• Heaven Can Wait • Omen II • Eyes of Laura Mars
• When a remake of Heaven Can Wait was announced some months ago, I shuddered, thinking, "Who can possibly match the marvelous comic film of that name done by Ernst Lubitsch in the '40s?" But it turned out that this was not to be a remake of Heaven Can Wait, but of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, an even more inimitable comedy of the '40s—a fact whose discovery merited two shudders.
The 1978 HEAVEN CAN WAIT is one of those films you can enjoy much more if you haven't seen the infinitely superior film it imitates, which starred Robert Montgomery, Claude Rains, James Gleason, and best of all had at the helm the directorial genius of Alexander Hall. The present version is smooth, deft, adequately scripted, and with genuine comic touches; Warren Beatty (star, producer, codirector, and cowriter), Julie Christie, Jack Warden, and James Mason all do creditable jobs. But the style, the flair, the élan, the aplomb, the low-keyed philosophically enigmatic quality of the original have all largely vanished in the retelling.
There is one moving scene in the remake, in which the dead athlete (Beatty)—in a new body, owing to a divine error in taking him at the wrong time—tries to convince the trainer (Warden) that he really is the same Joe Pendleton who died in the accident some weeks before. He ultimately convinces him by misplaying the same notes on the saxophone, just as in the original film. This is the only scene that even approaches the effect of the original; all the rest are crude and flat by comparison—and this in spite of the fact that the present remake is one of the year's best films. What this illustrates is not that the present film is a poor one—far from it—but that the original was one of the greatest comic-dramatic achievements in the history of cinema. If you don't believe it, write or phone your local theater or television station and ask them to show Here Comes Mr. Jordan again, uncut, and you can then make the comparison for yourself.
One unpleasant addition in the present film is the Beatty politics: all industrialists are bad, and the problems they create by exploiting other people can be corrected by indiscriminate humanitarianism that would alienate the stockholders and ultimately bankrupt the company. But this theme is not intrusive and is a relatively minor flaw in a film that is flawed principally by comparison with its illustrious predecessor. But then, it's difficult to top perfection.
• The devil-child Damien is up to the same deviltry (literally) in OMEN II as he was in its predecessor, The Omen. But by now his exploits have become predictable, and he's unwilling or unable to change his style.
Several mistakes are made in Omen II that were not made in its predecessor. Most important, in the first film the situation develops as seen through the eyes of the major characters (Gregory Peck and Lee Remick), and it is because we care about what happens to them that the film engages us. In the sequel, the character portrayed by William Holden as the child's uncle is so uninvolving—and such an unsuspecting idiot beside—that it is hard to care what happens to him.
Second, the child is no longer Evil Incarnate: part of the time, he is only an unknowing vessel through whom malevolent forces move. Though he was actively engaged in deviltry in Omen I, he is apparently unaware of his malevolent powers till halfway through Omen II—a curious lapse in continuity. As a passive instrument of evil he even elicits a certain sympathy, which has to be cancelled out again in the audience's mind in the second half when he takes on an active role in causing successful catastrophes, always with the same smug grin.
Anyway, the kind of thing he does is now familiar and no longer surprising. A viewer may be interested in how it happens, but that it's going to happen is a foregone conclusion: for example, that every character who suspects the truth will soon turn up dead. (Not only that, but to belabor the obvious there is also a Symbol—and the dogs in Omen I were far more sinister as symbols of evil-to-come than the tired black bird in Omen II.) In fact, some of the devices are closely parallel: whereas the man who made the decisive difference in convincing the main character of the truth in I got himself decapitated, his analogue in II is crushed between two moving boxcars in a railroad terminal (where for some strange reason he chose to walk). The deaths are equally grisly, but they have a very unequal impact on an already inured audience.
That sequels seldom come up to their predecessors is so familiar as to be a cliché. But clichés would not become clichés unless they contained a large germ of truth. In this case, the cliché applies with a vengeance. A little more imagination in the harum-scarum department, even in the hokum sector, would have helped to keep this film from being the bore that it is.
But Damien still lives at the end of II, so it seems that we are to look forward to Omen III. Evil is still abroad in the land, it seems. So what else is news?
• E.S.P. is definitely in; it seems that every third film one sees these days features clairvoyance, telekinesis, precognition, or some other form of psychic phenomenon. Fortunately, the form it takes varies from film to film so that the diet does not become wholly monotonous.
What is monotonous, however, is that in every current film of this kind the persons who claim extra-sensory powers are always right, and those who oppose them are blind or mistaken but don't realize their error until too late. So it is once more in EYES OF LAURA MARS, which stars some of the most capable people in the business (Faye Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Dourif), who are much better in this film than the material they have to work on.
The material begins promisingly: she "sees" a series of murders before they are committed, but (1) only immediately before, so there's no time to stop them (which is unfortunate for prevention), and (2) as seen through the killer's eyes, so that she never gets to see the killer himself (which is unfortunate for detection). Granting these premises, the film has some interesting moments, but collapses long before the end. Aristotle said of plots that the end-result should be both surprising (at the time) and inevitable (when viewed in retrospect). Many films and stories fail on one of these counts, but few fail on both; this film, however, manages to do just that. The identity of the killer is not surprising, since the intelligent viewer can figure it out in advance by a process of elimination. Yet even so it does not seem inevitable, since the details that are supposed to make it plausible (but don't) are revealed only in the last couple of minutes, and are of such a nature that if true they make a mishmash of much that has gone before. The plot ends in a deus ex machina, the most unsatisfying of endings. If you feel cheated at the ticket window, you'll feel cheated a second time when the film ends.