CORRIDOR OF MYSTERY
VOL. 7, No. 11
HOW TV BOTCHED TWO
At left, the poster for the 1986 TV version of Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue"'
At right, Jacqueline Bisset in the Farley Granger role in TV's remake of
Hitchcock's "Strangers On A Train."
POE, HIGHSMITH NOT SERVED WELL BY TV
By RON MILLER
Over the last 20 years, television has been the Promised Land for mystery fans who want to see some of their favorite mystery stories dramatized on the screen. Movie studios seldom make mystery feature films anymore, so TVs steady appetite for them is usually cause for celebration.
But every now and then TV decides to adapt a golden mystery classic for the tube--and somehow comes up with something embarrassing, if not plain awful.
Consider these two prime examples of classics that TV really botched bigtime:
* MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1986)
The original 1841 short story was a milestone in the history of the mystery genre because Poe gave readers the first fictional detective--Auguste Dupin--and, so doing, set down many of the rules of the genre that other mystery writers, including Arthur Conan Doyle, would follow for years to come.
Poes Dupin is an eccentric young man from a once illustrious family, reduced to poverty when the story begins. The storys narrator, presumably Poe himself, befriends Dupin during a visit to Paris in the early 19th century. Together they share a time-eaten and grotesque mansion that has been deserted for years because of superstitions into which we did not inquire.
Dupin likes to stay home behind heavy drapes all day, reading and sleeping. At night, he likes to roam the streets of Paris with his new friend, the narrator, who serves the function that Dr. Watson would serve in Doyles Sherlock Holmes stories a few decades later.
When Dupin learns of the savage murders of two women in the Rue Morgue district of Paris, he and his friend visit the crime scene. By analyzing the clues left behind, Dupin eventually concludes these locked room murders were committed by an orangutan that had escaped from the care of its owner, a sailor.
In several earlier feature film versions of the famous story, the writers werent satisfied to just have Dupin cleverly solve the mystery. They insisted on more. In the 1932 "Murders in the Rue Morgue" and the 1954 version called "Phantom of the Rue Morgue," the writers reduced Dupin to a supporting player and made up two new main characters--both of them mad scientists (Bela Lugosi, in 1932, Karl Malden in 1954), who used an ape to commit murders at their command.
But the 1986 CBS TV movie didnt stoop to the mad scientist gimmick. This was to be a classy production, actually filmed on location in France, giving it a rather rich period feeling.
But look what they did to poor Dupin:
When we first meet him in the movie, hes no longer a brilliantly eccentric young Frenchman with daring new theories about crime scene analysis. Instead, hes now a retired, middle-aged French police inspector. Worse yet, hes played by overweight, aging Oscar-winning actor George C. Scott, who seemed about as French as Gen. George Patton on a weekend furlough in Paris.
Scotts Dupin has a beautiful young daughter named Claire (Rebecca DeMornay) who becomes romantically involved with a young man named Philippe, played by Val Kilmer. If you are familiar with DeMornay and Kilmer, you will know that they are seldom mistaken for Parisians. And, by the way, Poe never heard of either character.
Because the Prefect of Police (Ian McShane) believes a young man named Adolphe Le Bon (Neil Dickson) may be the killer, Claire Dupin goads her father into getting involved in the murder investigation in order to clear the innocent Le Bon.
Le Bon is in the original story and the movie Dupin eventually figures out who the real culprit is by pretty much the same route he used in Poes story. But nearly everything else in the movie was whipped up out of whole cloth by screenwriter David Epstein.
Did we really need Dupin to have a sexy young daughter and a clean-cut Yankee-looking beau? Did we need a cast of Americans and Brits, plunked down in a Paris where all the signs on stores are, unaccountably, in English? Did we want an old and fat Dupin whose only eccentricity was his American accent? I think not.
* ONCE YOU MEET A STRANGER (1996)
This is a 1996 CBS TV movie version of Patricia Highsmiths"Strangers On A Train." The best-selling 1949 novel is about up and coming architect Guy Haines, whos trying to divorce his vulgar and promiscuous wife, Miriam, so he can marry Anne, the decent, high-class woman he really loves. On a commuter train, Guys approached by Charles Anthony Bruno, a heavy-drinker with a twisted psyche.
Bruno hates his father and wants him dead, so he chats Guy up and proposes they swap murders. Bruno will kill Miriam if Guy will kill Brunos father. With no apparent motives for either killer, the police will be baffled by the two murders, Bruno explains. Meanwhile, Bruno and Guy will be free to establish unshakeable alibis.
Guy doesnt really take Bruno seriously, but then Bruno actually murders Miriam and shows up, demanding Guy fulfill his end of their bargain.
When Alfred Hitchcock filmed the novel in 1951, he made wholesale changes in Highsmiths story, making Guy a famous tennis player, totally altering the murder plot and inventing an action finale with the two men battling to the death on an out-of-control merry-go-round.
That was nothing compared to what screenwriter Whitfield Cook and director Tommy Lee Wallace did with Highsmiths story in their 1996 TV version, "Once You Meet A Stranger."
Take the case of this major switch: Architect Guy Haines becomes former TV child star Sheila Gaines (Jacqueline Bisset) and Charles Anthony Bruno becomes crazed superfan Margo Anthony (Theresa Russell)! Thats right: Two male characters become female characters. That meant sex changes all through the cast of characters. Margo wants her mother killed instead of a father while Sheila has a husband whos become expendable.
Rather than adapt the novel, it seems Cook adapted the script of the Hitchcock movie instead, trying to find parallels to many famous Hitchcock scenes that were never in the book. A fine example: The merry-go-round finale. Cook and Wallace stayed away from merry-go-rounds, but used a revolving wheel of lights at a disco to jazz up their finale.
A central theme in Highsmiths book--that even a reasonably stable, normal person can commit murder under certain circumstances--was totally lost in this absurd update on her story. It also gave director Wallace the chance to demonstrate hes no Hitchcock.
As for the undercurrents of Brunos homosexual attraction to Guy that were in Highsmiths book, but not so evident in Hitchcocks film, they may or may not be present in "Once You Meet A Stranger." Sure, Theresa Russell does give Jackie Bisset the occasional smoldering look, but that was just acting ala Russell in the 1990s, when she was one of the screens naughtiest leading ladies and even gave the kitchen sink smoldering looks.
Here's some additional bad news for fans of "Strangers On A Train": It's being remade this year as a feature film.
On the whole, TV generally does right by even the most complex mysteries. But before we pat the networks on the back and tell them job well done, it might be prudent to remember these two woeful examples of how to botch a mystery classic.
©2006 by Ron Miller. This column first posted Feb. 27, 2006.
Ron Miller is a former nationally syndicated television columnist and the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series. He currently writes about television mysteries for MYSTERY SCENE magazine.
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