By Lawrence O'Toole
Updated July 26, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Rarely has a new hit movie revived such an intense interest in an older one as Sleepless in Seattle has. Viewers practically need to camp out on the doorsteps of video stores to secure copies of An Affair to Remember. The Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr weeper, a big hit in its day, is both the emotional and dramatic inspiration for the current Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romantic fantasy, which deals in such old-fashioned fare as magic and destiny.

An Affair to Remember, director Leo McCarey’s remake of his own Love Affair from 1939, is absolutely shameless: After a shipboard romance, Grant and Kerr plan to meet six months later at the top of the Empire State Building. On the way, she gets hit by a cab and is crippled; he thinks she didn’t show up, and she doesn’t want him to see her the way she is. From there, things get even more complicated and pitiful.

Not only is Affair referred to constantly in Sleepless, Hanks and Ryan also meet atop the Empire State (”It’s the nearest thing we have to heaven in New York,” Kerr coos), and there are little echoes of the older movie throughout. Women weep at the very memory of it and men look blank as computer paper (”Men just don’t get it,” says Hanks’ best friend, played by Rita Wilson).

But the two movies have much more in common than their plots and sentimentality. They are both chaste romances. The first time we see Grant and Kerr kiss in Affair is in a stairway; the camera shows only his leg moving and her hand reaching up to him. Hanks and Ryan don’t even peck in the PG-rated Sleepless; they hold hands at the end. The coy sexuality of the Eisenhower era and the safe-sex practices of the ’90s link the two generations.

In 1973, when A Touch of Class‘ Glenda Jackson and George Segal got progressively moist watching Brief Encounter on television, movie audiences in that pre-VCR era couldn’t go out and rent the 1945 David Lean tearjerker the next day. Now they can and, with the press of a button, go back and find many other affairs to remember on sleepless nights. A-

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