I really enjoyed the French comedy The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe when I saw it two years ago, and thought would never have to bother with the American remake starring Tom Hanks. But news came yesterday yesterday that actor Charles Durning had died. Although I have already seen literally dozens of his films, I wanted to remember him by watching one of his films that I hadn’t seen yet. And this is one of the many, many films Durning appeared in.
This remake follows the original story very closely. Some scenes are almost shot-for-shot copies. As in the French film, an innocent man is tapped as a red herring as part of games between two fighting factions of the intelligence agency. Durning plays the corrupt head of the C.I.A., who schemes to defend his position from an even more corrupt agent played by Dabney Coleman. I think there was a law in the early ’80s that a film couldn’t be made in America without offering a role to Dabney Coleman. What is so enjoyable about the French film is how oblivious the man with mismatched shoes is, not only to his footwear, but to the fact that secret agents have combed over every inch of his apartment. Pierre Richard does a wonderful job of of playing the daydreaming, hopelessly romantic concert violinist. Tom Hanks, whose career was just really starting to take off at the time, didn’t have the same quality and just comes across as a bit dim-witted. But even at that stage Hanks was obviously a hard working actor, and convincingly pantomimes playing the violin as clearly does some of the stunts in the big bike versus car race at the climax. The depiction of spies is cartoonish, probably intentionally so. But overall the film lacks the silliness that made the original so entertaining. Lori Singer plays the love interest, the spy who falls for the man she is spying on. Although she conforms to the 80s concept of beauty, her performance as a cool headed spy looks more like sleepwalking.
Not surprisingly, the best scenes in the film are between Charles Durning and his underling played by Edward Herrmann. They don raincoats and umbrellas to talk under the lawn sprinklers, the only place where the bugs do not pick up their conversation. Herrmann’s character is the moral voice, feeling guilt over the fact that the person he chose at random from the passengers at the airport might be killed. No one else at the C.I.A. seems to mind.