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

Senso [1954)

How does love turn into hate?

Does it ever work the other way around?

Hate into love?

Because the natural course seems to be love into hate.

Vulnerability into hurt.

Hurt into resentment.

And somewhere along the continuum, God forbid, revenge.

Senso, despite its extravagant period costumes and generous budget, is still a product of neorealism.

Sure…it’s hard for most of us to relate to a Countess.

That’s why I can’t read Tolstoy.  I can’t read Fitzgerald.  Not even out of curiosity or hatred.

I can only read Dostoyevsky.  I have only ever related to the outlaw.

Of outlaw literature.

But cinema does a funny thing.

We may not be able to really “get into” Il Trovatore or Der Freischütz, but occasionally a talented auteur can make us appreciate the truly foreign:  a higher social class.

In this case, it is the highest.

The nobility.

In English we might (but probably won’t) know it as the Third Italian War of Independence.  How confusing.  That would seem to entail a July 4th (for us Americans) three times a year (assuming there wasn’t a fourth war).

In plain terms, it was Austria vs. Italy (rather like a soccer match).

Football.  Footie.  FTSE.  Yes…

All rather humdrum after the smoke has wafted away.

Idiots, they call us.

Those who fight.

Some join an army.  Very brave.

Others expose themselves needlessly.  What might be termed “impulsive” or again “thoughtlessness”.

What does this?

In both cases, pride (generally speaking).

Sure, a professional soldier makes a decent living (as long as he or she is living), but said soldier is a chess piece of one type or another…always manipulated from above…lacking autonomy.

And yet, perhaps, no price is too high to pay people who are willing to die to defend their country.

But we must define country.

Defending those who cannot (for one reason or another) defend themselves is indeed honorable.

Defending the abstract structures and mechanisms of a state, perhaps less so…

And yet, a pride can infuse the defense of all of this (either separately or collectively).

And then there is the rebel.

Perhaps the rebel will never again find his army in the first world.

In terms of class warfare, then, the United States is a frozen conflict zone.

Just like Abkhazia or some other little-talked-about blip on the map.

Is there a class war?

Should there be a class war?

Shouldn’t wars of all kinds have been evolved out of existence long ago?

Yes?

No…the rebel shan’t find his army in America.

The battlefield has changed.

And as bathos is my witness, “love is a battlefield”!

Discourse on Benatar.

Cannot contain the dodo on his perch.

But never does Luchino Visconti stoop to such poor taste.

No.

Fever pitch, yes.

But poor taste, never.

Because he is telling Spengler’s story.

And he is still telling WWII.

There can be no avoiding that.  Nine years later.

It must be couched in allegory.

And I, like Baudelaire, am nourished by my own misery.

All of this I owe to Walter Benjamin.

Avoid the jalapeno pronunciation.  ~ath do us part.

Alida Valli gets to show more of her breadth here than in the criminally underrated Paradine Case (no pun intended).

Pennies and “the” will be eliminated from the verbal money supply.

Farley Granger is more of a maniac than in Rope (the Hitchcock closest to my snob heart).

Most importantly, Visconti sets the mood with Bruckner’s 7th Symphony.

And now Carlo Maria Giulini’s recording for Deutsche Grammophon makes more sense.

Senso in what sense?

Direction?

Love leaves you with a worthless compass.

The sun begins to revolve around the Earth.

What a perilous pleasure.

That we hope for forever until our end of days.

No matter the hurt…always more.

For the romantic.

 

-PD