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

Vi är bäst! [2013)

IF you want to see a bogus, bollocks feminist film, watch Free the Nipple.

But if you want to see the real thing…a really empowering, touching story, then check out We Are the Best!

IT’s in Swedish.

So you’ll have to use your brain.

And your eyes.

Unless you speak Swedish.

But it will be well worth your time.

Vi är bäst! isn’t trite acting from a bunch of pseudo-provocateurs who just want to take their shirts off.

Nej.

This is the story of three 13-year-old girls.

None of them fit in.

Everyone tells them they’re ugly.

One of them is ostracized for being a Christian.

[now THAT’S punk!]

But it’s the story of three girls who come together and do the greatest thing possible:  form a band.

Music!!!

And let me just say this:  the acting is fucking fantastic!

Mira Barkhammer plays Bobo.

For me, she is the star of the film.

She is the outcast of the outcasts.

No make up.

No cool haircut.

She’s searching for her identity.

But she’s so smart.  So truly unique!

She wears these little wire-rim glasses.

From one perspective, this film is her search for what’s behind the mirror.

Director Lukas Moodysson made a masterpiece here.

Bobo…

The name…

I think of Boris Diaw.

The whole scenario is aw-kward.

But so beautifully so!

And yet Bobo is not perfect.

Far from it.

It’s a team effort.

And teams, especially when they are ad hoc and organic, are inherently dysfunctional.

The actress who puts the dys in dysfunction here is Mira Grosin.

But she too is so wonderful in this film!

She is the inspiration.

The first one out on the limb.

The rebel.

The loudmouth.

She inspires her other two bandmates to fly their freak flags high.

But the most enigmatic is Liv LeMoyne:  the Christian.

Director Moodysson is so deft in his handling of this dynamic.

LeMoyne’s character [Hedvig] has long, beautiful blond hair.

[At this point it is appropriate to address a strange form of class relations in Sweden:  hair color.]

When I used to think of Sweden (which I did rarely), I would imagine everyone as a blond.

Perhaps the American vision of Sweden is a socialist paradise of blond bikini models.

At the very least, blondness seems to be the defining characteristic in the American popular imagination regarding Sweden (as far as I can tell).

This isn’t a scientific study, you understand…

But it is important to point this out.

The snottiest (in the stuck up, snobbish sense) characters in this film are mostly blonds.

The little girls who call Bobo and Klara [Grosin] ugly.

It is really heartbreaking.

These two BRUNETTE girls endure such humiliation throughout this film.

And so it’s no wonder that they want to start a PUNK BAND!

But they can’t play.

Like, not at all…

Their first halting efforts are in the vein of The Shaggs.

No, worse.

And that’s where the Christian comes in.

Hedvig is an accomplished classical guitarist.

It is, indeed, much like the story of Garth Hudson’s joining The Band.

Lessons.

So to speak.

Bobo and Klara are astounded at Hedvig’s talent.

They lament that they’ll never be as good as their gifted new friend.

But Hedvig is all encouragement.

It is [pardon the expression] a match made in heaven.

And so three misfits (for different reasons) band together (literally) and take on the cock rock ridiculousness of bullies like youth-center-rehearsal-room-“stars” Iron Fist.

The message is astounding.

I haven’t seen a film which does such honor to the idea of feminism since 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

But there’s no ulterior motive here.

This isn’t a George Soros production.

This is the real thing.

Just three young people (who happen to be female) wanting to make some noise in their world.

And we see how beautiful punk music is.

IT’s a catharsis.

Like Sonic Youth.

And we remember the true geniuses of the genre (like my hero, the late Alan Vega).

But we also remember the maxim:  “three chords and the truth”.

Hedvig’s got the chords.

[Ah…harmony!  What a concept!!!]

But Klara has the attitude.

And Bobo has the intellect.

They learn from each other.

“Here.  Stay on this note.  Good.  Now move to this note.”

“Punk is about rebellion.  It’s not about the school talent show.  We’ve got to keep going.  It’s a fight.”

“You really need to change your hair.  Do something fun!  Express yourself!  Cut loose!”

Those are my translations of action, not dialogue.

But I can’t stress enough how great these three actresses are in this film.

Mira Barkhammer in particular is a prodigy.

But, as in the story, the trio is inseparable.

And for this kind of cohesion, we have but one place to look in thanks:  the auteur.

-PD