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

Pierrot le Fou [1965)

Here.  Ici.  Godard=Picasso=Joyce.  It may start with an Élie Faure quote concerning Velázquez, but that is just to set the stage for this ball of colored glass which goes beyond cinema.  The politics come on stronger, but they are like that strangely succinct Butthole Surfers lyric about not giving a fuck about the FBI…or the CIA.

You must only dial M.  Two murders by scissor.  Furthermore, the only way to catch a thief might be in his fireworks.  The tears of a clown…Clyde and his Bonnie…I can’t even keep track of their casual carnage.  Two?  3?  One thing is for sure:  the excitement of Breathless returns…along with the high school musical version of Broadway…in a bare apartment…a girl and a shitload of guns.  That’s all you need for this film.  And a car.  The spirit of Gene Kelly emerges later to spiff up the surreal song moments.

Pierrot doesn’t drive off a cliff.  But he drives right into the sea.  Yes, books were Pierrot’s downfall.  He’s never gonna get that job at Standard Oil.  Especially since he skipped town with a smokin’-hot murderer.  Drive all night.  Fuck it!  I’m so sick of everyone.  I just want to do what I want.  You know, just get in your car and start driving.  Find a town somewhere and start a whole new life.

Enid Coleslaw would doubtless have a certain simpatico with our lovers Marianne and Ferdinand (Pierrot [Belmondo]).  But this paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  A parrot, a fox, sure…but eating out of tin cans…Marianne, like Groucho Marx, wants some hot-cha-cha!  And so the dance hall in town.  It could be L’Atalante.  It could be Casque d’Or.  Why are the police not here yet?  Because they like to let people destroy themselves.  Victor Hugo meets Dostoyevsky.

More torture à la Le Petit Soldat.  Use the whore’s dress.  Polyester.  An especially nasty asphyxiation.  And so Ferdinand ends up back in the bathtub…where he started.  Instead of reading the history of modern art to his daughter, he has just outed his lover.  What a terrible 5:00 pm.  What a terrible 5:00 pm.  What a terrible 5:00 pm.

Maybe I will just let the train pulverize me.  Why is it always damsels in distress?  Damoiseau?

Ah, but it all makes so much sense in the end.  Raymond Devos sums it up.  That tune that’s always been playing.  It is our comedic, pathetic love life.  Yes, she betrayed us.  And so he fails to not commit suicide.

A failed failure is a success.  I’ve always had trouble spelling that word.  I blame Bob Dylan.  There is no k in success.  And though I long embraced suckcess, I now remove the k and a c comes with it.  Sucess.  I have unsuccessfully spelled success.  As a graduate student.  In business.

Ah, but it’s really no use.  One must stay optimistic.  Realistic.  Let’s face it:  the chances are slim.  It takes a lot to laugh.  Hear that lonesome whistle blow.  Maybe tomorrow Bob Dylan.  Suckcess in all its glory.

-PD

The Return of the Pink Panther [1975)

From the start it is a pale imitation of Topkapi.

But the film is salvaged by upping the ridiculousness of Sellers’ French accent.

The grand premise is similar to Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief (1955), but the Pink Panther series had by 1975 lost that je ne sais quoi which made the first two films of the series minor masterpieces.

This film is really all about Sellers’ uncanny skill at impressions (and there are some good ones):  the phone company man, the German-speaking housekeeper and even the Tony Clifton-esque playboy.

It is interesting to note that Sellers actually did have a residence in Gstaad (one of the principal settings for this film).

Also interesting to note is that Graham Stark (who had previously played Hercule LaJoy in A Shot In The Dark (1964), the second episode in the series) plays the role of Pepi.  Pepi is actually the only other interesting character in this whole film.  There is a sort of “Signor Ugarte meets Marty Feldman’s Igor” about his performance.

The direction at least has some interesting “psychedelic” moments (I’m thinking of the two slow-motion shots of Sellers flying through the air attempting an unsuccessful karate kick).

One thing is certain:  Sellers had a comedic magic which even caused his fellow actors (Catherine Schell in this film) to visibly “crack up” during takes.  The “corpsing” (as it is known) will be familiar to viewers of Saturday Night Live.  Sellers really embodied the part (as any good purveyor of imitations would).  When true comedic genius is present, it is often hard to find a Zeppo Marx.

But what I find most fascinating about this awful film (awful aside from Sellers) is that the director Blake Edwards had just three years previous made a fantastic drama starring James Coburn called The Carey Treatment (1972).  Edwards was no slouch as a director.  That then brings into question the underrated acting skills of Coburn (Derek Flint for spy-spoof enthusiasts).

With the immense talent of Sellers and the thorough competence of Edwards, I can only surmise that (like the Bond series beginning with You Only Live Twice (1967)) the series itself became a stale constraint due to pressure from above.  The only real innovation allowed to happen was in the liberties Sellers took with the Clouseau character.  The accent is more indecipherable, yet that becomes formulaic over the course of 114 minutes as the new gag is run into the ground.  The imitations are creative and elaborate (almost like a playful take on Dr. Strangelove), but none of them seem particularly well thought-out.  Somehow there was a disconnect between the talents of Sellers and Edwards.  Had they been creating as one, this awfully good film might have been great.

 

-PD

 

To Catch A Thief [1955)

The first time I saw To Catch A Thief I was not overly impressed.  Seemed like simply a 106 minute postcard, but oh how wrong I was.  This is another Hitchcock masterpiece and, if not Vertigo-caliber, it should at least be considered in the same league as Alfred’s own excellent remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

The whole gang’s here…  Cinematography by Robert Burks, editing by George Tomasini, music by…ok, not the whole gang…but most of them.

Grace Kelly is simply stunning.  When she first kisses Cary Grant, it is almost a heart-stopping moment–bursting with elegant sexuality.  Grant, for his part, was never better for Hitchcock (outside of North by Northwest).  And if the colors of mourning (to paraphrase Godard) made Notorious (1946) a less-than-vivid depiction of Rio de Janeiro, all sins are forgiven in this VistaVision take (breathtaking) on the French Riviera.  I can’t let those poseurs at Cannes have all the fun this week 🙂  I am home studying.  This is your dossier.  And there was only one film worth seeing this year anyway:  Adieu au langage.

Brigitte Auber gives a nice performance as the snotty enfant terrible and, though she herself is a pretty sight, Grace Kelly never looked better on film than in the “fireworks and diamonds” section of our film.  Indeed, Hitch knew the power of the Kuleshov effect as well as anyone and the cinematic intercutting of this scene places him with the greats of film editing like Eisenstein (though let’s not forget Tomasini…the credited editor).

Perhaps there is no stronger tie among Hitchcock films to la Nouvelle Vague than this panoramic view dans le Midi–especially to Truffaut (considering his book on Hitchcock…though it didn’t appear till 1967).  The fact that this film contains so much spoken French (sans subtitles) makes it unique in the director’s canon.  Grace Kelly herself would marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco not but eight months after the premiere and retire from filmmaking in her new role as the Monégasque Princess Grace.

Edith Head’s costumes were never more perfectly worn than by Miss Kelly (especially the white gown against her honeyed skin in the fireworks scene).

Most of all, this film should be considered among the essential Hitchcock along with the three perfect films (Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest) [not forgetting the parallel perfection of Psycho].  Most, if not all, the secrets of filmmaking are contained in the work of cinema’s Beethoven:  Alfred Hitchcock.

 

-PD