The Man Who Knew Too Much [1956)

Netflix seems to be down tonight.

I tried several times.  Several movies.  Several fixes.

And so it is only fitting that history should trump the ephemeral stages of technological development.

Yes, time for a good old VHS tape.

And not a film about which I’ve previously written.

While I have surveyed many of the early Hitchcock films, I never wrote about the original version of this film.

1934.

To my knowledge, this is the only film of Alfred Hitchcock’s early career which he chose to remake.

Just on this fact alone, it would seem that the story was either very dear to the auteur or that he couldn’t resist something about the plot.

Granted, the two films are considerably different.

Even on a surface level, the 1934 version was (of course) in black and white.

But this was a VistaVision, Technicolor production.

1956.

22 years later.

For better or worse, I was familiar first with the earlier version.

It is a film I should revisit.

But it was not what I would call a “home run”.

The one aspect of the original which one might miss in the remake is the presence of Peter Lorre.

But we must move on to the future.  The present.

1956.

Jimmy Stewart plays the leading male role.  A doctor from Indianapolis.

Doris Day plays his wife.

The action is set for a good bit in Morocco.

Specifically, Marrakesh.

Indeed, the beginning of the film is a sort of travelogue.

In other words, its a good excuse to show off the exotic locale in North Africa.

Camels.  Veils.  [that one’s important]  The social tradition of eating with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand.  While leaving the left hand in the lap.

All very edifying and exciting.

But Doris Day is suspicious from the start.

If we knew nothing of Hitchcock, we’d say her paranoia was unfounded.

But, in fact, it’s Jimmy Stewart’s ease which is the fateful misstep early on.

And so this movie is about suspicion.

Who can we trust?

In this age of anxiety (thank you W.H. Auden), everyone and everything is suspect.

The only true bliss is ignorance.

[and perhaps my only wisdom is that of paraphrase]

One thing which escaped me the first time I saw this version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (in the theater…lucky me) was a funny detail about Brenda de Banzie.

Yes, dear readers (and fans of Peter Sellers), Ms. de Banzie would later appear as the annoying, flamboyant Angela Dunning in The Pink Panther (1963).

Indeed, her role as the terror of Cortina (d’Ampezzo) was her second-to-last film.

But here she is a much more mysterious character.

I will leave it at that.

We get some interesting things in this film.

“Arabs” in disguise.

Which is to say, certain personages of the spook variety in brown makeup (and native garb).

One need not look very far back in history to find a poignant parallel.

Consider, for instance, the “Basra prison incident” of 2005.

I’m guessing that T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) would provide another example, though I am no expert on this matter.

As are almost all Hitchcock films, this one is a tense affair.

Doris Day, in particular, does a surprising job of portraying the personal terror of her character.

Perhaps most notable about this film is the musical component.

As an accomplished percussionist in my own right, I heartily appreciate Hitchcock’s attention to the intricacies of an orchestral percussion section.

Indeed, the film begins with a close-up of this little-featured “choir” (in addition to the three trumpets and three trombones at the bottom of the frame).

What is most remarkable is Hitchcock’s use of the musical score (in various permutations) to tell this unique story.

Funniest is the shot of the cymbalist’s sheet music.

It is nearly a complete tacit…save for one fateful crash.

I fondly remember (with some measure of anxiety) a time when I manned the cymbals for the overture of Verdi’s La forza del destino.

It was a similar affair.

Interminable waiting.

And if you miss your one crash?  Even in rehearsal?

Well, you are screwed!

The judging stares of oboists are enough to melt a man…

But the musical score appears elsewhere.

In the private box.

Perhaps a page-turner for an assassin.

Most vividly, Hitchcock makes the score come alive in a fascinating series of extreme close-ups.

It is like a very erudite version of “follow the bouncing ball”.

So yes…some of our action happens at the Royal Albert Hall.

In an interesting twist of fate, usual Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann garners copious screen time as the conductor…OF ANOTHER COMPOSER’S WORK!

Were it Beethoven, I’d understand.

But the piece is Storm Clouds Cantata by Arthur Benjamin (who?) and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis (not to be confused with [Percy] Wyndham Lewis).

And yet it is a moving piece.

The London Symphony Orchestra sounds lovely (really magical!) in their on-screen segments.

But the real Leitmotiv of our film is “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)”.

Speaking of magic…it is always a gossamer thing to hear Doris Day sing this song in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

I remember a time when I didn’t know this song at all.

Being in a studio with Corinne Bailey Rae and hearing a playback of her wonderful band own this song.

And my discovery of Sly and the Family Stone’s inimitable version (sung by Rose Stone).

But few movie music moments equal Doris Day in her Marrakesh hotel room singing “Que Sera, Sera…” with little desafinado Christopher Olson.

The only ones which come close are Rita Hayworth (actually Jo Ann Greer?) singing the Rodgers and Hart masterpiece “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” the next year (1957) in Pal Joey and Ms. Hayworth “singing” (actually Anita Kert Ellis) “Put the Blame on Mame” in Gilda (1946).

An interesting note about this version of The Man Who Knew Too Much…

It seems to be a sort of forgotten classic, wedged as it is between the first of my Hitchcock “holy trinity” (Rear Window, 1954) and the other two perfect films (Vertigo, 1958, and North by Northwest, 1959).

Actually, this was a period of experimentation for Hitchcock.

Our film most precisely follows the odd comedy (!) The Trouble with Harry (1955) and precedes the black and white hand-wringer The Wrong Man (released later in 1956).

But The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) should not be forgotten!

It is such a beautifully-shot film!

Robert Burks’ cinematography is divine.

And George Tomasini’s editing is artfully deft.

Like To Catch a Thief (which is actually on Netflix in the U.S. [last time I checked]), The Man Who Knew Too Much is a film which perhaps needs multiple viewings to be truly appreciated.

-PD

Blind Husbands [1919)

Erich von Stroheim, like Lars von Trier after him, was not really a “von.”  Even as early as Josef von Sternberg directors were adopting (through hook and crook) the self-styled nobility of Stroheim in imitative honor.  The pioneer of this trend started his directing career with the film in question.  One wonders whether this movie also began the habit of filmmakers to shoot in (or depict) Cortina d’Ampezzo.  Through the years we would see both the Pink Panther and James Bond franchises gravitate towards the little Alpine village in the Dolomites.

One thing is certain:  after almost 100 years this story (also by Stroheim) feels modern and the direction is equally modern and stunning (especially for a first-time director).  Just two years later, Charlie Chaplin would begin (with The Kid) a string of self-directed features (with himself cast as the lead) which would rocket him to international stardom [the exceptions being A Woman of Paris (1923) and Chaplin’s last film A Countess from Hong Kong].  So one might argue that Stroheim started yet another trend (starring in self-directed features) which became inextricably integral to the development of film.  Later echoes would present themselves in the work of Orson Welles and François Truffaut (to name just two).

There are several innovative uses of the camera in this picture.  One, when Francelia Billington is combing her hair at the mirror, sees the focus go from her to her husband asleep in his bed.  Not content with this coup, Stroheim then has the husband morph into a memory of the young wedded couple in their happier, former days.  Another instance of ingenious directing comes when Billington is having a fevered nightmare ridden with guilt.  Stroheim (who plays The Other Man) appears as a disembodied, grotesque head.  As he smokes lasciviously from his long cigarette holder the dream sequence then cuts to his nicotine-stained hand and a solemn index finger which slowly comes to point at the dreamer.  Such imagery anticipates Hitchcock’s gun sequence from Spellbound (not to mention its dream sequence for which Hitch employed the design skills of Salvador Dalí).

Another poignant auteurist touch comes near the end when Stroheim (as actor) is stranded atop a mountain peak.  His dire situation is reinforced by the birds of prey which gradually start circling, yet we first only see them as shadows against the rock.

Most notably, this film was released just two months after the end of World War I.  Stroheim plays a Lieutenant in the Austrian cavalry (Austria-Hungary being one of the Central Powers battling the United States which was among the opposing Allies).  It was the assassination of an Austrian which triggered the war and the first shots fired were by Austrians on Serbians in retaliation.  Keep in mind that Blind Husbands is unquestionably a Hollywood production (Stroheim having emigrated to the U.S. in 1909).

Moving back to the theme of this film, one senses a shifting, secular morality pervading throughout.  Perhaps Stroheim was “urged” to make the whole thing a morality play, but he sure seems to be enjoying the role of the womanizing dandy.  The end of the film is not convincing enough to deduce that Stroheim really cared one way or another about the moral “lesson” ostensibly conveyed.  The only strange caveat is the shot of him (The Other Man) desperately praying atop the mountain.  That and, in my cut of the film, we never see Stroheim plunge from the cliff after having been attacked by vultures.  Perhaps I am still becoming versant in silent film and the fall escaped me.  Viewers with ADD stand no chance of making it through this “blockbuster.”  Those who have successfully absorbed the linguistic disconnect of Shakespeare from modern English will have a good idea of the patience it takes to delve into lesser known silent films on a regular basis.

-PD

For Your Eyes Only [1981)

This is where it gets good again.  After the misery of Moonraker, leave it to a guy named John Glen to rescue the series from ineptitude.  Like a master astronaut compared to Lewis Gilbert, Glen’s directorial debut in the series was auspicious enough to grant him the chair for four more films.

The MacGuffin (the ATAC machine…a missile command system) bears a striking resemblance to a Boss DR-880 drum machine.  When I was a boy this was a film I saw numerous times on TV.  It may, in fact, be the first Bond film I ever saw.

Credit the props department or perhaps wardrobe for the iconic octagonal glasses of the transient villain Locque.  While not as obviously creepy as Blofeld (seen in the intro where he meets his demise at the bottom of a smokestack), Locque’s silent presence is a unifying element for a series which had recently lacked imagination.  His nickname “The Dove” is said to be, “a sick joke.”  In short, he is a complex if not central character.

For once in the series, Bond turns down the affections of a beautiful young woman (ostensibly because she is too young).  Bibi Dahl also perhaps makes it too easy for our Don Juan superspy.

The underwater recovery of the ATAC is the closest thing to a true hint of return to the glory of Thunderball the series had captured in a long time.  It is a genuinely engaging scene and makes us realize just how far astray the franchise had gone.  Even the escape from the keelhauling is convincing and ingenious.  Glen distinguishes himself as a careful director in the Hitchcock tradition (attention to detail)…a far cry from his predecessor Gilbert.

The climb up the cliff face to St. Cyril’s monastery is riveting.  I remember this scene palpably from my youth.  The stress on the climbing tools…the rope…the hooks and hammers.  Bond’s recovery (with aid from his copious shoestrings) is really a nifty trick.

Carole Bouquet is mysteriously beautiful (and deadly with a crossbow) as Melina Havelock.  She is such a step up from previous Bond girl Lois Chiles.  Chaim Topol (credited as merely Topol) is really a great, great supporting actor in this film.  I mistook him for Alfonso Arau from Romancing the Stone (another great 80s film).

Michael Gothard was very well-cast as Locque.  Walter Gotell is brilliant as always as General Gogol.  We see a bit more of him in this film as the Reagan era of the Cold War was beginning its deep freeze.

The final touch of having Bond wired through to Prime Minister Thatcher is hilarious.  Janet Brown does an impeccable impersonation.  Bernard Lee (M) had passed on before he could film his scenes and this seems like a good time to honor the memory of a fine actor.  Thank you Mr. Lee.

Further recommended viewing is That Obscure Object of Desire (directed by Luis Buñuel)…that is, if you can’t get enough Carole Bouquet.

That Bond goes from driving a Lotus to a Citroën 2CV is emblematic of a film which hits all the right buttons both high and low.  Fans of The Pink Panther (1963) might recognize the location shoot of Cortina D’Ampezzo.  The greatest cheese factor comes at the outset with the song by Sheena Easton.  It really does get better from there.  Happy viewing!

 

-PD

 

The Pink Panther [1963)

Reporting from Lugash…I just have word that Cortina d’Ampezzo is a real place.  It cannot be confirmed at this time, but the report indicates it was the location of the 1956 Winter Olympics.  What is even more unbelievable is the claim that a James Bond movie was shot there in 1981.

There is no disputing that Switzerland has four official languages (including Romansh), but our fabled Cortina is said to have a language called Ladin.  This is, I know, hard to fathom.  It is even said that Hemingway wrote for a short time in Cortina, but I do not believe it for one second.

Now…Skardu, in Pakistan:  that is an actual town!  [and not too very far from Lugash, I might add]  But one must never confuse Akbar the Magnificent with the Mughal Emperor Akbar.  They are approximately 450 years apart chronologically.  There are some rumors of a mountain called K2 in the vicinity of Skardu, but do not pay this any mind.  It is simply a myth, I tell you.  It would behoove these mythmakers to concentrate on more pressing problems such as Y2K.  The world is still in danger, I tell you!  Think, for instance, if a clock was 15 years behind, yes?  It could be this very New Year’s Eve when this very real menace finally brings our technological world to its knees.  But I digress…

Now, let me tell you about this lake in the vicinity of the very real Skardu (near to the very real Lugash).  Shangrila Lake is as lovely as the probably-fictional Cortina purports to be.  There is even a restaurant in the fuselage of an aircraft which crashed nearby.  See:  you would never have such an obviously real detail in the notes of a “place” like Cortina.  One must use logic and deduce what is faux from what is not faux.  Now then…

I tell you all of this back story because I firmly believe Sir Charles Lytton to be one and the same with Sir James Bond.  I know this may seem to be a stretch to the untrained mind, but I will elucidate my reasoning in due time.  I would also be willing to bet my job with the Sûreté that this same Sir Charles is the elusive Phantom for whom I have been searching my entire life.  In due course I will explain this, this…how do you call it?  Triple agent!

I, of course, am now writing from the Gaol here in Voghera.  I believe that the very real Princess Dala was conspiring with someone (I don’t know who…certainly not my wife) and that she stole the Pink Panther herself so that it would not be taken away from her by the government of the very real country of Lugash (Voghera being a little-known hamlet in the Lombardy area of Lugash).  I will address the claims that I am homosexual at a later date.

The fact that I was made to testify against myself in court was really a sneaky gambit on the part of Sir Charles’ barrister.  I must admit that I passed out in shock from having the Pink Panther fall from my coat pocket.  Now they are claiming I also stole some ridiculous and obviously nonexistent jewel called the Hope Diamond, but I tell you…I am about 400 years too young for that to even be possible.  And contrary to accounts, I have never gone by the name Tavernier.

I would like to clear up some further controversy.  The Daria-i-Noor diamond does not exist.  I can see how some might mistake it for the very real Pink Panther because of the preposterous similarities between the very real Lugash and some fictional country called Iran, but I can assure you that there is no Iran.  India?  Yes.  Persia?  Of course.  Iran?  It sounds like a song by The Flock of The Seagulls.  It is obviously a lie.

Most importantly!  I do not plan to be held in the gaol for much longer as I am sure the real Phantom will strike again.  At that point, I intend to resume work for the Sûreté (having been properly exonerated of all wrongdoing).

Furthermore, I have never heard of this silly Alfred Itchcock nor his supposed film Foreign Correspondent so I cannot answer claims that any of my story bears resemblance to his film.  But be well-advised:  when I chase a criminal, I always catch that criminal.  As my great countryman Racine said, “There are no secrets that time does not reveal.”

One last note.  Topkapi is just a movie.  I will admit, I do not see the humor in the criminal aspects, but I do enjoy that the thieves are eventually dispensed justice.  So to further clarify with the geography lesson:  Topkapi is not a real place.

I have been asking for coffee here in my cell in Voghera in Lugash since I have been imprisoned and if Topkapı were really a neighborhood of Istanbul I would demand they bring me a Turkish coffee immediately (and it better be tonight).  But you see, they could not…the whole concept is a farce…unlike my very sad and serious imprisonment.  Please tell my darling Simone that I love her…and remind her not to be too frugal with the housekeeping money.  I know she is quite capable of buying mink coats from the leftover money.  She has done it before, my pigeon…

-PD