When Crime Films Have Title Troubles

When it comes to crime films, powerful, impactful titles are essential. Think Kiss Me Deadly, Chinatown, Touch of Evil, Criss-Cross. A bland, misleading, or just plain cheesy, movie title can confuse or alienate potential viewers and relegate otherwise solid thrillers to virtual obscurity.

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Imagine how different history might have been had RKO Radio Pictures released a 1949 couple-on-the-run thriller from Nicholas Ray called Your Red Wagon – instead of changing the title to the infinitely superior They Live by Night. Then imagine how Ray’s flashy 1958 Jazz Age thriller Party Girl might have benefitted from a grittier title that made it appear less like an Allied Artists “C” entry toplining Mamie Van Doren.

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Sometimes a thriller with a mediocre title has the misfortune on being based on a best-selling novel. This was certainly the case with The Postman Always Rings Twice (1945), which sounds like a Red Skelton/June Allyson comedy rather than a dark film noir adapted from a James M. Cain novel about an adulterous couple (John Garfield and Lana Turner) plotting the murder of the woman’s husband.

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Another hit novel filmed the same year, Leave Her to Heaven, could also have used a title change. Uninformed viewers can be forgiven for suspecting this Technicolor 20th Century-Fox movie to be a Bette Grable/Don Ameche musical rather than a color noir about a female psychopath (Gene Tierney) going to murderous lengths to control her husband (Cornel Wilde).

Director Robert Montgomery and producer Joan Harrison’s 1947 film noir Ride the Pink Horse (based on a less popular novel) has a title better suited to an Abbott and Costello comedy rather than a thriller about a blackmailer (Montgomery) loose in Mexico. Similarly, Fritz Lang’s third Hollywood film You and Me (1938) sounds like a gooey romance instead of a crime comedy-drama about two ex-convicts (George Raft and Sylvia Sidney) on parole.

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International crime thrillers have also suffered from lackluster titles, sometimes due to loyalty to their literary sources. Upon encountering the 1948 British release No Orchids for Miss Blandish one expects a comedy of manners starring Alistair Sim and Joan Greenwood, not a tough, seedy gangster potboiler. (Robert Aldrich must have had the same concerns since he retitled his 1971 remake The Grissom Gang.)

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seance-on-a-wet-afternoon-movie-poster-1964-1020237519Although I had been aware of Bryan Forbes’s acclaimed 1964 British film Séance on a Wet Afternoon for ages, it was not until a belated recent viewing that I realized it was a taut psychological thriller about married kidnappers (Richard Attenborough and Kim Stanley). Unfortunately, the title – again retained from the source novel – evokes images of people discussing reincarnation and the meaning of love over tea and scones.
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Sometimes the literary sources have better titles than their film adaptations. In 1969, François Truffaut suffered a rare box-office failure with Mississippi Mermaid starring the otherwise bankable Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Can one blame the public? Who in their right mind would pay to see something called Mississippi Mermaid, a title that in no way suggests a Hitchcockian thriller about a couple on the run? Would the film have fared better had Truffaut retained the original title of pulp author Cornell Woolrich/William Irish’s Waltz Into Darkness?

go-for-sisters-poster02John Sayles’s 2013 independent film Go for Sisters is a recent example of a poor title camouflaging a high-quality crime drama deserving wider viewing. The title is based solely on a fleeting line of dialogue from co-star Yolanda Ross: “We always say we could go for sisters.” This is not exactly the most compelling title for a soulful thriller about a drug addict (Ross) accompanying her parole officer (LisaGay Hamilton) to Mexico in search of a murder suspect.

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