'To Be' remake recalls the brilliance of the original

Why are so many filmmakers remaking the classics instead of trying out their own ideas? Maybe today's new directors have spent so much time in movie theaters and film schools that they can't think of anything else. In any case, all the recent rehashes have fallen on their faces, from ''Breathless'' to ''The Thing.'' Yet the trend continues.

These gloomy thoughts were in my mind when I sat down for the new version of To Be or Not to Be, based on Ernst Lubitsch's magnificent 1942 comedy. Why recycle a movie that still holds up terrifically on its own? Especially with the masterly Lubitsch replaced by a first-time director. And especiallym with star Jack Benny - that subtlest of all comedians - replaced by Mel Brooks, whose idea of subtlety is to hook the viewer by one buttonhole instead of two while he yelps raucous jokes into your face.

I was surprised and cheered, though, as the new ''To Be'' unspooled. Original , it's not. But it has wit, energy, and color. The secret is that filmmaker Alan Johnson has stuck to his source, copying Lubitsch so closely that much of the old brilliance is reborn. The new elements, including musical numbers, are lively enough to fit right in.

For those who have never discovered the first ''To Be,'' even at revival houses or on television, it's the story of a Polish theater troupe struggling to survive World War II. Yes, that sounds a little like ''The Dresser'' - another of this season's offerings - but ''To Be'' is the opposite of overbearing. Its heroes are a sly and funny lot who outwit all Hitler's minions through a happy mixture of horseplay and chutzpah. Plus a little romance, courtesy of a character created by Carole Lombard and now smoothly essayed by Anne Bancroft.

It's a razor-sharp story, festooned with jewels of screen comedy: an ersatz Hitler whose greeting is ''Heil myself''; a hapless aide blamed for every blunder in Nazidom; the very idea of Jack Benny (or Mel Brooks) playing Hamlet. Although the new version doesn't match the superb comic acting of its predecessor, it keeps the energy level high with its song-and-dance routines. And the irrepressible Brooks stays relatively under control. The only major miscalculation is a homosexual character under Nazi persecution. He's meant as a symbol of vulnerability, but he's played as a swishy stereotype, insultingly exaggerated.

Since the new ''To Be'' is generally enjoyable, I'm sorry to snipe again at its retread status. The trouble is, though, a second-generation version of this story simply can't recapture the historical bite of the original, which was made under the shadow of the very real Nazi threat - and, with its darkly humorous approach, met savage criticism when it opened. The new edition is on safer ground, shooting at a target that's already shrouded in history.

Yet the menace of war and oppression persists in our world. Where is a Lubitsch-like filmmaker for today, daring to take a cosmically comic poke at the latest destructive forces? Who will give us a new vision as pointed and immediate as ''To Be'' was 40 years ago, when horror joined humor in a Nazi's taunt at the hero's acting talent: ''What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland!''

Audiences were right to be shocked at that sentence in 1942 - but it was the kind of shock that brings awareness. We could use more of the same today, aimed at contemporary targets. Bunuel's Bronte

It sounds too good to be true: Luis Bunuel, the grand old anarchist of film, getting his hooks on Wuthering Heights, the Emily Bronte classic that one critic described as ''probably the most purely passionate novel in English.'' What would Bunuel, that incorrigible surrealist, make of the explosive emotions and manic melodrama that sweep through this turbulent story?

Tantalizing as the notion is, Bunuel's 1954 version of ''Wuthering Heights'' has never been shown in theaters in the United States. This odd situation is now being corrected by the Public Theater in Manhattan, which will give the movie's American premiere on Dec. 27, continuing its recent string of Bunuel rediscoveries. Three cheers are in order. It's about time this marvelously bizarre work (called ''Abismos de Pasion'' in Spanish) found its way to the American circuit.

''Wuthering Heights'' is one of 20 films Bunuel shot in Mexico between 1946 and 1964, during a prolific but partly obscure period of his career. In his autobiography, ''My Last Sigh,'' he describes the picture as ''problematical at best,'' noting that the actors had been hired for another film - a musical! - and weren't always up to par. Still, ''like all the surrealists'' he was ''deeply moved'' by the Bronte novel, and its inspiration seems to have kept his interest and energy flowing.

The picture opens on a feral note, with casual conversation about hunting and killing, and closes with a morbid flourish in a burial vault. In between comes the grand romance of Alejandro (the Heathcliff of Mexico) and the women whose passions tangle with his. Everything is heightened and broadened by a Bunuel, who can't decide whether he is moved to tears, irony, rage, or sheer hilarity by the spectacle of such typical human idiocy.

The movie conveys the infernal tone of Bronte's book more pungently than the soggy Laurence Olivier version of 1939 did. But it conveys Bunuel's outrageous style even better, from its delirious dialogue to its florid images, right down to the impish lightning that punctuates some of the most extravagant scenes. It's too plotty and, in ways, too conventional to be termed a Bunuel masterpiece on the order of, say, ''Viridiana'' or ''The Exterminating Angel.'' It also has a streak of cruelty that goes beyond Bunuel's habitual mischievousness, and made me uncomfortable at moments. Yet it's a striking piece of cinema, on its own hallucinatory terms, and deserves to be seen far more widely than it has been until now.

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