Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Retro Active Critique #18

Everyone has their favorite one, or even a long list of them. Alfred Hitchcock's films are infinitely satisfying and there is no lack of enthusiasm for his body of work from cinephiles and more mainstream folk, alike. My intention in plucking "The Man Who Knew Too Much" from Hitch's magnificent oeuvre is to shine a light on one that has been among my personal favorites (alongside "Suspicion", "North By Northwest" and "Rear Window"), yet somehow receives far less attention than, say, "Vertigo". Again, this is my personal take, but "Vertigo" is not quite as satisfying, clean or streamlined in terms of storytelling as its less-revered kin, "The Man Who Knew Too Much". But this post isn't about drawing a comparison. Rather, it's a reminder to those who may be interested that this is also one to watch.

Several components in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" have made it stand out for me. I've always been drawn into it very deeply –– it's mesmerizing. This film, as many are aware, is actually a remake of Hitchock's earlier version from 1934. That in itself is a rarity. Hitch realized he had a story that could be revisited and improved upon in many ways later on in his career. That commitment to storytelling is admirable. And this later version is indeed successful in so many ways. I imagine that in the year 1956, to have actually filmed it in an exotic location like Marrakesh, Morocco (and in vivid Technicolor, no less), this one must have looked absolutely ravishing to the viewers' eyes. The fact that the images are still stunning today, having held up for decades, is even more impressive. Every aspect of this film holds up –– (all but the wardrobe, which feels charmingly dated.) The plot, its movement, the characters, the dialogue, relationships and acting are all solid and fresh, still. This is how I wish movies would always feel, with its fine balance of movement and story.

Doris Day, herself, is a revelation here. She is a performer who had something people resonated with in her time, but her appeal doesn't necessarily translate now. Despite finding Ms. Day entertaining in her own (somewhat stiff and unique) way, I had never quite taken her seriously –– until I watched this film. The scene when her husband, a doctor played by Stewart, carefully tells her the terrible news about the disappearance of their son –– but only after cajoling her into taking a sedative, first, before he's willing to speak to her (a fabulous scene altogether) –– she is utterly believable and heartbreaking in her feverish, hysterical response. Hers remains a surprisingly raw performance.

Speaking of which, what could be more terrifying or suspenseful that realizing your child has been taken from you –– especially while you are so far from home? The simplicity of this emotionally driven quest for the protagonists is much more compelling than any complicated thriller. After all, Alfred Hitchcock was himself a parent and a man whose very intimate, lifelong relationship with deep anxiety made for a career in provoking feelings of suspense within his ever-captivated audience. So he knew enough to know that "The Man Who Knew Too Much" would be the ultimate story to tell. So much, in fact, that he had to tell it twice! And with that, perhaps I've made my case. Watch it for yourselves and thank me later.