Blog Directory CineVerse: You can never know too much about a great Hitchcock film

You can never know too much about a great Hitchcock film

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Although many consider Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 remake of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" a relatively minor effort by the master of suspense, a case can be made that this work deserves to be lauded among his best creations. For proof, consider the talking points we discussed this week during our CineVerse film group meeting:

What did you find interesting, impactful, memorable, or distinctive about this movie?

  • It’s a relatively long film for such a straightforward and simple story, clocking in at 120 minutes – 44 minutes longer than the original “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” directed by Hitchcock in 1934. It also takes a long time before the central conflict (the murder of the secret agent and child kidnapping) arises – about 40 minutes into the film.
  • There are long stretches with no dialogue, which arguably helps to build the suspense. Communication is often conveyed through looks, reactions, and other nonverbal means.
  • Hitchcock ratchets up the suspense by using misdirection and red herrings, including a scene where walks into a taxidermy shop that proves to be a terrifying-turned-funny dead-end.
  • The climactic musical sequence at Albert Hall is one of Hitchcock’s greatest set pieces and memorable sequences. It’s yet another example of the director choosing a famous historical place or tourist attraction in which to decide the fate of his heroes and villains, as he does in North By Northwest (Mount Rushmore), Saboteur (the Statue of Liberty), and Vertigo (the Golden Gate Bridge).
  • Hitchcock preferred controlled environments like a closed studio set. He often used process shots in which one of our characters plays in the foreground with previously shot footage projected in the background. This deliberately stylized and artificial look is part of his style, but it can appear dated and phony to modern viewers. Another filmmaker might have chosen to actually shoot in Morocco on location for greater authenticity and more plausible visuals.
  • Hitchcock also liked to give the audience more information than the protagonists to create more suspense; for instance, we know that the boy is to be killed at the embassy but Ben and Jo don’t know this.

Themes at work in this film:

  • The innocent man who gets swept up in political and nefarious intrigue and who becomes forced to solve the problem himself without help from the authorities.
  • Strangers in a strange land and the ugly American abroad: the McKennas represent a relatable middle American family from the 1950s who feel culturally alienated and compromised in a foreign country. Consider how Ben quickly grows impatient with the local customs.
  • Entropy: The concept that everything in the universe eventually moves from a state of order to disorder. This movie demonstrates how a structured and harmonious life can subtly and unfairly descend into chaos and disarray.
  • A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Ponder the film’s title, and its irony considering the fact that Ben McKenna actually doesn’t know enough to solve the problem and has instincts that continually prove incorrect.
  • Interesting 1950s gender politics: Ben commands sociocultural authority and hierarchy over his wife. Yet, for being the supposedly dominant partner who tries to assert command over the situation – going so far as to drug his wife into a state of submissive nonaction – Ben’s choices often proved to be missteps, at least until he concocts the final plan for his wife to sing so that their kidnapped son can lead Ben to him. By contrast, Josephine’s intuitions from the start turn out to be right: She’s suspicious of the man on the bus who turns out to be an agent, dubious of the couple who join them for dinner, figures out that Ambrose Chapel is a place, and smartly decides to go to the Albert Hall to find Inspector Buchanan.
  • Triads, or good and bad things often happen in threes. Blogger Bob Aulert wrote that Hitchcock uses “a series of triads demonstrating the order before the chaos: first, he shows us the conductor (a Hermann cameo), the chorus, and orchestra. Next, we see another group of three: the cymbalist (whose climactic cymbal crash will mask the assassin’s gunshot), the assassin, and an accomplice. Then, three innocents: Dr. McKenna, Jo McKenna, and the assassination target. Then events begin in parallel to disrupt order – the cymbalist picks up his instrument with his right hand, the assassin picks up his weapon with his right hand. It’s a masterful 12-minute, 124-shot sequence that contains not one single word of spoken dialog; communicating solely through images and music, the editing building in tempo in time with the music.”
  • Playacting: Think about how Bernard appears as a tourist but is really a spy, how Drayton is an assassin conspirator but presents himself as a polite tourist and later as a man of the cloth, and how the underling to the prime minister appears as a faithful servant but is secretly planning to assassinate the prime minister.

Other films that come to mind

  • The 1934 original starring Peter Lorre
  • The 39 Steps
  • The Man Who Knew Too Little
  • Taken
  • Man on Fire

Other films directed by Alfred Hitchcock

  • Rebecca
  • Shadow of a Doubt
  • Notorious
  • Strangers on a Train
  • Rear Window
  • Vertigo
  • North by Northwest
  • Psycho
  • The Birds

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