Last week I began exploring one of the more infuriating aspects of the home cinematic experience: when you’re looking forward to watching a particular movie, only to find out that what’s on TV or what you’ve purchased is another, totally different film with the same name. It’s a little-known fact that titles–be they for films, songs, books or what have you–cannot be copyrighted, although the Motion Picture Association of America has a registration bureau so its members can avoid stepping on each other’s ideas. So while you probably cannot go out and shoot a movie about space marines who infiltrate a pastoral world of tailed, blue-skinned aliens, it’s perfectly legal to make, say, a comedy about reincarnation and call it Avatar (please bear in mind that I’m not an attorney and James Cameron is very rich and can afford high-priced legal teams).
Okay, enough with the litigation worries. In the first part in this twin-title chronicle I covered the letters A through M, so let’s continue with the second half of the alphabet:
No Way Out – In 1950, Sidney Poitier made a memorable film debut as a hospital intern who is blamed by a bigoted Richard Widmark, one of two wounded bank robber brothers brought in by police, after his sibling dies during treatment. This was the powerful social drama No Way Out, and is in no way related to the 1987 D.C. conspiracy thriller No Way Out, which featured Kevin Costner, Sean Young, and a rather memorable limousine ride.
Paradise – Heaven help you if you cannot tell the difference between 1982’s Paradise, a Blue Lagoon rip-off set in a Middle East desert oasis and boasting the tanned and buff bodies of Willie Aames and Phoebe Cates, and the emotion-laden 1991 drama Paradise, featuring then-married Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson as–of all things–a couple whose marriage is tested when their son dies and they care for another family’s child.
The Raven – Both of these vintage chillers borrowed the name, but little else, from the classic Edgar Allan Poe poem, but each also had the services of Boris Karloff. In Universal’s 1935 shocker The Raven, Karloff plays a crook who becomes the disfigured henchman of Poe-obsessed surgeon Bela Lugosi. Years later, Boris couldn’t say “nevermore” when director Roger Corman cast him opposite Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and a young Jack Nicholson in his own The Raven, a 1963 horror/comedy of dueling wizards.
Red Heat – Along with Rubik’s Cube, MTV and legwarmers as a fashion statement, the 1980s also gave us two Cold War-style action flicks with the name Red Heat. The first came in 1985, with Linda Blair playing an American woman who visits her soldier boyfriend in Germany, only to be kidnapped and wind up in an East German prison where she gets into a Commie catfight with fellow inmate Sylvia Kristel. The makers of the 1988 buddy cop movie Red Heat found a star with even larger pecs–Arnold Schwarzenegger–to play the Soviet officer sent to Chicago and forced to team up with local cop Jim Belushi to track down a Russian criminal.
The Ring – While the word “ring” was used in its pugilistic sense in 1928’s The Ring, an early silent film from Alfred Hitchcock, and the bold 1952 sports drama The Ring, starring Gerald Mohr as a Mexican-American boxer, the fight in the 2002 horror film The Ring, based on the Japanese chiller Ringu, was to stay alive after watching a cursed videotape.
The River – Discounting the 1938 short about the effects of farming on the Mississippi River region, there are two cinematic rivers that take rather divergent courses. French filmmaker Jean Renoir’s lyrical 1952 tale The River follows three teenage girls coming of age in colonial India, while farming couple Sissy Spacek and Mel Gibson battle floods and the government to save their land in the 1984 drama The River.
The Rookie – The title character in 1990’s The Rookie was Charlie Sheen, a neophyte policeman who teams with grizzled veteran cop Clint Eastwood to go after a car theft ring. Dennis Quaid was The Rookie, a 39-year-old high school teacher who finally gets his chance to pitch in the majors, in 2002’s true-story baseball drama. As for the unfunny 1959 service comedy The Rookie, starring the would-be Martin & Lewis-type combo of Peter Marshall and Tommy Noonan, it’s never been out on home video, so the less said the better.
Sahara – The North African sands were the setting for action, as U.S. Army tank commander Humphrey Bogart leads a band of Allied soldiers against superior German forces, in the 1943 war drama Sahara. The adventure was a little more light-hearted in 2005’s Sahara, which had explorer pals Matthew McConaughey and Steven Zahn teaming with U.N. doctor Penelope Cruz as they searched for a Civil War battleship stranded in the desert (don’t ask). And all pretense of reality went out the window when 1920s race car driver Brooke Shields (!) took part in a trans-African rally and was kidnapped by desert warriors in the 1985 turkey Sahara, which still awaits its DVD release.
Spitfire – One of the most famous examples of studio miscasting was when a young Katharine Hepburn played a feisty hillbilly faith healer whose backwoods brethren accuse of practicing witchcraft in the 1934 box-office disappointment Spitfire. That name would come to refer to the single-seat British fighter plane developed by R.J. Mitchell, and Leslie Howard would play Mitchell in the 1942 WWII morale booster Spitfire, which Howard also directed. Ironically, it would be the actor’s final film, as the plane he was riding on while taking part in Allied war efforts was shot down by the Germans over the Bay of Biscay in June of 1943.
Spellbound – Hitchcock fans who managed to get the right copy of Notorious, take note. Alfred’s 1945 suspenser Spellbound, with psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman and amnesiac Gregory Peck, has romance, danger, and a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali, but very little spelling. On the other hand, spelling takes center stage in 2002’s Spellbound, a documentary look at eight contestants taking part in the annual National Spelling Bee. I’m not sure if the latter film’s director makes a cameo.
Toy Soldiers – What do you get when you mix well-to-do U.S. teenagers with Latin American revolutionaries and terrorists? Well, in 1984 you got Toy Soldiers, in which some vacationing students have a jungle encounter with armed guerrillas who take them hostage, and in which one girl escapes and assembles her own rescue squad. Fast forward a few years, and it’s the south-of-the-border baddies who come north and take over a New England prep school to demand the release of a jailed drug kingpin, as the youngsters plot to free themselves Rambo-meets-Home Alone-style, in 1991’s Toy Soldiers. Oh, and the one film from this time that really was about toy soldiers? It got labeled Small Soldiers. Go figure.
Twilight – Okay, obviously everyone–or at least everyone under the age of 30 or so–will see this title and think only of Twilight, the 2008 supernatural soaper of high school angst and vampire love starring Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. Another heartthrob of years past, Paul Newman, had his own film called Twilight, a moody 1988 suspenser in which ex-private eye Paul comes out of retirement to help friends Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon in a blackmail case that leads to murder.
Ulysses – School students looking for a way to breeze through their book report on Homer’s Odyssey will be disappointed to learn that the 1955 adventure saga Ulysses, starring Kirk Douglas as the wandering hero, takes some liberties with the original text. Those same youngsters will be even more disappointed–and a little embarrassed–if they get their folks to buy them the 1967 film Ulysses, which is in fact an adaptation of James Joyce’s controversial depiciton of a day in the life of Jewish Dubliner Leopold Bloom.
Up – In closing, allow me to leave you with the best way to differentiate the 1976 Russ Meyer softcore romp Up!, starring Kitten Natividad and Candy Samples, from Up, Disney-Pixar’s 2009 Academy Award-winning animated feature with the voice of Ed Asner. One is a story of a cantankerous man’s indefatigable obsession with bunches of over-inflated balloons…and the other is Disney-Pixar’s 2009 Academy Award-winning animated feature. Please, PLEASE don’t get them mixed up on family movie night!