed to direct a re-make of Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 film noir “Out of the Past.” I don’t believe that audiences and critics swooned over the Tourneur film upon its initial release, but its reputation grew over time, helped by the fact that R.K.O. re-issued the film twice in 1953 and again in 1957. After that, T.V. and home video took over so that by 1984, it was well on its way to establishing itself as an iconic film, perhaps as the ultimate film noir. But what I really want to talk about is Hackford’s re-make. Certainly Columbia did the director no favor by slapping the title “Against All Odds” on his film. It makes it sound like a 1950s Errol Flynn adventure movie.

Hackford and screenwriter Eric Hughes wisely chose to pretend that they’d never heard of the earlier film. This allowed “Against All Odds” to stand on its own as a film. Among the changes: transforming Private Investigator Jeff Markham (later Bailey) and gambler Whit Sterling into benched quarterback Terry Brogan and nightclub owner/sports bettor Jake Wise and casting them as friendly rivals rather than employee and employer, re-casting strong-arm man Joe Stefanos into team coach Hank Sully, turning unscrupulous attorney Leonard Eels into Steve Kirsch a sports attorney and Terry’s former player-agent, with a safe-full of blackmail-dynamite. But more than simply re-arranging the pieces on the board, Hughes forged some entirely new relationships. While Whit Sterling seems more concerned about recovering the $40,000 mistress Kathy Moffett ran off with, Wise is seen as being genuinely in love with Jessie Wyler, this film’s Kathy Moffett equivalent. Thus there’s a real emotional payoff when he discovers the depth of Jessie’s passion for Terry. (In this respect “Against All Odds” echoes Robert Siodmak’s “Criss-Cross” with its Steve-Anna-Slim triangle.) While the masterful Kathy killed Whit in the Tourneur film, Hughes uses Tommy, a bent cop in the pocket of the powerful Wyler family to remove Jake. Similarly, in Tourneur’s film, Jeff and his former partner Jack Fisher never really liked each other, whereas coach Sully seems to care about fading star Terry Brogan–until he pulls a gun on him. All of the relationships in the film are a tangle: Terry and Sully, Terry and Kirsch, Kirsch and Wise, Wise and Tommy, Wise and Caxton, Caxton and Mrs. Wyler, Mrs. Wyler and Jessie–whew–what an emotional stew! But Hackford keeps the kettle boiling quite nicely, until the sad but all-too-predictable ending. Maybe “Against All Odds” wasn’t such a bad title after all.

While Kathy seemed to come out of nowhere, the crime movie equivalent of one of Tourneur’s cat-women,  Jessie is given a family and a social background. Her mother Grace, wealthy and domineering, pulls the strings in Jessie’s and Terry’s lives (she owns the team that Terry and Sully belong to), and she is herself guided by family attorney Ben Caxton, whose avuncular exterior masks his inner corruption. The DVD release of the film included some deleted scenes as extras that added shadings to the characters. Grace, for instance, is revealed as a concerned wildlife conservationist, even as her development corporation remakes the land.

In the end, I don’t want to imply that “Against All Odds” is a better film than “Out of the Past,” but I do want to assert that it’s a different film than “Out of the Past,” and needs to be seen and judged on its own merits. I generally have a bad feeling about re-makes, but occasionally one comes along that stands on its own as an intelligent reassessment of the original. John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is one such film, and Taylor Hackford’s “Against All Odds” is another.

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