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

The Conversation [1974)

By 1974, TITANPOINTE was complete.

Which brings us to Francis Ford Coppola for the first time.

spoo SPOOK!

Where AT&T is LITHIUM.

Briefly dominating Drudge Report.

And then gone.

“Up on the twenty-ninth floor
Up on the twenty-ninth floor”

Four locks.  And an alarm.  A bottle of wine.

No phone.  Happy 44th birthday.

Not happy about this.

Gene Hackman in this masterpiece.

From Antonioni we got Blowup eight years previous.

But this time it is all about getting a fat sound.

SIGINT.

Is it?

It is a love for one’s work.

Like Gregg Popovich.

Hoosiers.

Gene Hackman.

But scarier.  Like 33 Thomas Street.

SMPTE for the devil…seems.

Grasshopper.

Must have a mix.  Phasing.

Louder.  In phase.

Knock.  Out of phase.

Urgently.  For young Teri Garr.

It doesn’t work.

This work.

It bleeds you of life electricity.

Spooking yourself.

On the trolley.

Snapping synapse line.  Electrical cable overhead.

And power down.  Stuck.  To think.  In silhouette.

Producing hit intelligence.

But not really thinking too much about the consumers.

Until the cris de coeur.

Or crise cardiaque.

When you are the only one between groundbreaking intel and the world at large.

And you are hearing it (“getting” it) for the first time.

When your job becomes an obsession.

Because of a dedication to excellence.

His famous gray plastic raincoat.

We think Manfred Eicher.  And François Musy.

Long nights going through the takes.

Full take.

All tape.

Whispering “conscience”…in that Swiss French we know so well.

Gently coated with cigars.

Shirley Feeney is here.

Cindy Williams.

But no Laverne.

The opening take so slow.

New Orleans jazz in many reverbed permutations.

Slightly shifting like Debussy’s clouds.

Or the light on Monet’s haystacks.

Operationally triangulated.

In a sonic crosshairs.

Most satisfying is the breaking up.

The broken telegraph gibberish of the rhythmic signal skating on intelligibility.

As if he’s heading to 26 Federal Plaza.

But it’s more corporate espionage.

Risk management.

Counterintelligence.

A masterpiece of sound film.

Which emphasizes that which is usually an afterthought.

Sonic activity.

Signaling intelligence.

We wait to decode the universe on our doorstep.

 

-PD

 

 

Ucho [1970)

A banned film.

From communist Czechoslovakia.

Party as nightmare (like O slavnosti a hostech).

But different.

Walls on all sides.

Claustrophobic.

As if Jeremy Bentham was tomorrow appointed head of the NSA.

From the single, centralized watchtower.

Stares out the embalmed ego of Bentham.

Auto-icon.

It’s just a skeleton stuffed with hay.  Dressed in Bentham’s clothes.

Like the panopticon.

A straw man prison.

Dear friends, I know of no film which conveys the horror of the 21st century.

Quite like this gem of resistance against totalitarianism.

This was the underbelly of communism.

The “evil empire” of which Reagan spoke.

His words seem funny today.  His unscientific, hypocritical words.

Because the Red Scare in the United States was typified by the same methods on display.

Here.

Surveillance.

Which I fear will not subside anytime soon.

Nor has this wave even crested.

“Mass surveillance doesn’t work,” Mr. Snowden wrote. “This bill will take money and liberty without improving safety.”

Finally The New York Times prints something worthwhile.

And even Hillary Clinton’s “History made.” ad can’t deflate the importance of Snowden’s words.

And so if you want to see the 12-tone paranoia of the communist “big brother” state (now that we are living in a “capitalist” big brother state), I would heartily recommend The Ear by director Karel Kachyňa.

It was banned for 19 years in Czechoslovakia.

Because it got real close to the truth.

It painted the communist party leaders as a bunch of jerks.

It portrayed the constant suspicion upon bureaucrats as a living nightmare.

The Ear.  Maybe some HUMINT at the party.

But largely this film deals with SIGINT (if author Jeffrey T. Richelson can be trusted).

The Ear deals primarily with what Richelson calls “clandestine SIGINT” in his book The U.S. Intelligence Community.

What we encounter in Ucho are “the oldest of these devices” (viz. “traditional audio surveillance devices”).

Wikipedia does a passable job outlining this area of inquiry in the article “Covert listening device”.

But dear friends…describing it so matter-of-factly does no justice to the strain which omnipresent surveillance puts on largely innocent people.

And therefore The Ear is a film which shows the psychological toll that governments exact when they make ethics secondary.

What we get from director Karel Kachyňa is the portrait of a society (his society) which assumes all citizens to be guilty until proven innocent.

This is ostensibly the opposite of the American system, but today’s Amerika is merely the other side of the coin:  same pervasion of surveillance (even if it is “capitalist”).

My hypothesis is that “free market” America has come to all-to-closely resemble the regimes it fought to defeat.  Those “victories”, then, were hollow.  We have appropriated the worst, most tortuous means of our past enemies.

But Kachyňa has another message for us in this masterpiece.

In such upside-down societies, promotion might be the worst form of punishment.

Beware, my coopted friends.

 

-PD