The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

February 19, 2009

The absolute tragedy of The Man Who Knew Too Much is that the opening half an hour of scene-setting and character establishment isn’t anywhere near strong enough to match up to the genuinely gripping meat of the film.  It is not that the film is boring, it’s certainly not like The Deer Hunter where the viewer’s resolve is tested and only the mentally strong can stomach the fourteen hour Wedding in order to get to the great stuff hiding away afterwards.  It is simply that the opening half-hour establishes James Stewart and Doris Day as an irritating and slightly foolish couple who think rather more highly of themselves, though maybe not of one another, than they might.  And when the film turns gripping suddenly it’s not so much that I get discombobulated by the shift, it’s simply that there’s a period where I know that I’m not engaged in the way that I should be and need to be for the film to work.  It happens of course, despite Doris Day and all the ‘oh-so-wholesome, apple pie, Que Sera Sera, too good to be true and dull as a pair of old pants’ baggage she brings I do begin to care.  I do get edgy.  I do want her to find a way to stop the shot.  That’s the skill of Hitchcock.  But he has to use so much of it redeeming the first half hour and- let’s be frank I hope this was forced upon him- the presence of Doris fucking Day and her fucking song, that the film is nowhere near the levels of dramatic excellence it could have reached.  For him to have blown his second shot at this story, and I haven’t seen the first in some years so I can only assume that he was unhappy with that too, is a real tragedy.  And it is blown- a real wasted opportunity.  Of course, as ever, I’m being hypercritical of someone I greatly admire.  If this was, say, a Barry Levinson film I’d be raving about it and moaning that he hardly ever shows any signs of this kind of skill in his other films.  But however good a job Hitch does of making up for it, there’s still no getting away from the fact that he lets her sing that fucking song in his film.  Twice!  Oscar my arse (as an Aston Villa manager may have said back in the sixties).

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So I’m not going to mention her again- other than to say in some scenes she’s really pretty convincing, its just that in others she’s useless which means that she may as well have been useless all along.  Right, that’s it!  No more mentions of that woman again.  And no I’m not on about that woman, Ms Lewinsky, I’m referring- or rather no longer referring- to the blonde bombsite up there .

The film then takes a wonderful turn just over half an hour in.  There has been intrigue before this with the urbane but mysterious Louis Bernard’s behaviour perplexing the normal, upright McKennas.  There’s even been a murder- Bernard in largely unexplained face-paint is butchered in a busy Marrakesh market right in front of the McKennas.  But 37 minutes in Jimmy Stewart receives a chilling call, Bernard Herrmann strikes up the band and Hitch focuses the camera on Jimmy’s hand anxiously gripping a telephone directory and the film takes flight.  Up to this point Stewart had played his character as grouchy and a little aloof, but this is stripped away instantly and he seems fallible and human and all of his ornery qualities become strengths.  It’s a clever performance by Stewart, playing an everyman character thrown into a volatile situation beyond normal comprehension could easily see the opening stages of the film played out by a sweet, happy, pleasant man- a male Doris Day if you like- rather than an uptight, opinionated, sometimes bolshie and sometimes funny guy.  And because he is a real person with a genuine and convincing angst over the safety of his son I find myself hooked.  The score helps, the direction helps but the real strength of the scene is in James Stewart’s brow.

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From that turning point we’re off on a Hitchcockian rollercoaster.  If you’ve seen The 39 Steps or North By Northwest, you’ll have seen this done better but it’s still exciting.  The action sees Day and Stewart frequently separate and not always acting with the other in mind, their frantic and often instinctual actions are beautifully shot with each finding themselves in odd positions as a result of their impetuosity- the scene with Stewart barging through a taxidermists as the staff try variously to restrain him and to protect their stuffed animals is priceless, James Stewart being bitten by a stuffed tiger in a Camden backstreet is not a sight you see every day!  There are false turns, red herrings,  suspicious officials and plausible bad-guys but at no point does this get confusing, it’s all deftly balanced and explained with great visual flourishes (though the earlier technicolour does look barely better than some colourised films I’ve seen) – and builds to the great Royal Albert Hall sequence.

The scene in the Royal Albert Hall is probably as dramatic as could be without tipping over into campy melodrama.  The set-up is fantastic, though it does require a little suspension of disbelief, and allows Hitch to stretch the scene out.  The viewer is already aware of the piece of music that will coincide in the shot being fired- a climactic cymbal crash- and the piece builds to it, then fades out several times heightening the tension through Doris Day’s character.  It is a beautiful example of how to control an audience.

After this, the film falls a little flat again.  The drama of what has just gone on needs to be released in some way but the plot requires that the final loose end is tied up.  This section of the film- lamentably shoehorning in another rendition of ‘Que Sera Sera’- cannot help but be anti-climactic and the film loses some impact here too.  It is a little too contrived, a little too neatly arranged and the final scene where the couple return to their waiting guests- who would have had time to grow a beard during their absence- is as cheesy as Hitchcock ever got.

And so I find The Man Who Knew Too Much disappointing.  Plenty within it is of the highest calibre and much of the rest is really unworthy of such a great filmmaker. 5/10

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Vertigo (1958)

January 29, 2009

There is something about this film, something in the atmosphere of it, which is quite unique.  It isn’t quite dreamy and it certainly isn’t surreal, I’m guessing the best word is hypnotic.  The film lasts about two hours but feels longer because it immerses the viewer within- it doesn’t interest or intrigue or engage me, it enraptures me.  Everything contributes- the storyline with its twists and juxtapositions, the cinematography which somehow makes contemporary San Francisco look ethereal (and this isn’t the lustre added by the intervening years, I am sure), the performance of James Stewart with conflicting emotions of guilt and confusion and love and hope writ large across his brow, the direction which is confident, controlled and unhurried and finally- perhaps most importantly- Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score.

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There is such a great deal of depth to ‘Vertigo’ that you really can find new things to consider with each watch.  Here’s what I mean: watching this yesterday I was, for the first time, pondering the control that the male characters exercise over the female characters in their lives- Gavin Elster over Judy, ‘Scottie’ over Judy, ‘Scottie’ over ‘Midge’ and the unknown man from the bookseller’s story over Carlotta (his comment “they could do that back then” being ironic in that context).  Juxtaposed with this are the supposed obsession with Carlotta which Madelaine portrays and the obsession with Madelaine which leads ‘Scottie’ to possess Judy.  The film examines these relationships without drawing conclusions- these are left to the viewer- in each instance the man is rich and substantially older, the girl becomes a plaything or a means of passing the time, to be moulded and shaped in whatever image suits the man’s mood.  What this says about patriarchal relationships for Hitchcock is unimportant, he posits the question for the viewer to consider without guiding those thoughts.

There are culture snobs who claim that cinema isn’t art.  If Goya or Rembrandt created anything that betters Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ then I’ll eat my hat- 10/10.


The 39 Steps (1935)

January 17, 2009

This is what used to be called- and probably still is- an adventure yarn.  I think it’s fair to say they don’t make them like this any more. Hitchcock’s gift for suspense allied to his much underrated comic direction are both utilised to the full in this film.

Robert Donat plays a holidaying Canadian in London who stumbles across a spy plot and is engaged in a race against time to save the entire Western world.  I’ll be honest, it requires a pretty healthy suspension of disbelief.  The whole thing moves at great pace, the dialogue is snappy and memorable, the performances are- and I don’t think it’s a criticism necessarily- very typical of the period (especially Lucie Mannheim’s death), and the drama is intensified skilfully with occasional and timely comic relief by Hitch.

The whole thing exemplifies pre-Hollywood Hitchcock at his most confident- the maid’s squeal which is replaced by a screaming steam train, the suspicious and oppressive crofter who is by turns comical and villainous, the conversation in which Donat persuades the milkman to aid his escape and lurches from sinister to comedic to dramatic in mere seconds, the dramatic chase across the Scottish moors and finally the mise-en-scene which switches from the death of Mr Memory to the chorus girls to the happy coming together of the film’s stars.  Marvellous utilisation of the raw ingredients.

Most importantly of all, the film’s female lead Madeleine Carroll was born in my home town West Bromwich.  If this was awful I’d still give it a decent mark on the basis of that alone.  But it isn’t, it’s delicious and dramatic and funny and exciting and a worthy 9/10.