Who Knew? (No.2)

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“Style is self-plagiarism,” goes the saying, and Hitchcock certainly repeated or developed ideas throughout his career, but the 1956 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is the only instance of his remaking one of his own films in its entirety. And he famously said that the first film was the work of a gifted amateur, the second of a professional.

But some people prefer the original — the very quick delivery of plot points, snappy pace, and loose construction, with its greater room for eccentricity and gags, is indeed quote winning. And I will go so far as to say that John Michael Hayes’ script for the second TMWKTM does have a little fat: it takes a while to get going, and some exchanges between our lovely couple (James Stewart and Doris Day) feel like self-consciously “good dialogue” rather than anything which economically combines character expression with plot development — I’m thinking particularly of the scene where Jimmy and Doris muse about which of his patient’s ailing organs have paid for which parts of their Moroccan holiday.

But asides from that, and the regrettable lack of Peter Lorre, and the fact that Christopher BIGGER THAN LIFE Olsen isn’t as winningly odd as child-woman Nova Pilbeam, I’m afraid the remake has it all over the original. It has Robert Burks on camera, Bernard Herrmann on score, two perfectly suited stars who are great together, production designer Henry Bumstead joining the team, and some excellent bit parts too. Daniel Gelin takes over ably from Pierre Fresnay as the suave French spy who kicks off the story. The principle villains, Bernard Miles and Brenda DeBanzie, start the film so spectacularly colourless that we never suspect them of any role in the plot, and then he becomes increasingly sinister as she becomes more sympathetic. Richard Wattis,  a well-known comic face of the period, gets a tiny walk-on as a flustered underling and makes every second count. And the younger of the two taxidermists featured is played, brilliantly, by Richard Wordsworth, Caroon the mutating spaceman from the previous year’s Hammer hit, THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT.

All this and Carolyn Jones!

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Special mention needs to be made of Reggie Nalder as the assassin, Rien (good name!). Adding exotic creep factor where Miles and DeBanzie exude normality, the facially-scarred Austrian enters movie history with a few lines and an alarming smile. Like fellow Euro-creep Daniel Emilfork, Nalder is a good actor with a great face, someone who kept being discovered by moviemakers without acquiring full-on fame. See him in Argento’s THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, and Salem’s Lot, always adding unbeatable production values with his alarmingly taut smile. He looks like at any moment his skin might split and let his skull get at you. And he knows it.

Fortunately, there isn’t too much Reggie — an entertainment like this couldn’t stand it — and Hitchcock leavens the grim child-abduction plot with humour and intrigue. But he doesn’t fail to take the emotions seriously. Day’s big scene, where her husband dopes her before breaking the news that their child is gone, is a showstopper, fully justifying Hitch’s faith in his unorthodox casting choice (I’d love to have seen both Shirley MacLaine and Doris Day do more films for Hitch). And her utterly savage look when she re-encounters one of the kidnappers in Ambrose Chapel, London, is very impressive too.

Having been to the Marrakech International Film Festival (a luxurious affair, I recommend it if you get the chance) I always enjoy seeing the city on the big screen, even if much of the action here conspicuously takes place before a rear-projection screen. There are still some gorgeously vivid Technicolor ‘scapes to enjoy.

“The Muslim faith allows for few accidents.”

manwho3When the makeup man couldn’t find brown makeup for Daniel Gelin to wear that would rub off on Stewart’s fingers, exposing white skin, so at Gelin’s own suggestion Stewart applied white paint to his fingertips which would then smear pale streaks across Gelin’s blacked-up face. At any rate, this second appearance of blackface in a Hitch film is less uncomfortable than the drummer man in YOUNG AND INNOCENT.

One example of typically Hitchcockian cheek — when Daniel Gelin is chased through the streets by bad guys, he falls in blue paint, making him easy to pick out among the otherwise similarly dressed Arab populace. Then he’s stabbed by an assassin (Nalder?) and the police run right past him, after the knife-man. It seems slightly implausible that they’d disregard the man they’d apparently been chasing — and why were they after him anyway? The whole sequence seems rather hard for to make sense of in light of what we later learn. But it’s excellently staged.

London! The gang of showbiz cronies crashing in on Stewart and Day (as the McKennas — I dig how Jimmy Stewart usually has a Scottish name in his Hitch perfs, cf Scottie Fergusson) seem a little overstretched, but are actually the set-up to one of the most delightful last-scene pay-offs in any Hitchcock movie. And the scattered references to real life celebs like music-hall and movie star Bud Flanagan are pleasing, reminding us of the world of the original TMWKTM.

A slowly developing pleasure in this film is Bernard Herrmann’s score, which confines itself to non-melodic, vaguely eastern sounds in the Moroccan sequence, until Stewart gets the phone call announcing his son is a hostage, and then a familiarly Herrmannesque spiraling tinkle announces the start of the truly Hitchcockian scenario. And the music gets more and more archetypically Herrmann as we reach London — after THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, which is an exception because it’s not a thriller, this movie feels like the development of the Hitchcock-Herrmann style is going on as the movie unfolds before you. Beautiful.

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I love the deserted London streets, and the eerie POV/reaction sequence as Jimmy Stewart navigates the mean alleys of Camden Town and I love the inappropriate but welcome comedy relief of the taxidermists. Many things to cherish here: the slow, pointless intrigue of the elder Ambrose Chappell giving way to the younger. The fact that all the staff are in their dotage. A camera move that circles a big cat, only to reveal it is minus a back end. The shot that posits an extremely menacing tiger head behind Ambrose Jnr, for comically exaggerated menace. The fact that Stewart’s garbled story about the late Louis Bernard seems to be giving poor Mr Chappell the impression that Stewart is a maniac who wants to have his deceased friend stuffed and mounted. And the slapstick fight with swordfish and tiger as adversaries. Plus the prefiguring of PSYCHO.

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More deserted streets outside the real Ambrose Chapel, in darkest Bayswater, scene of a wonderfully scary approach and look to camera by the often-alarming Brenda DeBanzie. Some tricky coming and going manages to separate Stewart and Day, although it’s a little surprising how little in the way of set-piece drama is created (but the suspense never lets up, and unlike in the first version of this story, Hitch and Hayes keep the McKennas separated from their son right till the end). Surprising that Stewart has to break out of the church by shimmying up the bell-rope to the belfry, anticipating VERTIGO, when he could just have smashed a window on the ground floor.

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The Albert Hall assassination attempt manages to top even the matching scene in the original film, via dazzling shots like the one showing the shadow of the conductor’s baton (Herrmann in Hitch-style cameo) touching the top of each note in the score, and the amazing perspective along Nalder’s gun. This is the first musical motif to reach a climax, with the cymbal clash as signal for the hitman (also dig the percussionist’s POV shot looking between his cymbals!), and it’s quite quickly followed by the second, whereby Doris Day’s call-and-answer rendition of Que Sera Sera enables her to locate her son in the foreign embassy. (Which foreign embassy? While the thirties version kept its conspiring nation nameless, it clearly resonates with the pre-war tensions of the day; the remake shuns all reference to the Cold War and studiously avoids political meaning of any kind).

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Surprisingly, the sinister ringleader, Miles’s boss,  is never detected, despite being the mastermind of the whole scheme, and surprisingly we don’t care. As little Chris Olsen is reunited with his folks, Hitchcock, impatient with sentimentality, dissolves to our last shot, the aforementioned beautiful pay-off, so smart and unexpected and deftly delivered and hilarious that it reconfigures everything we’ve just seen as a splendid joke by the Master.

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19 Responses to “Who Knew? (No.2)”

  1. One interesting thing about THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is a scene where they’re coursing through the bazaar and Doris sees a mother with a child and immediately says that she wants a baby to James Stewart, there’s a similar scene in Rossellini’s VOYAGE TO ITALY made approximately at the same time. The Rossellini like the Hitchcock is about married tourists who visit a foreign land though the similarities end there but a shot like that is a lot like the one in VOYAGE. Hitchcock’s next film THE WRONG MAN is very Neorealism influenced.

    The film is one of the great movies about a married couple, especially in American cinema. In this case, a normal, happy marriage who are unlikely to divorce but there are still problems in the union about trust, communication and identity. The irony is that James Stewart as a surgeon who saw action in war is less intuitive about things than Jo who’s a popular singer. She immediately knew that Daniel Gelin wasn’t who he says he was and got to the right Ambrose Chapell on her because she was waiting behind while he went head first and made a fool of himself(though it’s totally understandable in the circumstances). And of course it’s her singing that helps them find her son in the end.

  2. I watched Chabrol’s great political thriller NADA last nigth. It’s an excellent film. Chabrol is fast becoming one of my favourite directors.

  3. And all thanks to Film Club!

    Also, Arthur, the Rossellini connection is enhanced because the idea of Doris as a celebrity married to a doctor is inspired by Bergman’s previous relationship. So along with Rear Window, that’s at least two Hitchcocks where Jimmy Stewart’s romantic interest is based on Bergman’s real love life. That does start to look a tiny bit obsessive.

  4. Hitchcock never forgave Rossellini for taking away his favourite actress away from him. After their marriage ended, he offered Ingrid roles in some movies but she turned him down because Rossellini kind of burnt her out, I guess. Rossellini first met Bergman in London on the set of UNDER CAPRICORN.

    VERTIGO doesn’t seem to be based on Ingrid Bergman though.

  5. There’s an unfinished paragraph there about brown make-up. Is nobody else getting that?

  6. Thanks, Simon! No idea how that happened, apparently WordPress didn’t save correctly. There were some missing pictures too.

  7. The scene where Jimmy drugs Doris is truly audacious. I can’t imagine anyone other than Hitch getting away with it.

    In many ways this is the height of the Hitch/Herrmann collaboration. They work together beautifully here, as music is essential to the climax. A good compare/contrast is with Hangover Square in which Herrmann calls the shots by means of his music cues.

    LOVE the ending of this Man Who Knew Too Kuch. Really funny and topped off with a great Herrmann smash-bang.

  8. It’s Herrmann’s adaptation of the music used in the original version, The Storm Clouds Gather. It sounds very Herrmannesque though.

    I think the collaboration just keeps improving, along with Hitch’s artistry, right up until Psycho, and possibly The Birds.

  9. Don’t really get why the ending is funny?

  10. I didn’t want to spoil the joke for people by describing it. But basically the McKenna’s have left their visitors in the hotel for hour, but they’re still there, sleeping. Jimmy and Doris and Chris walk in as if nothing had happened. “Sorry we’re late, we had to pick up Hank!” declares Jimmy, cheerfully.

    Vertigo could be seen as being based on Bergman & Grace Kelly in part one and Hedren in part two. When Stewart tries to make over Novak to resemble his lost love, many have compared that to Hitch’s subsequent styling of Tippi.

  11. Actually Vertigo is derived from Hitch’s inability to make what he said was his dream project — J.M. Barrie’s Mary Rose.

  12. MARY ROSE also influenced MARNIE and according to Bill Krohn, FAMILY PLOT…

  13. Christopher Says:

    I’ll always think of ol’ rat face in Mark of the Devil when I see Regie Nalder

  14. The success of Les Diaboliques no doubt also influenced Hitch’s decision to by Boileau & Narcejac’s novel, which became Vertigo.

    Nalder is memorably unpleasant in Mark of the Devil: he has a substantial role, and the film aims for a realistic style (hampered by the lounge music, alas) in which the presence of somebody like Reggie’s character is barely endurable. What a horrible film! Not nearly as good as Witchfinder General, but arguably more powerfully unpleasant.

  15. David Boxwell Says:

    Hitch humiliates Stewart in the Moroccan restaurant almost as much as he does in VERTIGO. It’s supposed to be comical, but it’s flat out sadistic.

    And then Day being sedated is just skin-crawling. Let a mother express her grief!

    Both versions are great in their own ways.

  16. How is it humiliating? It’s just the usual discomfort occidental folk have with middle-eastern cuisine. And I don’t see anything humiliating in VERTIGO either.

    Drugging your spouse is part of unspoken marital customs.

  17. Isn’t the joke at the end of this “Knew Too Much” more-or-less repeated at the end of the Losey-Stoppard “Romantic Englishwoman.”

    I believe it was Molly Haskell who pointed out that Day, unhappy at having her singing career stopped by marriage to Stewart, finds strength and resolution by singing out — at the embassy (the “Que Sera”) and, metaphorically, by screaming at the sight of Nalder.

    There’s a good joke, too, in Brenda De Banzie’s saying of her husband “He’s such a bore, he never does anything!” (or words to that effect. *This* of a kidnapper involved ina spy plot?

  18. Yes, Day finds her voice, and wins with it.

    The thing I was forgetting about Stewart drugging his wife, until I saw it again, is that he needs to sedate her so they can escape the hotel and pursue the kidnappers to London, and they need to present a normal appearance. At least, that’s the narrative excuse.

    The other point is that it’s the only scene where Dr McKenna’s medical expertise is used in the plot. In Rear Window it’s consistently crucial that he’s a photographer, it’s highly relevant that he’s a professional thinker in Rope, and in Vertigo his status as detective is key. Can’t allow the protagonist’s profession to go to waste!

    (And in North by Northwest, Cary Grant is an ad man, a professional liar, who finds himself mixed up with the big liars, the secret service and international spies.)

  19. David Boxwell Says:

    Day has no problem adopting the eating customs of Morocco, and mocks Stewart’s unease. He’s like a giant stork awkwardly attempting to fold himself into position to eat on the floor from the low table, and he can’t tear off a small portion of food. It’s a humiliating treatment of a mythic American hero. And it is fascinating to watch.

    VERTIGO: Stewart’s desperate, fetishistic “makeover” of Judy is humiliating to both Judy and himself. He’s almost sweaty in the scene, hectoring her to wear her hair the “right” way.

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