Are Old Movies Better?

Justin Chang, film critic at the LA Times, remarks that Trump has mentioned “Gone With the Wind” as a racist dog whistle. The usual suspects took up this cry, like The Daily Beast, “Donald Trump Has the Absolute Worst Taste in Movies”. Does he?

Trump’s top 5 favorites in 2012 included GWTW, of which he said “It’s a classic. It has stood the test of time. For me, it’s a love story combined with a time in our country’s history that was pivotal in our evolution. The scope of the storytelling is tremendous.” His others were “Citizen Kane”, “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”, “GoodFellas” and “The Godfather”.

Are older movies generally better than new movies, as Trump suggested? Several years ago, I looked at how the IMDb user ranking scores of old film noirs compared to their scores for neo-noir remakes. The evidence is one-sided. Users rank the (old) originals higher than the (new) remakes. This foray into movie research is by no means complete or even unambiguous. At the time, I included the following remarks:

“Noir remakes compared to the original, comparison of IMDb scores. Original in column 1, remake in column 2 and column 3 if there are several remakes. This list is not exhaustive. There are many ‘Postman’ and ‘Double Indemnity’ type movies excluded. There are western versions excluded. There are those I’m not bothering to check up on that are listed in an IMDb noir remake list as remakes. The total remake list is here. I quit before reaching the end.

“The evidence is overwhelming! Movie voters rate the originals higher than the remakes, hands down. This may be a general phenomenon that’s not peculiar to noirs.

“A fair number of remakes are neo-noirs, and these provide evidence that movie fans regard noirs more highly than they do neo-noirs. The average scores of the originals are high by IMDb standards, another indication. It may be that movie-makers choose to remake films that fans have liked in the past. This would help explain the results. Even if this is so, I doubt that this explains the entire drop in scores. I think the scores still reflect that the original movies are better and viewers applaud them more highly by rating them higher.”

The evidence follows:

7.4 5.6 Detour
8.1 5.9 Out of the Past; Against All Odds
7.7 6.6 Narrow Margin
7.8 7.3 Cape Fear
7.5 5.9 Kiss of Death
8.0 5.8 Night and the City
6.4 5.6 Arch of Triumph
7.5 5.7 The Bad Seed
8.5 4.6 Psycho
8.0 5.9 The Big Sleep
7.4 6.5 The Window; The Boy Cried Murder
8.0 7.5 6.3 To Have and Have Not; The Breaking Point; The Gun Runners
7.4 5.8 Brighton Rock
7.9 5.5 5.4 The Asphalt Jungle; Cairo; Cool Breeze
7.8 4.4 6.2 Pickup on South Street; The Cape Town Affair; The Cat Burglar
7.4 6.1 Cat People
7.4 6.2 D.O.A.; Color Me Dead
7.6 6.2 Criss Cross; The Underneath
7.6 5.4 The Desperate Hours; Desperate Hours
8.1 5.3 Diabolique
6.9 5.9 The Brothers Rico; The Family Rico
8.3 4.7 Double Indemnity
7.8 6.6 Bob le Flambeur; The Good Thief
7.4 6.6 Ride the Pink Horse; The Hanged Man
7.6 6.4 High Sierra; I Died a Thousand Times
6.1 5.9 I, the Jury
7.5 6.6 No Man of Her Own; I Married a Shadow
7.8 7.1 The Killers
6.8 5.7 A Kiss before Dying
7.8 6.2 Odd Man Out; The Lost Man
8.0 7.7 Mildred Pierce
8.0 3.8 Night of the Hunter
7.7 7.1 The Big Clock; No Way Out
8.0 6.7 5.6 Strangers on a Train; The Designated Victim; Guilty as Sin
7.2 6.4 Inferno; Ordeal
7.2 6.0 Mississippi Mermaid; Original Sin
7.6 6.6 The Postman Always Rings Twice
7.5 6.1 5.9 This Gun for Hire; This Gun for Hire; Short Cut to Hell
8.2 7.8 The Wages of Fear; Sorcerer
7.1 6.5 The Reckless Moment; The Deep End

The chance of drawing a sample of 40 originals and remakes and finding that in every case users rated the original more highly than the remake is close to zero, under the hypothesis that newer movies are at least as good as the original older versions.

IMDb users have “spoken”. They judge older noirs to be better than their neo-noir remakes. That’s what the user scores are telling us, and they are derived from large numbers of votes, data not included above. “The Reckless Moment”, for example still is rated 7.1 on 3,869 votes. Its remake “The Deep End” is rated 6.5 on 10,728 votes. The voters differ, but there is no reason to think that one group is biased compared to the other group; and these scores are derived from very large samples of user-voters.

So, who is right about older movies being better? Trump or critics Chang and “The Daily Beast”? Critics or movie-goers who vote on these movies and who employ multiple criteria in assigning their scores? The rating of “Gone with the Wind” is 8.1 on 273,499 votes.

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8:57 am on February 22, 2020