Here we go with a creative mental exercise that I love to
do at least once a year for our readers (and myself as well), to see what
kind of responses would we get.
O.K. so let’s pretend you’re a filmmaker who has gotten
the funding to make a film, along with final cut and total control – except
you have to remake a previous film – what film would you remake?
There are so many films I could name, but I assume, like
me, you would want to try your hand at redoing some guilty pleasure that just
missed the mark. Not a great or even a good film by any means, but one with a
great premise that you enjoy and, in your heart, you just know you could have
done a better job.
My first choice was the 1964 chintzy, not-quite-epic
adventure movie The Long Ships with Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark (HERE); but that’s not by any means the only film I
would love to do a remake of.
Also on my list is the 20th Century Fox 1973
detective thriller The Laughing Policeman, with Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern
and Lou Gossett, directed by Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke).
There are quite a few things I like that I think the film gets very right,
but also a lot that I’ve always felt the film gets really wrong, and every time
I see it, I just wish I could redo it.
The film is based on one of the very popular series of novels
by the Swedish couple – Per Wahloo
and Maj Sjowall – about Stockholm
homicide detective Martin Beck. Of
course, being an American production by a Hollywood studio the locale was switched
to San Francisco, and its premise, when the film first came out, was
considered very controversial. However some 40 years later, in our now violent,
irrational, paranoid and crazy world, what was once controversial is now,
too sadly, all too commonplace, almost to the point of being ho-hum.
In the film, Beck and a team of detectives investigate the
mass killing of a group of late night passengers on a city bus by some unknown
killer with a machine gun. However the investigation takes an even more
dramatic turn when Beck discovers that one of victims was his own partner, who was supposed to be off on vacation.
Was he an innocent victim at the wrong
place at the wrong time, or was he the killer’s intended target? And if so why? A revenge killing or something else altogether? Needless to say, Beck follows a series
of red herrings, dead ends and false leads before finding out who the real
(Trivia note – One of killer’s victims is played by future
film and TV director Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress, Out of Time,
Homeland, House of Cards). In fact, that’s him on the bottom left in the knit
cap in the image above).
Among the things that the film gets right is the whole
milieu of the police procedural, the leg work, the chasing down of clues, the
frustration and minutia of details. On top of that, the film is unrelentingly
grim and serious. There are no moments of levity. No one cracks just even an
amusing quip. It’s all a dingy, dirty, nasty business which robs you of your soul
and humanity. It’s a dog eat dog world and these guys wallow in it every single
The title, of course, refers to Matthau’s Beck character,
but in an ironic way since he never laughs, jokes or even cracks a smile. He’s a
dour, depressed, emotionally closed off man and the film subtly gives us
touches that show us how Beck has closed himself off to the world and the
people around him.
In one scene he
goes out to the backyard of his house and almost trips over a rusted out barbecue
grill that obviously hasn’t been in use since happier times years ago. Though
he’s married, Beck and wife barely speak to each other and he, for some
unexplained reason, sleeps on a couch in the living room, and not in bed with
his wife. Whatever love and communication they had with each other is long
In a later scene, he waits up all
night to confront his son, who he saw earlier at a strip joint while
following a lead, only to have his son unknowingly slam the door of his room in his face.
In another terrific scene, there’s an action sequence in
the middle of the film where a SWAT team takes down a crazed sniper who’s holding
several women as hostages. After the shootout is over, Beck discovers that the
man could not have been the killer, but his superiors, pressed by the media and
public to solve the bus killings, overrule him and release the news that the
killer has been caught to get the heat off their backs. Coldblooded bureaucracy
and “covering your ass” expediency always raises its ugly head.
Like I said, it’s grim and serious, and very 1970s as
well. As I have said previously, perhaps the greatest decade of filmmaking ever, before
everything went all bloated on CGI and comic book stuff.
But I do think the film screws
up a lot. Here are some problems that I would correct if I did a remake.
First, there’s a major plot problem where the identity
of the murder and his motive are actually figured out by Beck fairly early on
in the film, which means there’s no actual real mystery to grab on to. So we
watch Beck and his partner go through endless false trails before eventually
coming back to what Beck had already figured out in the first place. I would
make the mystery a real genuine mystery with several real potential suspects
and possible motivations.
Second, the killer,
when he is finally revealed, also happens to be a gay man who regularly likes to
go to gay bars to pick up men (and remember we’re talking 1973, so that was a huge shocker back then) and the film sort of hints
that that’s another reason why he killed all those people. In other words, he’s
gay, so he’s also a psychopath. Needless to say, that goes out.
Another very serious mistake is Beck’s new partner, who is
excellently played by Bruce Dern. However, he also happens to be, to put it
bluntly, a racist and sexist asshole, which means there’s a big problem. Beck is a
cold, miserable grump and his partner is an obnoxious jerk, so who is the audience
supposed to root for here? Better to make Beck’s partner a more likable and sympathetic person, which would balance out the partnership and at least give us one
person to cheer on.
Lou Gossett also seems to be the only black cop or person
of color on the entire San Francisco police force, in the film. Well, this is a
different time now. I would make the cast entirely diverse in ethnicity – you
know like in every day real life. Black,
white, male, female, Hispanic, Asian, Latino, Muslim, Hindu etc..
And I would
make Beck either black or his partner black. Better yet, a gay, dreadlocked black woman who’s the hero at the end and who doesn’t get killed
One last thing – the 1970’s were the decade
of great movie car chases (The French
Connection, McQ, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, The Seven Ups, Fear is The Key –
in which the car chase that starts off the film, runs some 25 minutes). That is except for Laughing Policeman, which
has one of the lamest chases ever; like it was shot on an early Sunday morning
with no traffic around. I would definitely keep the climatic chase in, but make
it one of wildest, most dangerous, risk taking chases ever, and in heavy traffic.
And of course it would be R rated, like the original film,
but for “Strong bloody violence/gore,
disturbing scenes, language and graphic nudity.” I don’t know how exactly, but I’ve got figure out
how to have some naked people in it. And NO CGI crap.
So what would YOU remake, and what changes or
improvements would you include?
Here’s the trailer
for the film: