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

Les Enfants terribles [1950)

The past is hidden.

My friend.

You must find the magical words.

Which fit like teeth in combs.

A lock clicks with greasy precision.

A marvel of craftsmanship.

Two siblings in love.

A prolonged insult.

From the start it is as a homoerotic phantasm.

But that is the illusion of bent gender.

And genre.

What genre?

No, once again sui generis.

We would expect nothing less from Jean Cocteau.

The history of cinema.

Begins with luminaries.

Trying their hands.

Not yet taboo.

The world has not yet grown up.

Cynically, it could be said Cocteau had enjoyed the green hour a few too many evenings by 1950.

Crepuscule with absinthe.

But the truth is more beautiful.

Play the game…everybody play the game.

Just a Queen lyric haunting the childhood dreams of Paul and Lise.

It sounds like Liz, but looks better in the French.

Americans, take note!

You must love French cinema.

It is not for everyone.

John Milton.

Not for everyone.

Even Shaky William is acquired like marmite.

Or green olives.

Foie gras.

This train is the height of luxury.

Bound for glory.

Such concision of expression from Cocteau.

And such economy of means from director Jean-Pierre Melville.

Don’t worry about mispronouncing.

Here’s a French bloke who named himself after an American author (Herman).

Really!

It was the postwar influence on France.

The death of French cinema.

Slowly, as in a car crash.

Now they worship Tarantino.

Quel dommage!

Mais…what’s the damage?

It is Villon come full-circle.

The ladies of Paris.

And on through Baudelaire’s lady:  Paris.

Man becomes woman.

Voila!

It is a tricky story.

As when Lise is drenched in milk.

Not even for Technicolor Singin’ in the Rain.

Just for the texture.

Not color.

Renée Cosima.

Real name:  Boudin.

Like a sausage cased in a condom.

And Cosima Wagner.

Real name:  Liszt.

And Franz Liszt.

Real name:  Liszt Ferencz.

And Ferenc Fricsay.

Well, you get the point…

Renée with her beautiful, wide jaw.

And Nicole Stéphane trying to perfect her Greek profile.

A clothespin on the bridge of her nose.

[Which I call ghetto acupuncture.  Works great!]

And Édouard Dermit is not bad.

But the real star is Stéphane.

She.

Haggard from the world-weary beginning.

Funny and annoying.

Continuous repartee with Dermit.

All slang and no manners.

She is unlovably lovable until she does the expected.

She was no hero.

All along.

An antiheroine.

And it is anticlimax which we should feel.

When, like a cinder-smeared Gilda, she spits at the world one last time.

You can say they didn’t know.

Any better.

But their dream was more real than our reality.

 

-PD

Mulholland Dr. [2001)

How not to start a symphony.  With a rest.  #5 (7)j j-j o ^ (7)j j-j o

Beethoven started with a pause.  A pause, in this case, is unheard.  Felt.

No hay banda.

Il y a n’est pas d’orchestre.

I wish I was more confident in my French memory.

The Spanish is simpler.

[silencio]

It could be Roberto Benigni in La vita è bella reeling off a priceless punchline.

[silencio]

It could be John Cage forcing us to listen in 4’33”.

Painfully good.  A perfect film.  Mulholland Drive.  Dr. Mulholland.

I’ve either gained you or lost you by this point.

Dr. Benway.

You will excuse the word virus at work.

Perhaps the word bacteria predates Burroughs.

Always a cut-up in class.

And those classy suits.

It’s a talent to be weird, though Charles Mingus would argue otherwise.

A talent to be simple.

You have to stay with me like Lord Buckley or Lester Bangs.

I got yer Oxford comma right here.

, and don’t I know it!

She takes Hayworth’s name from Gilda.

Rita.

Laura Elena Harring.  Laura Harring if you’re into the whole brevity thing.  Concision of expression.  Bthvn.

If you really wanna impress the familia, it’s Laura Elena Martínez Herring.  Miss USA 1985.  Just missed 1984.

Or well, Wilbur…

Mr. Ed.  Paging Mr….

Herring.  Pink.  She is a living Modigliani onscreen for a brief moment on a couch.  A stippled nipple in deep focus.

But this is not her film.  She is a MacGuffin in heels.

No.  This is Naomi Watts’ film.  Boy is it ever!

But let us pop this balloon before it goes all Vivre sa vie on us.

Is this the best Amer-ican film ever made?  Probably.

Dog Star Man has a steep mountain to climb without a soundtrack to blow Sisyphus to his zenith.

F for Fake is to American cinema what Histoire(s) du cinema is to the French pantheon.

The only real challenger, then, might be Gummo.

But let us return to Maestro Lynch.  David Lynch.  Montana Dave.  The Cowboy…

This is, to reiterate, a perfect film.  Such creations do not come along often.

As such, we should savor each morsel of finesse embodied in this feast for eyes and mind.

And don’t forget the ears.  Badalamenti.  Badda bing, badda boom.

What would Chico Marx have made of this film???

Who cares…  It’s Chico stuffed into a dough ball suitcase with $50k and Groucho and Harpo mashed up

with even a good portion of Zeppo as Little Mr. Sunshine in Naomi Watts’ first character Betty Elms.

Nightmare on Elms’ street.

Mulholland Dr.

Great minds think alike.  Cannes premier of this film May 16, 2001.  Radiohead’s Amnesiac album?  June 5, 2001.

Rita.  Camille.  Diane Selwyn.

Kryptos.  Jim Sanborn.  Mengenlehreuhr.

Set theory.

(0,2,3,5)  Le Sacre du printemps.

Spitting espresso into a napkin, strikes fear in the hearts of the most hardened capitalists.

Fear.

The Flower That Drank the Moon.  Not a real film.

The Big Sleep.  She.  H. Rider Haggard.  Angel-A.

Finnegans, upon waking, diapasoned Wachet auf.

Just call me Death.  Everyone else does.

We don’t stop here.

We push on.  Like Gene Wilder on a magical fucking river of chocolate.

You can’t split the existential atom any further.  Kubrick tried in 2001.  And now Lynch had arrived at the same year.

If you open a MacGuffin, you will find nothing.

I have a bag full of money and I can’t remember my name.  That is Hollywood.

This is the girl.

And the gun.

24x per second.

Truth before the big lie even sprouted wings.  L’Effroyable imposture.  Vérités et Mensonges.

It’s like the old Edison tone tests.  Hit the lights.  Who’s playing?  The phonograph or the violinist?

Like looking at L.A. through Roy Orbison’s glasses.  A blur…a haze.

No one has split the literary atom any further than Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

[…]

Those three little dots.

The rhythm of speech.  From Modest Mussorgsky to Harry Partch.

Boris Godunov was lousy so we had to shave his armpits.

We would have never gotten to know each other so well, Boris and I.  Henry.  Mr. Bones.

Yeah, I keep on sloggin’ and get diminishing marginal returns.

Just a fancy way of saying less and less.  Nothing (more or less).

And then nothing turns itself inside out.

Naomi Watts goes from gee swell to Valerie Solanas.

The key.  CERN.  When they rev it up.

What does it open?

Möbius (stripped bare by his bachelorettes), even

[The Large Hadron Collider]

Mimesis.  Die a Jesus.

Greatest goal in life?

To achieve immortality and then die.

J. Hoberman.  J. Mascis.  J. Spaceman.

Putrefaction is merely Der Untergang des Abendlandes.  The decline of the evening lands.

Rises east, sets The West.

Civility.

L’Usine de rêves.

That killer blonde that we all want.  From Kim Novak to Daniel Craig.

Monty Montgomery.  Hope you only see him once more.

Good v. Bad, 410 U.S. 113 (2001)

The abortion of Newtonian physics.

Twice.

Thrice.

Michael J. Anderson as Larry Silverstein.

We don’t stop here.

This is the girl.

Maybe the smartest thing to do is pull it.

And we watched the building collapse.

That would be the shadow government.

An accident is a terrible event—notice the location of the accident.

Who gives a key, and why?

-PD