The Best American Remakes You've Probably Never Seen

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(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition, we take a look at some of the best American remakes you've probably never seen.)

Remakes are typically derided from the moment they're announced, and I'd be lying if I suggested the response wasn't well-earned by decades of lazy reboots churned out of the Hollywood machine. The odds of a remake being fairly worthless seems to double when the original is a foreign film for some reason, but that hasn't stopped several American films from managing the unexpected and actually matching the original. From The Ring to Let Me In, from Scent of a Woman to The Birdcage, from Sorcerer to Twelve Monkeys, there are good to great remakes out there.

Of course, I just named most of the great ones right there. Lucky for you, as is my goal with this column, I'm here to point to a handful of great American remakes that, for various reasons, aren't nearly as well known as the likes of The Departed or True Lies. As a point of clarity, I'm calling these remakes as each of them hit the screen in previous foreign-language films, but some of them are also based on initial source novels. Details shmetails. Onward!

scarlet street

Scarlet Street (1945)

Chris Cross makes a street thug jump when he sees the man beating a young woman, but his heroic moment takes a turn when he falls for Kitty's considerable charms. He's married but enamored with the younger girl's attention, and soon the pair find themselves in a relationship. What Chris doesn't know is that Kitty and her assailant – her boyfriend Johnny – are playing him for the fool and plan on making him pay up soon.

Noir fans will be well familiar with this Fritz Lang feature as it's considered by many to among the genre's first. The story pits a mild-mannered man (Edward G. Robinson) in a loveless marriage whose spoken curiosity as to what affection from a younger woman would feel like comes true with tragic consequences. Kitty convinces Chris to rent her an apartment where she'll live and he'll paint free of his wife's criticism, and this initial subterfuge leads to an exploration of not-so innocent interests butting up against blackmail, theft, and murder. Robinson is better known for tough guy roles, but here he brings life to someone far more fragile but every bit as dangerous.

A remake of Jean Renoir's La Chienne (1931, France), which in turn is based on a French novel, this is a terrifically dark tale that finds a good man pressed into a corner. He doesn't remain a victim for long, though, and each new turn brings moral challenges for all involved – challenges they almost exclusively fail to meet. The core here is a man's descent fueled by poor decisions and misplaced love, but the various story beats are every bit as engaging, including a couple late twists that seal everyone's fates.

Buy Scarlet Street on Blu-ray from Amazon or watch via Amazon Prime.


Misunderstood (1984)

Andrew and Miles are young boys living in Tunisia with their businessman father, but the adventure of global living is muted by loss. The boys' mother has passed, and while the brothers struggle with grief and turn to their father for support, they find only his absence in return. He keeps busy with work, channeling his own loss into his massive business, while the boys are forced to grow up far too fast.

Previously filmed as Misunderstood (1966, Italy) and adapted from an 1869 novel, this is a bleak tale about the disconnect between a father and his sons. The distance is nothing new, but it's heightened by death and absence of their mother and his wife. She was the warmth that bonded them together as family, and without it all three are lost. The film follows the boys as they go about their days with the older of the two taking the weight of understanding far better than his brother that they've essentially lost both parents.

It's undoubtedly a sad story on the page, and the three lead performances drive the sorrow and heartbreak home with additional power. Gene Hackman has played cold men before, but he's rarely done so opposite children, and the effect is even more devastating for it. His focus on work and away from emotional expressions hurts to watch, especially when reflected on the faces of the two boys. Henry Thomas plays the older Andrew while Huckleberry Fox is the sweetly unaware Miles, and both do work guaranteed to wreck viewers with hearts...and that's before the film finds more heartache on its way toward the ending.

Misunderstood is not currently available.quick change

Quick Change (1990)

A clown walks into a bank and robs it. The plan goes off without a hitch, and soon the thief with a painted face and his two partners in crime are on their way to Fiji. Well, they would be if they could get to the damn airport.

Jay Cronley's book was previously adapted as Hold-Up (1985, France), and its second stab at the big screen remains Bill Murray's sole directorial effort. I have a soft spot for darkly comedic takes on people facing off against the universe, with Martin Scorsese's After Hours being the cream of that particular crop (and my favorite Scorsese). Murray's film fits that mold beautifully. The trio's efforts to get from point A to B are blocked at every turn by traffic, bad luck, other criminals, and worse – it's a near-endless parade of frustration and comic irritation for them.

Murray's in top form as the clown leader of this motley trio, and he's able to deliver a character who maintains the expected sarcasm and sass while also showing a warmth in his affection for his cohorts. Of course who wouldn't love Geena Davis in full-on capable but still slightly wacky mode? Their romance adds a sweetness to the tale and works as a balance for the mayhem that Randy Quaid brings to the fold. He's unsurprisingly playing something of a minor dunce, and while his character's competent enough to aid in a robbery he becomes a flustered ball of pure panic as their plan turns to shit right before their eyes. It's a fun movie all around, and the real crime here is its continued unavailability on Blu-ray.

Quick Change is not currently available.down

Down (2001)

A high-rise building in New York City becomes home to a strange nightmare when one of its express elevators goes on the fritz. And by fritz I, of course, mean it begins killing people. As the body count rises, only two people, a journalist and an elevator repairman, seem to see the real threat, but will they be able to stop the killings or become the next victims?

That's right. It's a killer elevator movie. And it's great! Dutch filmmaker Dick Maas re-makes his own homegrown hit, The Lift (1983, Holland), and delivers a movie that feels at times like a forgotten Larry Cohen gem in its straight take on a ridiculous premise. The original is good and features many of the same beats, but Maas' bigger-budgeted Hollywood debut ups the ante in every way. The kills are better, bloodier, and more frequent, the effects are given more room to breathe, and he commits to two great gags that we don't see enough of in horror movies. Dogs do die a lot in horror, but it's played here so perfectly in a scene involving a blind man and an elevator-free elevator shaft that it's hard not to applaud. Second, Maas has no compunction about killing off a kid or two. No further explanation needed.

The remake also outshines the original for American audiences when it comes to the cast. Twin Peaks' James Marshall and Naomi Watts headline, and both seem to be having fun as they face off against an unnatural evil. Bigger joy, though, comes from the supporting cast of bad-asses including Ron Perlman, Dan Hedaya, and Michael Ironside.

Buy Down on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon.

the pledge

The Pledge (2001)

Det. Jerry Black is on the eve of retirement when news comes that the body of a murdered child has been found. While passing the news on to the grieving parents, he makes the rookie mistake of promising to catch the child's killer and that decision will haunt him going forward.

Sean Penn's third feature as director – he once again doesn't star here at all – is not only my favorite of his, but also one of my favorite films period. It's a dark tale that works as a procedural, a serial killer film, and a story about the high costs of obsession. The film is a remake of It Happened In Broad Daylight (1958, Germany) and shares its exploration of how far someone would go to not only stop a criminal but also to honor their own word. The answer in this case is very far indeed and to a devastating conclusion.Jack Nicholson's performance is equally among the very best of his career despite it not being mentioned much, and he takes his character from likable and competent beyond the rim of sanity. Black's journey sees him find companionship and perhaps a break from the darkness, but we quickly realize he's using that relationship in pursuit of his previous vow, and it's a horrendous realization that Nicholson sells with conviction and sadness. He believes he's doing right and is oblivious to his world burning around him, and as the film reaches its final minutes we're left with a punch to the gut that lands with tremendous weight.

Buy The Pledge on DVD from Amazon.

ripleys game

Ripley's Game (2002)

Tom Ripley is living a life built on lies, and when those lies catch up to him, he's forced to think fast on his feet. Bodies hit the ground, but as long as he isn't among them he can count this game as a win.

Patricia Highsmith's novels have seen numerous adaptations with this one previously hitting screens as The American Friend (1977, Germany). The better known Ripley film, The Talented Mr. Ripley, was also previously made into a foreign language film with René Clément's Purple Noon – which is the better known of the foreign adaptations. It's unclear why this tale hasn't received similar love, but all the pieces are here for fans of twisted and devious killers. Some might argue it lacks the sex appeal of Talented, but I'd say John Malkovich embodies Ripley every bit as well as Matt Damon.

This film is the more straightforward of the two, but it still finds plenty of suspense along the way as Ripley plays friends and foes alike at this stop in his lie-filled life. The film moves from Berlin to rural Italy and back again as Ripley manipulates those around him – or when that fails, simply kills them – and he personifies the sociopath with exquisite detail. He's no anti-hero and is just a very bad man, but viewers can't help but sympathize the smallest bit at the end of the film as Malkovich's performance reveals the pained humanity within unable to get out.

Buy Ripley's Game on DVD from Amazon or rent via Amazon Video.