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

Tout va bien [1972)

This might be the most important film ever made.

You can’t start like that.

This whole “internal monolog” gets boring…

Illiterate Joyce fanatic.

After fucking around for four years, Godard and Gorin (like Marx and Engels) finally got the funding needed to deal a deathblow to bourgeois capitalism.  Bourgeois?  Monopoly.  Monopoly?

I feel film review coming on…itching like a well-known wool blanket.

Jane Fonda is devastatingly good in this.

Yves Montand nails it.

Godard and Gorin fling a manifesto at the world.  Hollywood has failed miserably in mustering a riposte.

Over 40 years ago.

Who speaks for Hollywood?

And who speaks for not Hollywood?

A state of mind more than a place.

New forms for new content.

Not Hollywood.

You know Jacques Tati and Jerry Lewis.

We get a hilarious choking performance from Vittorio Caprioli.

It’s not a thing to hide…the fact that one is marked for death.

But hidden it is.

A loudmouthed agitator who learned to unlearn.  Through books.

A conundrum.  No, there is no stopping being an intellectual.

If you don’t know the Dziga-Vertov Group’s work, you won’t realize that Tout va bien is actually reflective.

It is a perfect gentle art bomb.

No box office data.

Not what we meant anyway.

Must be a pain in the ass to parse these “reviews” on behalf of the control freaks.

A good psychologist would tell you to buy a mirror.  Buy some time.  Reflect.

But there are no good psychs…seems.

No, surely there are.

A lot (two words) of professions seem glutted with criminals.

And the psychs are there to define criminality.

Judges by the benison of nepotism.

By which we mean judges.  [new subject]

By this time they broke the fourth wall so efficiently and effortlessly.  With Jane Fonda.

The wrong woman.

Diegesis or die a Jesus?

Opacity of performance?

I think what they mean is, by being weird it causes the audience to ask, “Why are they being weird?”

Who cares.

Too beautiful to end there.

The most important.  Perhaps.

Can’t this motherfucker complete a goddamned sentence?

New forms for new content. (2)

Seriously, the boss has to piss!

And is that the cock from Persona?

Cock.  I never would’ve said it that way.

Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check.

She told me.

Double-spacing was an antiquated technique.  Something about a journalism degree.  I tried.

Obviously, people are watching.

Route me out of the main stream.  Rout.

I know my true brothers and sisters, but they remain invisible.

Little signals over the ether and we take the helm.

Rub your jade.

Yes.  Look look look.

Doesn’t matter.  They want you to know that clearly.

The movies where the hero is a shitbag who finally does the right thing at the end…and utters one last dying quotable.

Karate for life.  For instance.

Capitalize the first noun, and then shut the fuck up.  It’s just a title.

What’s in a goddamned name?

Shaky sphere at the globe.  On the shore.  Of a ditch.

The borr(o)wed.  Borr()wed.

Barred.

If there’s a right way to write about film, this ain’t it.

Unremitting self-referential showmanship.

Serves to defuse…de fuse.

Someday.  Someday.  A couple of holy grails will roll down the hill.

Goddamn.

-PD

The Enforcer [1976)

Damn.  It takes a lot to laugh.  It takes a train to cry.  Bob Dylan said that.

I just said damn.

This film was released the year I was born.  Yeah, I’m an old son of a bitch.

Figure of speech (you understand)…

It’s hard to talk about this film without talking about Tyne Daly.  How beautiful she looked in this film!  What great acting!

But let’s start at the beginning…

Jocelyn Jones.  Any fish bite if you got good bait.  Henry “Ragtime” Thomas said that.

Numb nuts.  Jocelyn said that.

I know the type.  Bait.  Numb nuts.

Think Lana Turner.  That first appearance she makes in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Or Sue Lyon in Lolita.  Kubrick.  The hard stuff.

Those little heart-shaped sunglasses.  Her eyes replaced by your mind.

It’s not “Pleasant Valley Sunday”…rather, Mill Valley.

No Monkees.  Just a bunch of bloodthirsty punks after some money.  A rag-tag group of Vietnam vets and ideological dupes.

Director James Fargo goes for the kill early on.  The tight shot of those blue-grey eyes.  A little awkward.  But DeVeren Bookwalter more or less delivers.  Not quite as terrifying as Andy Robinson in the original Dirty Harry…ok, actually a straight rip of that character minus the fascinating Zodiac Killer angle.  But Fargo turns in a pretty convincing film.  No small feat.  While the James Bond franchise was busy dicking around with numerous directors, the Dirty Harry series showed them how to strike an emotional blow with an economy of means.

Of course we get another shite superior…Captain McKay…played pretty well by Bradford Dillman.  Not as convincing as Hal Holbrook in Magnum Force, but hey…  And again, a straight rip of the Lt. Briggs character.

All of this would seem to indicate that this is a watery domestic facsimile with a lack of imagination.  Not quite.  This is a damn good film.

Tyne Daly really provides the foil to Eastwood that was needed to make this picture transcend.

Fargo’s silhouette version of Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) is frankly brilliant.

Albert Popwell makes powerful use of his limited screen time.  Swahili for freedom:  uhuru.

It brings us to a Hitchcock moment and reminds us of the ultimate case of the wrong man:  Osama bin Laden.  As Ralph Nader described George W. Bush:  a corporation disguised as a human being.  Osama.  THE Company.

Not even the head of the snake.  Not even the tip of the iceberg.  More like a figurehead asset.  A fall guy.  A bogus bogeyman.

And so the real terrorists run free.  Suits and ties.  Top Secret security clearances.

It’s as hollow a feeling as that famous “mission accomplished” pronouncement.  On the USS Abraham Lincoln no less.  Yeah…it’s time to open up some crusty old prisons for the real terrorists.  Places that’ll make Guantanamo Bay look like a goddamned Sandals resort.

-PD

Blackmail [1929)

A tightly-wound masterpiece.  Concision of expression.

Early Hitchcock at his finest.

In more ways than one, this film starts silently.  Foley artists.  A klaxon here and there.

And then all of a sudden we have entered the era of loosely-synched talkies.

It is quite a shock.  We realize how much we have come to depend on sound and dialogue.

But this film holds its own as images alone.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how virtually-verbose a moving picture?

John Longden evokes our sympathy in many ways.  The jilted lover.  And finally, we descend into a dark place with his character Frank Webber.

A bit of gossip gives us all the context we need:  these were not the times when a woman could easily claim self-defense in the instance of a rape.  In the course of defending herself, Anny Ondra took a life.  We take it from context that her promiscuous presence in the room of a man after hours would be looked down upon in a court of law at that time (though that should have nothing to do with a just dispensation of the legal process).

No doubt, Ondra’s character is a prevaricating adventuress, but when it comes down to brass tacks she’s not a floozy at heart.  Poor Cyril Ritchard shan’t be painting any more saltimbanques any time soon!

We really don’t see it coming.  That is the brilliance of Hitchcock’s mise-en-scène.  Mr. Crewe (Ritchard) is as charming as Hoagy Carmichael until he gets a little too frisky.

And so Anny Ondra must walk the foggy streets of London with her beestung lips like Clara Bow meets Raskolnikov.

In an instant Frank goes from law enforcer to wrong side of the law, but it is out of love.  He knows.

Enter Donald Calthrop.  Oh how the tables turn for his character Tracy.  One moment he is smoking the finest cigar…sopping up runny yolk and savoring his blackmailed breakfast.  The next he is the prime suspect.  As in chess, several moves ahead are needed.  Overall, one cannot account for everything.  And so this is in some ways the rags to rags story of a criminal named Tracy.  To be sure:  the wrong man!

Alice (Ondra) nearly turns herself in.  She is one telephone call too late.  Fate intercedes.  It is as if blind justice, with her svelte legs, has sensed the order which must be restored.

Now…back in your seat, Jacques Carter:  I’m reading!

-PD

Secret Agent [1936)

If this is propaganda, it is among the most artful of all time.  For it seems to emanate from the mind of an individualist and patriot.  Alfred Hitchcock.

We get our subject material from Somerset Maugham.  Ashenden.

“The wrong man!  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.”  Thus laughs “the General” Peter Lorre…a sort of lovable psychopath (if such a thing is possible).  Yes, the wrong man.  It is to Hitchcock’s oeuvre what prostitution is to Jean-Luc Godard’s.  But it is a grotesque moment.  The wrong man.  In this case, it went all the way:  they killed the wrong man.  Just an innocent old man with a wife and a dog.  All in a day’s work for a covert operative…Lorre’s laughter seems to tell us.

No.  Lorre is no typical agent.  He’s a hitman.  He doesn’t mind killing.  In fact, he kind-of enjoys it.  Takes pride in his craft (as it were).  Very clean, he says…strangling, a knife…no guns…too noisy.

But let’s back up to John Gielgud.  To make a spy, you kill the man.  It is quasi-Christian.  The old is gone.  Behold, the new has come.

The perfect spy has no past.  This sort of agent wakes up to read his own obituary.  Before long, he has a new identity.

Though this film predates WWII, its subject matter of WWI is certainly infused with the building tension of a second continent-wide conflagration.

And again we witness James Bond far before Ian Fleming birthed him.  The milieu is the same.  Gielgud reports to “R”…like the “M” we would all come to know and love.  And of course Lorre…himself an M of another type (see Fritz Lang).

Trouble in the Middle East.  Why can’t it be Tahiti?  Where’s Leonard Bernstein when you need him???

“The Hairless Mexican” a.k.a. “The General” Peter Lorre…kinda like the Federal Reserve:  not Federal and no reserves.  Yes, Lorre is quite hirsute.  As for his rank, it is as dubious as his other winning personality traits.

Gielgud’s not very careful…right from the start.  I suppose they should have trained the chap in the dark arts before sending him out into the field.  At least the field is Switzerland (Allen Dulles’ future stomping grounds).

Back to our Bond parallels…the gorgeous Madeleine Carroll, like Eva Green in Casino Royale, stipulates a separate-bed rule as part of her cover (Gielgud’s “wife”).  We wonder whether her character, like Hitchcock and Green’s Vesper Lynd, is of Catholic upbringing.

But for the main course…we get some rather convincing ethics from Hitchcock–a morality which we would scarcely see again in the future of film through to the 21st century.  To wit, espionage is the dirtiest of jobs.  Never mind the old trick of digging though a rubbish bin:  the whole operation is filthy and loused up with sickening concessions.  Hitchcock gets right to the point quite forthright:  murder.  Many of the darkest jobs are just that!  One can spin it anyway one wants, but it is still cold-blooded.

It’s not all fun and games, Gielgud tries to convey to Madeleine.  If you’re here for a thrill, you’d best recalibrate your perspective:  things are about to get real ugly!

It is some scary shit.  Imagine Olivier Messiaen and Giacinto Scelsi collaborating with Morton Feldman for a 45 second piece.  It’s called Sonata for Corpse and Organ.  Their contact has been murdered.  The assassin pulled out all the stops.  Just after the prelude, a fugue of struggle ensued which left a button from the killer’s garments clutched in the dead organist’s hand.  We get a rich, chromatic chord until Gielgud and Lorre realize there’s far too little harmonic rhythm to this chorale.  The bloke’s been whacked (slumped upon the keys).

This button, a single-use MacGuffin, leads them to offing the wrong man.  Poor old Percy Marmont…

At this, Gielgud is ready to quit…sickened by the thought of having innocent blood on his hands.  Credit Madeleine Carroll with a nice performance…especially when she plays the straight (horrified) woman to Lorre’s laughter.

And so, again like Casino Royale, Gielgud and Carroll (madly in love) decide to dispense with the whole mission and pack it in (complete with a resignation letter to “R” from Gielgud).

I won’t give away too much.  Lorre is fantastic:  both ridiculously awkward in his humor and deft in his acting.

Unfortunately, the artfulness of the film which Hitchcock had lovingly built up is marred by a somewhat daft, abrupt ending.

Like this.

-PD

The Wrong Man [1956)

Gut-wrenching.  No Cary Grant, nor crop duster:  this is the eponymous instance of Hitchcock’s grand trope.  Those hands.  Only a director who started in silent cinema could do this story justice.  Those lean fingers…slowly clenching into gentle, balled fists of soft-spoken anger.  This, dear friends, is the story of the NSA.  This is the story of the security state.  Ever speak an ill word about the government?  Then you might be one of Them.  They are the goblins which appear 24/7 on Fox News as if real.  They are only as real as the distortions in the mind of a paranoid schizophrenic (like Vera Miles in the latter part of this movie).  How slight a slip from being outspoken to being blacklisted (as they would once have said).  Now you’re on a list, true–but you don’t know which list.  When you pass through airport security you can only wonder.  That is the horror of being the wrong man; of judging a book by its circumstantial cover.  This is Alfred the auteur being locked up as a young boy.  It is the trauma of that parental “lesson” in its most visceral manifestation.  Never again did Hitchcock capture the despair which a wrongly-accused prisoner must feel.  Witnesses get it wrong.  Police procedures are not perfect even when at their best.  And as we are reminded in the film:  the onus is on the prosecution.

To persecute.  To indict.  To prosecute.

Where’s the body?  Where are the matching fingerprints?  This was long before DNA forensics, but do we not still get the wrong man sometimes?  Once is too many times.  The rule of law has been perverted and circumvented.  We trample over crime scenes.  We just want to get Someone/Anyone.  Makes it awfully easy to frame a person nowadays.  There are honest mistakes and dishonest mistakes.  Our politicians learn to lie from the cradle and they seemingly go to their graves with no remorse.  I’m afraid the misreading of Nietzsche has found a whole new generation of acolytes in the neoconservatives who conned the world now some 15 years ago.  The wrong man worked for us.  We called the tune he played on his bass fiddle in Afghanistan.  We even provided the instrument.

In this highly religious film Hitchcock draws upon his own general upbringing.  The theme is guilt.  Guilt in all the wrong places. Same for blame.

Poor Henry Fonda…he just looked the part.

I have no words to describe the solemn brilliance of this film. It is vanity to attempt such. The real terror is the state security apparatus. If one scoffs at legal end-arounds, one is (at times) Literally unpatriotic. Sometimes we have only hours; minutes to do the right thing. The officer turns back around and reenters the 110th Precinct police station. The germ of conscience has sprouted.

My metaphors may be all wrong. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the lives of our fellow human beings. Six million wrong men, women and children. The Nazis didn’t plan the final solution in caves. They were very advanced. And it was not but 70-80 years ago.

It takes great maturity to sit through this movie. Deep focus. The millionth remake of Godzilla will not impart this lesson. Let it be branded upon your brain. This is what we fight for. A civilization can be judged as civilized only according to its ideas of justice.

-PD

Rope [1948)

For many years this was my favorite Hitchcock movie.  Sure…I secretly thought Psycho was better, but I didn’t want to be ordinary.  It was long before I understood the metaphorical reading of Rear Window; long before my mind was mature enough to wrap itself around the slippery plot of Vertigo; long before I realized that North By Northwest was truly sui generis. 

What was it about this film?  I had first run across the title in a quote attributed (I believe) to Peter Bogdanovich.  Rope was a film to be studied.  Rope was a feat of trickery.  The Rope trick.  Long, unedited shots…  It was only later that I discovered how they reloaded the film.  Once you know, it seems obvious, but upon first viewing it does seem like the master and slave reels had unlimited 1000s of feet to spool out and take in.

But that’s not it.

What was it about this film?  It was Jimmy Stewart.  Good, old Jimmy Stewart of It’s A Wonderful Life.  Jimmy Stewart as Louis-Ferdinand Celine.  Jimmy Stewart the misanthrope.  The novelty of it!  But the “kicker” was bloodlust.  Jimmy Stewart redeemed with Emersonian integrity.  His words thrown back in his face.  Even at an old age.  Stewart’s character realizes he has been wrong all these years.  Would Nietzsche have had the same reaction to Hitler?  Would Wagner?

There is no way to accurately “read” this film without placing it in history:  three years after the end of WWII.

Inferior.  Superior.  Intellect.  Beyond good and around again to evil.

It is Hitchcock commenting on himself.  The character of Rupert is the dark, sardonic, macabre humor of Alfred the auteur and joker.  But what of that ending?

There is no more blood-curdling pronouncement of justice in the history of cinema that when Jimmy Stewart proclaims, “You’re both going to die.”

The character names don’t matter.  The tricks of filming even less.

This is the inquisitive Stewart of Rear Window already suspecting.  This isn’t the Hitchcockean trope of “the wrong man:”  this is the right man.

Stewart can’t believe it.  We can’t believe it.  And we saw the whole thing.

We don’t trust our instincts when the conclusions go (as Dick Cheney said) “beyond the pale.”  Look up that phrase.  Look up Arnold Rothstein.  The “pale of settlement.”

In King of the Jews the author Nick Tosches touches on this phrase.  My contention is that Tosches knew in 2005.

Rope is the story of two young men who strangle an “inferior” being (who just so happens to be a Harvard man).  Hmmm…from where then would that make our killers?  Yale, perhaps?  Is this an quasi-establishment jab at the Skull & Bones fraternity?

And Rupert…dear old Rupert…the house master from our murderers’ prep school days…  Could the reference be Phillips Academy?

I will leave these remarks as a thumbnail sketch to inspire discussion.  But it was certainly the novelty of Stewart as a villain…and his redemption as the voice of reason.  Yes.  The message is clear.  All who have killed in this eugenic manner will die.  You’re all going to die for what you’ve done.  It is what society is going to do to you.  The public doesn’t want to hear your advanced theories and your avant-garde morals.

Hollywood failed the Jews.  Cinema failed those in the death camps of WWII.  This is Godard’s grand theme in Histoire(s) du cinéma.  Film has the ability to preserve the “honor of the real,” to quote Jean-Luc.  No country was more technologically advanced (arguably) in terms of motion pictures during WWII than Germany.  Why were their scientists so sought after by Operation Paperclip (and the Soviet equivalent) following the war?  Why were they so successful?  Because they were brilliant.  It doesn’t make sense then that there is no available footage from the pre-liberated Nazi camps.  Cinema failed to prevent the holocaust and this cinematic gap in history likewise has rendered the medium irreparably hollow.  That was Spielberg’s failure with Schindler’s List:  one cannot portray what has never been seen.  The camps no doubt existed.  There is no disputing that.  But there is a hole in the heart of cinema’s history.

The 21st century has offered cinema another chance.  And contrary to Dick Cheney’s quote and its context, there is nothing beyond the pale.

 

-PD