7.15.2016

In defense of...



The assassin takes aim in Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

The 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much has never enjoyed much of a reputation; even Hitchcock aficionados seem to agree that within his canon it’s second- or even third-tier stuff, with many avowing a preference for the original British version of the film (made by Hitchcock himself in 1934).  In both cases the plot of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the second version of which has to do with the efforts of an American couple (Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day) to recover their kidnapped son and thwart an assassination plot, never feels particularly compelling.  It could be argued that Hitchcock rarely felt a personal connection to the plots of his films and that he treated nearly all of them as formal exercises, in which case The Man Who Knew Too Much can be seen as a series of set pieces strung together by a mostly inconsequential story.  In his interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock implies that the 1956 film was his attempt to prove, as much to himself as to his audience, how much his craftsmanship had improved since 1934; he called the remake the work of a professional and dismissed the original as the work of an amateur.  To whit: he seems to have viewed the film as a technical challenge more than anything.
 
Even if it’s true that The Man Who Knew Too Much is little more than a series of set pieces: what set pieces!  The funny/sinister bit at the taxidermist’s shop is a clunker, but the magisterial sequence at Albert Hall remains one of Hitchcock’s most virtuosic concoctions.  The first time I saw it I remember being shocked by just how long the damn thing is (eight minutes!), and by how steadily its tension builds.  It’s a spectacular example of Hitchcock’s masterful ability to use time and space as tools for generating suspense.  There is no place that the eye of Hitchcock’s camera cannot go: it not only tracks the key players in the assassination plot but also monitors the actions of the performers onstage, even at several points following the printed score of the music itself.  The rhythms of the editing work in tandem with the music to create an effect that is as purely cinematic as the dinner table scene in Sabotage or the shower scene in Psycho or the robbery in Marnie.  But there is perhaps no other sequence in Hitchcock in which the analogy of filmmaker-as-orchestrator (“I enjoy playing the audience like a piano”) is literalized more effectively.  Hitchcock the artist is identifiable in the figures of both the conductor and the assassin; he also hovers above the action of the scene, a puppetmaster pulling the strings of all of the players, as suggested by his trademark use of high-angle shots (below).


Hitchcock as puppet-master: Albert Hall as seen from above.

My enjoyment of the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much has as much to do with its ’50s-Hollywood high gloss, especially in the beautifully photographed Morocco scenes.  All of Hitchcock’s color films from this period look gorgeous, and The Man Who Knew Too Much is no exception (which is why it’s such a shame that the current Blu-Ray version of the film suffers from botched restoration work).  I love the night lighting in the scene where Doris Day turns down her son’s bed, and the quality of the sunlight when Day and Stewart walk through a shaded courtyard en route to the police station; the elegant framing of the shots at the Moroccan restaurant where Stewart and Day have dinner (and the slightly corny fish-out-of-water comic business that ensues); and, of course, Day’s dresses, which come courtesy of Edith Head.  And while Day’s climactic performance of “Que Sera Sera” doesn’t make me as verklempt as it did the late Robin Wood, it’s a marvelously deployed gimmick.  There is much to enjoy and appreciate here.

1950s gloss: Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart at the Moroccan restaurant.

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