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Saturday, March 09, 2013

A New Day For The Man Who Knew Too Much --- Part One

The breakthrough Hitchcock and first of his to find popularity in the US. It was his initial go with Gaumont, a company with offices and distribution here, thus capacity for pushing AH to Yanks, sophisticates of which took him to bosoms (Hitch an art-house pet from early on). Producers with heft were impressed. Criterion's restoration docu speaks of a nitrate print owned by David Selznick. Did he '34-score that for his archive in anticipation of bringing AH over a few years hence? DOS clearly recognized Too Much as a pole vault over what we'd so far seen for suspense. Had any American thriller up to 1934 come close as this? The handicap, of course, was its Brit-ness: accents thick as two-inch steak and what seemed to us mumbled dialogue. To that last, there is still complaint. Someone on a recent forum lamented of having to turn volume way up and resorting to subtitles so as to translate clipped speech.

The "Imposing" (says the original caption) Gaumont -British Studio

Gaumont would get the message and modify region-based habits/talk in order to crack our markets, same as Hammer would later with its US-popular horrors. Did Hitchcock aim The Man Who Knew Too Much toward colony targets? It wouldn't seem so based on final product, although the subject had to have come up in discussions among Gaumont brass bidding for US exposure. A Swiss setting for opener action suggests aim beyond Brit borders, and Peter Lorre casting from the Continent would bring The Man Who Knew Too Much to attention of the many, including Americans, who'd seen and been shocked by 1931's M. Lorre's was, in fact, the key image in US advertising for The Man Who Knew Too Much, his character billed as "Public Enemy No. 1 Of The World." Original trailers were as emphatic in tagging Lorre the absolute personification of evil under Hitchcock's direction, quite ignoring humor and even sympathy imbued by the actor and AH.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is suddenly a whole different experience thanks to Criterion's upgrade. They found a fine grain off the camera negative (courtesy BFI) after preliminary go at Selznick's print, which was badly worn. What was for years a tough title to properly see now glistens. Insight to Too Much troubled past is evident in William K. Everson's program notes for an 11/19/71 New School showing. He had to settle, and said so plainly, for a "sub-standard" print of a film "not in circulation." My 70's memory is of The Man Who Knew Too Much tendered by rascally Tom Dunnahoo of Thunderbird Films. He called it "rarely-seen" and sold 16mm/Super 8 prints of who knows? quality (I didn't have one). By way of being lucky as we are with our Blu-Rays, here was what Tom charged for TMWKTM as of July, 1976: $174.50 for 16mm and $115.50 for Super 8 sound. Is it a wonder so few collected film in those days?

And now, thanks to crisp delivery, many are calling The Man Who Knew Too Much the Master's best of his British period. I'm inclining toward that, thanks much to Criterion's rescue. Has anyone noted how an old movie's stock rises, sometimes dramatically, as result of disc clean-up and release? Lots of canons get readjusted when a lamb long sheared comes back with wool restored. Earlier prints and DVD's I had of The Man Who Knew Too Much never inspired multiple watch within a week, but here comes Criterion with Blu-Ray brilliance that I've sampled twice in 48 hours. Too Much was for too long not enough --- now it's me that can't get too much of it. Consider what High-Definition did for The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes (Steps till now notoriously difficult to see in good quality) and the fact much of Hitchcock's British work is streaming in HD. It's enough to inspire reassessment of the lot and perhaps renewal of one-time snooty critic posture that AH in the UK was way superior to mere entertainments he'd do once arrived on our shores.

So which was better, this 1934 original or Hitchcock's 1956 remake? The director said something interesting to William K. Everson in Criterion's 1972 interview extra: He couldn't, as in dared not, confine major name James Stewart to the villain's lair for the whole of a third act; a star so big must stay proactive throughout, but what did that do to artful structure from the original? Much as I like aspects of 1956's remake, it essentially ends, at least for me, at Albert Hall. What comes after seems badly anti-climactic and not a little ludicrous (Doris Day sings and the kidnapped kid upstairs joins in?). We lose '34's rooftop finish and realize how badly it was needed, but Hitchcock had shot his bolt a year before with To Catch A Thief, which more or less borrowed the climactic device from The Man Who Knew Too Much. I'm guessing Hitchcock regretted that in spades once he decided to go forward with a remake.

The 1956 version is also long, 120 minutes as opposed to the earlier 75. Location shooting is fine; needed, of course, to maximize value of VistaVision, but faking Switzerland and a spacious Albert Hall shows off better the ingenuity of Hitchcock where 1934 resources had a limit and genius was more fully applied. There are sidebars to the remake that make us ask, was this trip necessary? Confusion over Albert Hall, is it man or place?, eats up footage. Marital flux for Day and Stewart is a downer in wake of cool efficiency and teamwork Leslie Banks and Edna Best engage once danger becomes known to them. Banks/Best make no foolish or delaying moves, theirs a straight-line toward getting back nabbed offspring and putting villainy to rout. There's humor too to leaven intensity, being there throughout and shared even by kidnappers, these a glum lot in 1956 badly in need of Lorre (or equivalent) leadership. Do you suppose Hitchcock considered, even if briefly, bringing back Peter Lorre to reprise his famed role?

Part Two of The Man Who Knew Too Much is HERE.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer comments on Hitchcock in England and the US, along with his working relationship with Selznick:

I'm sure the print of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" owned by David O. Selznick speaks of his interest in bringing Alfred Hitchcock over to Hollywood. He always had an eye out for talent, including producer-directors like Hitchcock, who could take some of the burden off of him. He knew that functioning as both a unit and line produer of every release from his small studio compromised his health and family life, though really, his obsessiveness would have permitted no other arrangement.. Hitchcock, however, also would be a talent he could sell to others, making money even when he wasn't himself making pictures. It was an aspect of a contract with him that was a source of despair for many of his players, especially towards the end, when he wasn't making pictures any more and was seemingly indifferent about the productions he sent them off to.

In spite of that obtuse "Britishness" of his early films, Hitchcock was quickly recognized as a young master on this side of he Atlantic. Selznick noticed his clippings long before he saw a Hitchcock film. He began negotiations with him in the spring of 1937. Perhaps the print you referred to was acquired then. The interest of other studios, however, forced him to retreat. He didn't want to get into a bidding war with MGM, RKO, or Goldwyn. It would be another year before Selznick International signed Hitchcock to the long-term contract the director wanted but the other studios would not give him.

Some consideration was given to "Titanic" as his first picture for the Selznick studio, but in September,1938, Hitchcock was officially assgned to direct "Rebecca," from the best-selling Daphne du Maurier novel. For a time, Selznick urged Nova Pilbeam on him as the nameless second Mrs. de Winter, the young actress who had been the daughter in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and later one of the runaway lovers of "Young and Innocent," also the subject of critical memoranda in the Selznick files while negotiations were underway with Hitchcock. Miss Pilbeam had a delicate prettiness and demure manner which would not have been out of place in "Rebecca," but Hitchcock knew that she hadn't the emotional depth he was seeking. Noting that Ronald Colman had turned down the Maxim de Winter role because "Rebecca" was a "woman-starring vehicle," he wired Selznick: "Why should Colman worry? With Pilbeam as de Winter's wife, the picture will be his."

Even then, Hitchcock was discretely wrestling with Selznick over how the picture should be made, and this most important of casting decisions was potentially a battleground between them. Happily, however, it was resolved in the person of Joan Fontaine, the subject of a Selznick infatuation and a further expression of Hitchcock's increasing obsession with blonde beauties who remained just out of reach. This picture would launch her stardom and her performance in it remains, along with those she gave in "The Constant Nymph," and "Letter from An Unknown Woman," among the most remarkable by any actress of any period.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

The most stunning print of an early Hitch I've seen is unfortunately not on blu-ray, though it was on HD-DVD and played some HD TV channel a while back— Sabotage. It's amazingly detailed, a recreation of prewar London you feel you could walk right into-- at one point Homolka is in medium to long shot reading a Sunday supplement and you can see clearly that the article is about White Zombie!

Incidentally, I think one reason that Hitch had such high critical stock early on was his clear echoes of silent German Expressionism in a talkie context. Except for the horror genre, any time somebody made a movie that looked like he'd seen Lang and Caligari, they were all over it as art-- The Informer, Citizen Kane, etc.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Always thought the climax of the first MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH was a great example of Hithcock's profound understanding of the true use of narrative suspense. We know from the first minutes of the film Mom is a sharp shooter, but then the script never let's us forget she's emotionally reflexive - she muffs that first shot when her daughter distracts her, she immediately faints when the daughter is kidnapped and, of course, she impulsively screams at the assassination attempt. So when it comes time for Best to take the inevitable climatic shot, you'd think the director would squeeze out a little extra drama with a couple of quick close-ups (sweating forehead, quivering trigger finger) all to underscore the moment; 'is she up to it?'

But, nope. Hitch defers to characterization over phony suspense. The scene is edited abruptly with Mom taking out the killer instantly almost before we realize she has already 'manned up' to the situation. Of course she's going to make the most important shot of her life count... that's her kid up on that roof! It's a given, and the film is cut to drive that point home. Hitchcock subtly subverts the cliché adding a little emotional push to a denouement we knew anticipated all along.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

It's really stunning to see these movies the way they were meant to be seen, rather than those old scratchy prints that seemed to have been run through power mowers. It took me a few minutes to actually accept how good the Blu-Ray "Man Who Knew Too Much" looked -- was it supposed to be so clean and crisp? And of course I had to remind myself, YES!

You're comments regarding the running times of both versions are spot-on. It's as if Htichock was aiming for an epic rather than a straightforward thriller in the remake. And nobody can beat Peter Lorre.

4:10 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Michael, I saw "Sabotage" a couple of times on the MGM HD movie channel and thought it was amazing. They also had "Young and Innocent," another beaut. I hope both will turn up eventually on Blu-Ray ...

4:53 PM  
Blogger Phill Bowle said...

I saw a remarkably beautiful print of UNDER CAPRICORN at the Pacific Film Archive last week. It'd be nice for Criterion or some other high quality operation to attend to a hi def release of that title. It's a good one.

1:28 PM  

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