Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

There’s a technique surely everyone’s now familiar with in suspense or horror films: humor. Often the first part of the film is lighthearted, which serves to…well, you know, make it so that everyone in the audience is really primed to be emotionally demolished.

Hitchcock’s actors in the Man Who Knew Too Much included Peter Lorre, who worked with Brecht, and Nova Pilbeam, who  married Pen Tennyson, great-grandson of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who took over the post of Poet Laureate from Wordsworth, who’d assumed it after Robert Southey, totally mocked by Lord Byron, and Tennyson’s descended from Edward III, of pseudo-Shakespeare fame, and Blake pseudo-fame. Hitchcock, who considered Bunuel the greatest director, Bunuel who worked with Dali, Hitchcock who was worshiped by Truffaut, Truffaut who called Night and Fog the greatest film ever made, which was made by Resnais, who thinks Nathalie is a sweetheart, and so do I, and tomorrow I really need to call her.

I mean, when you stop and think about it, that’s all so much more fascinating than the lies we’ve been told about the good intentions of George Washington.

Hitchcock remade this film in 1956, my comments here, and the film is fairly dense both structurally and in terms of character development. It’s a gorgeous example of the director knowing more about the characters than he lets on, and because there are no explanations, we’re left believing these people are real. Is it necessary? No. Does it make the film more forceful? Yes. But what other differences are there?

Well, to start with, I’ll remind you that this is a story about a child being kidnapped and how his parents go about saving him. The 1956 version has a weaker female lead whose strength is in her musical ability, weakness in her mental fortitude, and the film is just as much about the saving of a child as the saving of a marriage. The 1934 version has a couple with a delightfully sense of love and humor, a British version of Nick and Nora Charles, though The Thin Man‘s earliest European release date is from the same month as this film’s release! So much for Nick and Nora Charles being essentially American. The mother in this story also happens to be a sharpshooter who saves the day not by singing, but by sniping the baddie off the fucking roof. Yeah. Imagine Doris Day with a rifle.

It always gives me a little chill when Brits show anything that look like real emotions. Maybe that’s why I like Lily Allen.

In the 1934 version the child is played by the 15 year old Nova Pilbeam, who’s made to seem much younger, but who, in actuality, was a total hottie, and one of the only starlets of that era with whom I still have a chance to, you know, get with. Even if she is 90. I’ve seen some pretty vibrant nonagenarians. If you have her email address, please let her know.

Compare her with the boy in the 1956 version. Both kids are talkative and walking calamities, but Nova Pilbeam is adorable and the boy is insufferable. I hate him. The kidnappers can have him, because I hate him from the very first scene. It’s also worth noting that Nova Pilbeam’s acting stands out as superb, especially considering the differences compared to other actors of the period. The final scene, when she’s a little hysterical/shell-shocked, is stunning–it’s unlike any sound I’ve ever heard uttered on film up until that point. And her pajamas, prisoners stripes, are a sickening addition for the wardrobe. I must add, though, that anything I watch from this period is with one eye toward the trenches of the Western Front, another eye toward Dunkirk, and that awful understanding that as this film was being made, even one of its stars had already fled Nazi Germany.

We only think time goes quickly because we have the capacity to suffer so horribly during short periods.

But a hundred summers ago we had no idea that the British Empire was about to collapse. King Edward died in May 1910, which means that the film Mary Poppins begins before that date (“it’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910 / King Edward’s on the throne, it is the age of men”) — Kaiser Wilhelm, his nephew, was at his funeral, and the family name was still Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Wilhelm blamed the German disillusionment with the war, and subsequent collapse of the country, on the Jews, stating that they should be wiped out as a vermin.

“And if we spoke we’d never see her again. It’s her life against this fellow, Ropa’s. Why should we care if some foreign statesman we’ve never even heard of were assasinated?”
“Tell me, in June 1914, had you ever heard of a place called Sarajevo? Of course you hadn’t. I doubt if you’d even heard of the Archduke Ferdinand. But in month’s time, because a man you’d never heard of killed another man you’d never heard of in a place you’d never heard of, this country was at war.”

And there you have it. That’s how the world works. That’s logic that every single person in the audience would have understood. Our ancient history hadn’t been written yet. Perhaps it reminds you of today. A man we’ve never heard of is supposedly going to open a building whose purpose we don’t know, on a street none of us can name and certainly can’t find on a map. And the whole country is in an uproar because the Republicans see it as evidence that our president is a terrorist sympathizer. We’re all slaves, every single one of us. Stupid fucking slaves whose lives, to our leaders, are worth less than the ink on our birth certificates. But god, we know how to suffer. We know how to take a bee-sting and feel it for an eternity. So it’s easy to think you have all the time in the world, easy to think the Great War happened before the invention of consciousness. But it was just yesterday. I’ve met and touched a man who fought there. There’s so much more to life than the petty shit you find important.

And here’s some recommended reading on Hitchcock’s 1930s films as anti-German: http://www.filminfocus.com/article/hitchcock_at_war/print

and lyrics and footnotes to “The Writing of Tipperary” http://www.mysongbook.de/msb/songs/w/writingo.html

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Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

I haven’t any idea why both Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart hold such happy places in my heart–but they do. This is the sort of Hitchcock I enjoy most, when I’m not left feeling sick and paranoid. Well, right now I’m feeling sick because I’ve been drinking coffee all night and that’s a miserable thing for one to do. Beyond everything else, what I found striking in this film was his character development, which extended beyond the individuals and into their relationships with one another. I argue that Hitchcock takes the archetype of the hero/homecoming story for his model, but improves and modernizes it (don’t the two always go hand in hand?) by giving us two heroes whose ‘home’ is contentment in marriage; and I don’t mean that marriage is the goal, as in much of comedic Shakespeare, but rather more like in Austen, where characters battle each other and themselves in order to discover why a marriage would be happy.

Hitchcock throws us in some sense in media res by placing us at what proves to be the crucial moment in a troubled marriage. And then, rather than relying on flashbacks a la Telemachus to divulge the prehistory, the characters themselves drop hints. The first indicator in the film that this Hitchcock follows the archetype is that the film is neatly divided into two segments, both of which begin and end abruptly, and all hints are found within the first segment. A third segment is the one that occurs before the film, being the one only hinted at. The Morocco segment lays out all the problems: the marriage is in trouble, and the son is kidnapped. The kidnapping of the son arguably is a result of the failing marriage, and the London segment is dedicated to saving the son and fixing the marriage.

The first thing I noticed was that the son talks a lot. He’s obnoxious because he’s constantly commenting on everything his parents say, usually in a way that serves to lift the mood of the conversation though he acts as if he doesn’t know he’s being witty or funny. I’ve seen children act like this before–it’s how they desperately attempt to keep everyone happy. It’s how they try to prevent their parents from arguing.

1. Ben (Jimmy Stewart) says he’s called his wife ‘Jo’ for so long that he’s forgotten that she’s called anything else–her name is actually Josephine. Not only has he forgotten who she is, but he’s also given her a new name, which, as in the first chapters of Genesis, is a way of acquiring domination over anyone/anything.

2. They easily get caught up in tiffs. This is maintained throughout the Morocco segment and ends with the London segment, when they immediately begin working together seamlessly.

3. He’s fickle about what he feels strongly about, or else he tries to take up her cause with excess vigor. When he pushes aside her distrust of Louis Bernard, after she insists he finally becomes enraged with Bernard, to the point that even Jo tries to calm him down–because his emotions don’t make any sense. This is what made me begin taking notes, because it made me believe they’d had a fight in the past to which he was reacting.

4. She wants to have another baby. She brings this fact up entirely out of the blue. To us. But it’s a continuation of a series of conversations that take place in the pre-film segment that we don’t see.

5. They have monthly fights. They let us know this–and the ‘monthly’ bit threw me off because it inevitably implies that it’s her fault, but it’s not Ben who says it. She asks, ‘Ben, are we about to have our monthly fight?’ when, if it was related to her, he would be looking to her for the answer. At the same time, this happens to be the same day that she’s mentioned that she wants another baby. The conclusion I reach is that everyone should be praised for not blaming the fights on monthly lunacy, but rather they should be blamed on a monthly reminder of fertility.

6. ‘Six months ago you told me I took too many pills,’ says Jo. They measure time with their fights; but also, if she’d merely taken one aspirin too many and had a stomach ache, she wouldn’t have pinned it to a date like this. I’m going to call it a suicide attempt. Ben says ‘you know what happens when you get excited and nervous’–and she usually becomes hysterical (whose Greek root suggests the stereotype I mean), the hysteria ultimately being what saves the day.

7. Ben’s big plan is to offer the kidnappers ‘every penny I have’ to get back their son. He’s thinking in terms of his own money, not what they share. This would be meaningless except for the detail that she’s a world-famous singer who he’s convinced to give up her career and move to a backwards town in the midwest and be supported by him. In fact, their whole Europe/Morocco vacation is being funded by him and his work as a small-town doctor. They begin and carry on a joke for quite too long about which fixed body-part or delivered baby is responsible for, i.e., ‘I’m wearing Johnny Matthews’ appendix’ and ‘All the way home we’ll be riding on Herbie Taylor’s ulcers.’ Jo’s the one who comes up with this concept–and it’s the first time they’ve discussed it, as Jo says she’s ‘never thought of it that way’ before. Where is her money, as one would expect her to be worth significantly more than he is? Who knows.

So, these are the hints. And I think what it comes down to is likely this: they made a ‘deal’ that meant her retirement, their marriage, some children, and their total settling down. It wasn’t in that order, as she’d played London four years before the film’s action, and their son is older than that, but since then she’s settled down–and another child hasn’t come. And I think this is why they fight, because he hasn’t held up his end of the deal, and he’s holding her down because he feels inadequate when he compares their respective financial values.

In the end, it takes what he regards as her weaknesses (her hysterics, when she screams and thwarts the murder; her music career, when she uses it to both find their son and keep all the bad guys occupied) to save them all. And while this occurs, he’s given the opportunity to deliver their son to her by rescuing him from near-murder. If the son was the most important focus of the film, it would have ended with his rescue, the happy family back together. But it doesn’t. There’s an additional, slightly jarring, brief scene in which the happy family returns to the hotel room: they open the hotel room door, Jo’s uppity friends who used to work with her in showbiz are waiting there for them, and only one line is spoken, Ben saying, ‘I’m sorry we were gone so long, but we go and pick up Hank’ [sorry, but the screenplay transcript I’m using was made by a Russian (seriously), and I don’t have the energy to go back and see what the actual Jimmy Stewart quote was, so you’re just going to have to imagine Jimmy Stewart speaking in broken English]. I think his apology indicates that he’s accepted Jo more fully as a person–accepted her past in music, and may be willing to give her back her career (he never flaunts her career in the film–though she’s happy to mention it, he’d prefer to discuss himself), and who knows, maybe they’ll make some more babies.

film: Hitchcock: The 39 Steps (1935)

I was thankful that The 39 Steps was not actually a thriller, not in the later Hitchcock sense of the word. Of course it had many of his later elements, and much of his humor, and most notably: an otherwise anonymous woman opens her mouth to scream, and a train whistle blares forth, from the next shot. These are the sorts of tricks he revisits. And with everything tying together so nicely, and a nice implied love at the end, in my mind this film illustrates how Camus’ The Stranger could have been sweetly resolved. But so it goes, the difference between existentialists and everyone else.

film: Carol Reed: The Third Man (1949)

the-third-man1Walking out the door each day and ten steps later reaching the doorway through which Graham Greene passed daily for years filled me with some sort of awe. I also had to walk out of the theatre during End of the Affair because it made me so miserable, I left and cried. As much as that one affected me, The Third Man did quite the opposite in my reading it. I recall long nights trying to pay attention, failing, and finally deciding to not read The Fallen Idol, which the book also contained. Thus it was with but little pleasure that I anticipated viewing the film for which he wrote the novella. Recently I’ve been finding that films with interesting opening credits tend to be fascinating films. And so this was–the credits are set over the strings of a zither being played–and the credits said that zither music is provided by Anton Karas…which gave me the impression that the full soundtrack’s music would be zither. Impossible. And that is precisely what sold me, repeatedly, on this film. When an orchestra is supposed to hit, when we should be most frightened, anxious, bothered…the music explodes, joyous, colorful. The film begins with a very Soviet montage, and that sort of quick humor that reminds me of Hitchcock, that in its lightness portends fearful gravity, very Tao Teh Ching when removed from pure theory (what!?). That said, as much as I enjoyed much of the film, and as much as  I had to battle fierce nausea while pondering  Alida Valli’s fake mole (reaffirming what Hawthorne illustrated, though I was nauseated anyway…yes, I had to turn off the film until I was feeling well again, I had to watch Dick Van Dyke or something), and as much fun as it was to wonder if Orson Welles was actually acting or just being himself…by the last half hour I was checking my watch every few minutes. That means approximately ten times. That’s to say, I was bored.

But, when one watches the Criterion Collection, one does not do so to be entertained, for entertainment is a vulgar pastime, and we discerning types lend our eyes to the screen for the purpose of understanding our own lives better, at the very least, through measuring the length of shots (and of shadows in film noir), and trying to decide what the film is really saying, beneath all that mean profit-making nonsense. I recall enjoying Brighton Rock a lot more, even if the protagonist was a stinky old whore.

film: Lang: M (1931)

Though I probably haven’t seen enough thrillers to know, their general pattern seems to be lightheartedness through the beginning, and then a quick increase into whatever makes us anxious, a curveball at the end, finis. Except that this seems to be Hitchcock’s strategy, I’d say that Lang was working early in a genre–and so? I think the plot is marvelous–the police can’t find the murderer, so the criminals set out to do so. But what really illustrates that the film is more interested in character development, or, rather, social criticism as a result of that development, is that the film’s whole plot can be traced to a few moments in the middle of the film, when the criminals make their decision, and off they go, and their plan works without a hitch. So the criminal is captured, and the film hasn’t ended yet, and has a ways to go–and ultimately we’re stuck without a resolution to keep our minds off our own terrible indecision over the murderer’s guilt.

As soon as they mentioned the murderer’s being a sexual deviant, I thought “ah hah, I’ll bet this was used as antisemitic propaganda”–though the murderer does not look Jewish, and indeed, parts of the film were used later on as such propaganda, as the man playing the murderer is Jewish. Time to watch Mabuse again.