It’s time for a battle of film noir proportions! These film noirs may have been adapted from the same story but which one is better? Read below to see which one we think takes the crown!
The Letter (1940) vs. The Unfaithful (1947)
Released less than seven years apart, these two film noirs were both based on the play The Letter by W. Somerset Maugham, who actually drew inspiration from a true incident. However, while they were adapted from the same work, the latter used the story more as a jumping off point. For starters, The Unfaithful and The Letter have different settings – a plantation versus the city. While Bette Davis is blackmailed with a letter she wrote, Ann Sheridan is blackmailed with a... bust… of her head that she apparently posed for. Bette killed to keep her affair going while Ann killed to stop it. Ultimately, The Unfaithful (boy, does that title give a lot away) was more concerned with drafting a story about the importance of commitment in marriage despite the hard times, while The Letter was all about the consequences of letting forbidden fire burn. For a lighter film noir fare, The Unfaithful (complete with Eve Arden zingers) is the choice, but we can’t help but choose The Letter for its knock-out performance by Davis and its shadowy atmosphere (those moon shots!).
Winner: The Letter
High Sierra (1941) vs. I Died a Thousand Times (1955)
It’s a tough guy face off between Humphrey Bogart and Jack Palance. High Sierra and I Died a Thousand Times are both based on the novel by W. R. Burnett (also known for writing Little Caesar and The Asphalt Jungle). To point out the obvious, the former is black-and-white while the latter is in color, which to be honest, does take away from the noir feel. In terms of story, the films are almost identical. However, the original starts with Bogie’s release and sees his partners in crime get kicked off the job for their bad behavior. When we meet Jack Palance, he’s already on the road, traveling to start his work, and later, when his partners mess up, he gives them a second chance (only for them to meet a fiery demise at their own hands later on). Since the stories are so similar though, the vote ultimately comes down to the actors involved. And who can beat the tough screen presence of Bogie together with the wide eyes of Ida Lupino? Not to mention that “Pard” is played by Bogart’s actual dog!
Winner: High Sierra
I Wake Up Screaming (1941) vs. Vicki (1953)
Similar to High Sierra and I Died a Thousand Times, these two are essentially the same story with very few differences. Vicki, however, is more interested in Richard Boone’s downfall while I Wake Up Screaming leaves the police officer’s true nature in the dark until the final scene. In terms of tone, I Wake Up Screaming feels darker and frames the narrative around the interrogation more. It also (similarly to Laura) highlights the victim’s makeover, from an unknown to a head-turner – something Vicki just skips over rather than shows. Ultimately, it’s Betty Grable who makes the original work better. Her venerable strength gives more dimension than Jeanne Crain’s performance. At least in our opinion.
Winner: I Wake Up Screaming
To Have and Have Not (1944) vs. The Breaking Point (1950)
Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel was adapted by two very adept directors – first, Howard Hawks; then, Michael Curtiz. But these films could not be more different, starting with the leads. Humphrey Bogart plays Harry aka “Steve” as an impenetrable man (except perhaps for Lauren Bacall’s whistles) without a family who, while not living high, is able to get by just fine. Contrast that with John Garfield’s Harry who is a devoted family man that can’t catch a break and always seems to be at the edge of ruin. Therein lies the key difference between the two films. Garfield’s character is driven to take a chance to finally get some air while Bogart joins another man’s fight for freedom (a journey which he doesn’t have any stake in, really). Also, Hawks, as he normally does, places Lauren Bacall front and center with good one liners while Curtiz uses Patricia Neal sparingly. In the end, Garfield’s narrative arc brings more to the table, encapsulated by his repeated motto: “A man alone ain’t got a chance.” We’re going to have to side with Hemingway on this one (who thought this was the most faithful adaption of any of his works) and agree that the 1950 version is better.f
Winner: The Breaking Point