Saturday, March 27, 2010

The 25: The Man Who Knew Too Much: Part 2

(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)

Among Hitchcock’s early British Classics (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, The Lodger) I rank The Man Who Knew Too Much The Best. Among Hitchcock’s entertainments I rank it near the top. As one of the formative viewing experiences of my life I merely rank it sublime.

I’m still not sure how I came to be alone that day, for that long, with access to the TV something that always had to be carefully negotiated.

It was on a family trip, I remember that much, we’d met up with several members of the extended family. But for whatever reason, I stayed behind at the hotel, with the cable TV.

Once again, I’m not sure why I did this as at the time my interest in film was rather limited. But for whatever reason I settled upon a documentary about a fat bald British man who made films. After the documentary the station promised that they’d be playing a few of the man’s films directly afterwards. I was intrigued enough, to stick around. And that’s when I had my first encounter, with one Alfred Hitchcock, and suddenly I understood what a director did indeed.

They played The Birds later that day as well, which certainly made an impression, but they played The Man Who Knew Too Much first and as a result that was the one that absolutely blew my mind.

It’s a film that I believe is underappreciated these days. Its overshadowed by its inexplicably popular remake, which I personally consider to be Hitchcock’s worst film. This in all fairness has as much to do with my affection for this one, as it does Doris Day’s dreadful performance, an apparently doped Jimmy Stewart, and an astounding narrative paucity coming from Hitchcock (not that I’m bitter or anything).

The genius thing about The Man Who Knew To Much, is how utterly tangential to the action the heroes are. A married 1930’s English couple, they’re not spies, or polititcians, they’re playboys and athletes, who have the bad luck of having one of their coaches be an MI5 agent. When he’s assassinated at a mountain resort he tasks them to deliver his intelligence to the British consulate. Only, a gang of sabateours and spies led by the great Peter Lorre (whose trademark mixture of intelligence, wit, a certain dapperness, and sublime creepiness has never been put to better use) kidnap their child. Being upright British citizen’s they’re not going to let a little thing like the kidnapping and possible death of their only child get in the way, they decide to go bust the spy ring and foil their plotted assassination themselves.

And what a charming couple they are too. Unfairly, Hitchcock often seems to be used as a synonym for misogynistic. And while you can’t deny that the master probably had some, shall we say unresolved issues with women (You really only need to watch Stewart’s self immolating final scene in Vertigo for that) indeed that’s what gives a lot of his film’s their queasy psychological intensity I don’t think this can necessarily be translated to misogyny. Say what you will about Hitchcock but he nearly unaminously portrayed the company of women as something to be enjoyed not endured, and marriage (like Powell and Loy) like something that might be fun and worthwhile for both parties. This is something the movies can’t seem to get right now.

Compared to other filmmakers accused of misogyny brings Hitch’s complexity to further light. When Gasper Noe or Lars Von Trier wants to show you a famous woman on the receiving end of a humiliating gang rape, they spare no expense on reveling in the full ugliness of the situation. The suffering of Hitchcock’s women is more abstract, nearly pieta like. Hitchcock is not often discussed in terms of his Catholicism, but what is Kim Novak’s suffering in Vertigo, or Bergman’s in Notorious but the expression of the superhuman? Hitchcock heroines lose much, but never their dignity.

In the end Hitchcock portrays women as equal as if not markedly superior (Note it’s the wife who saves the day at the end of The Man Who Knew Too Much, both in the macro assassination plot and the micro kidnapping one (or is that the other way around one never can tell with Hitch). However, they will always be intractably alien beings to Hitchcock. Alluring, Intellegent, Brave and entirely unknowable.

While there are other more acclaimed Hitchcock films (Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho), and there are ones I like better (Strangers On A Train, Notorious, Shadow Of A Doubt) to me The Man Who Knew Too Much is the purest distillation of The Hitchcock Mystique. The others are all mutations, The Man Who Knew Too Much delivers the base strain. In short, you are not safe nor will you ever be safe. No matter who you are, danger will find you. I can still remember the moment that hit me. The heroes have tracked the spy ring to a “sun cult” as they investigate, they come under attack, frantically they begin to break chairs and cause a commotion trying to get the attention of the outside, when calmly the organist starts to play, drowning out their noise.

Yes, strange dentists will try and gas you, when you knock on a door you’ll be shot from behind it, sinister foreigners will take your child, sun worshipers will try to kill you, and an organ will drown your screams, cruel fate will not merely fuck you, but smile while it does it.

The fact that Hitchcock could deliver such a harsh message in the strictures of an entertainment, not once or twice slipped past the censors, but consistently in almost every film in his entire career, and that he would not just have people come, but knowingly flock to his films to be told so astounds.

The fact that Hitchcock delivered these messages not in “serious” films but in entertainments, had no small effect on my film going psyche. Film in all its many forms and geneses is worth attention, observation, and consideration. Anyone who dismisses a film outright risks one day biting into a candy and finding a razorblade.


Matt Keeley said...

I've only watched this film once, at a young age and on an awful VHS copy. You make me want to go see it again.

Interested that you think the remake is Hitchcock's worst film – I certainly think it has its moments, especially the Royal Albert Hall scene, with its seven minutes without dialogue. Not sure what I would name the great man's worst film, as I even like The Trouble with Harry...

Re: Hitchcock and Catholicism: Apparently the original plan for the film ended with the priest going to the electric chair to preserve the silence of the confessional. And apparently Graham Greene didn't like Hitchcock's movies. This makes my mind boggle, because those two could have done so much together...

-Matt Keeley (keele864 from TT)

Bryce Wilson said...

I'm more then willing to concede that my distaste for Hitch's remake is as much my own fault as the film's. I'm annoyed by how it overshadows this one, and frankly cannot stand Doris Day in it.

It certainly has its moments, but I prefer the Trouble With Harry (or for that matter Marnie) as well.

I never made the Graham Greene connection. The idea of a collaboration between the two will now haunt me for the rest of my days. Thank you. Thank you very much.