There has to be no easier movie pitch than unveiling a “versus” in the title. Everyone, even studio heads, has at one time or another dwelt on the existential question of “who would win in a fight?” The conflict is clear, the characters are established, the action implied — all they have to do is sign on the bottom line. Sci-fi has especially benefited from the built-in allure of this most savage of titling decisions — from the endless “Godzilla” fight cards to the recent “Alien vs. Predator” franchise, mano y mano monster throwdowns have made a mint at the box office, especially when established geek properties square off. Often a sign that a character has run his or her course into camp (“Freddy vs. Jason” or “Dracula vs. Frankenstein”), the more resourceful of these films exceed their built-in limitations. DreamWorks is trying to milk that “versus” mojo for their animated 3D spectacle “Monsters vs. Aliens,” now in theater. The filmmakers can only hope it has a shelf life as long as most of the films listed below, a broad cross-section of showdowns both physical and emotional.
“Wife vs. Secretary” (1936)
Directed by Clarence Brown
In pre-code Hollywood, Jean Harlow’s secretary might have bedded Clark Gable’s dashing ad exec. But after the enforcement of the code started in 1934, Myrna Loy’s wife was destined to retain his many valuable services. More of a softball than screwball comedy, this breezily entertaining love triangle still maintains some charm. Most of it comes from its players acting against type, with the normally stoic Gable in happy-go-lucky mode and Harlow eschewing glamour for his-girl-Friday pluck. Only Loy maintains her usual screen persona as a cold aristocrat. The conflict is not a result of a full-on catfight for Gable’s favors, but rather one of slowly escalating jealousies that result in a cascade of misunderstandings.
Harlow never unloads her seductive charms, but her pert presence in the office gets the gossips squawking. After the co-workers close a business deal in a cozy Havana hotel, Astor believes the lies and sues for divorce. It is only then that Harlow senses her opportunity, eagerly tossing over her earnest traditionalist boyfriend (a young Jimmy Stewart) for the chance at the more progressive (and richer) Gable. Marriage prevails in a cleverly staged finale, however, when director Clarence Brown utilizes the off-screen sound of approaching high-heel footsteps as the overture to reunion. Harlow shrugs her way back into Stewart’s car, a disheartening future clouding her downcast eyes.
“Freddy vs. Jason” (2003)
Directed by Ronny Yu
Having long since been reduced by their respective franchises into comical parodies of their formerly frightening selves — a devolution that began sometime around 1985 — Freddy and Jason sparred off in “Freddy vs. Jason” with little reputation left to lose. And true to form, this face-off didn’t further sully their already tarnished legacies. In the final tally, it’s Freddy who emerges triumphant, despite the fact that the story’s climactic showdown ends with Jason decapitating his knife-gloved adversary. Though both indestructible — and thus incapable of definitively defeating the other — Freddy’s jokey, one-liner-spouting personality was far better suited for this lame-brained story, which eschews any serious attempts at generating tension in favor of tongue-in-cheek terror and cheesy gore. There’s no doubt that the “Friday the 13th” series was epitomized by corny inanity, but “Freddy vs. Jason” is goofy supernatural nonsense of a distinctly Elm St. strain (made, unsurprisingly, by that series’ studio, New Line), and thus offers up a battle inherently skewed in the charred child murderer’s favor.
“Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979)
Directed by Robert Benton
Winner: Ted Kramer
Blessed with the autumnal glow of Néstor Almendros’ cinematography, the otherwise middling “Kramer vs. Kramer” pits hardworking ad-man Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) against his women’s libber ex-wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) in a child custody court battle. Joanna, in an attempt to “find herself”, had fled their marriage and their boy, only to return a year later to reclaim motherhood. Streep plays her with a childlike passivity, not wanting to cause harm but acting with unthinking narcisssim. Hoffman is excellent: jumpy, unraveled and raw after her departure, falling apart in a memorable breakfast scene in the kitchen, taking his rage out on an uncooperative oven. There’s a lot of talent on display here, but the central drama is so unbalanced, with Joanna such a flimsy, unlikeable cipher, that the film’s “realist” aesthetic collapses. The dramatic courtroom sequence, in which Hoffman gives an impassioned speech about fatherhood, is moving on its own merits, but in context seems like a scared patriarchy circling the wagons against a feminist takeover. The finale is even more absurd, a bizarre wish-fulfillment fantasy in which Joanna capitulates to Ted in giving up their son, despite her victory in the courtroom. Ted wins, women lose.