Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Bullet hole in St. Moritz hotel window, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1935)

Ah, the vicissitudes of time.

1935. England. Hitchcock makes The Man Who Knew Too Much. It gets great reviews ("exciting plot!....suspenseful pace!"). Soon, Selznick comes calling. Hitchcock moves to America to make Rebecca. The fifties arrive. He gets more stylistically ambitious, discovers color and widescreen.

1955. He remakes The Man Who Knew Too Much. It stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. The reviews are lukewarm. It turns out, they prefer the old English version ("literary quality", "plausibility, "restraint"). They don't like his casting choices (Doris Day? Singing in a Hitchcock movie? What's he going to do next, remake Mr. and Mrs. Smith?).

Time passes. It's the seventies. Twin missiles, psychoanalytical and feminist criticism, slam into film studies. Suddenly, the Jimmy Stewart-Doris Day version is rediscovered. It's really a film about the fragility of family, the balancing-act of marriage. And stylistically, it's operatic and gutsy — why couldn't they see that in the fifties? The casting of Doris Day is downright brilliant, she's a natural performer inside and outside the movie. And yet forbidden to perform for a living by her husband Jimmy Stewart. "Are we about to have our monthly fight?" she asks. In reply, he opens his medicine bag and gives her a stiff sedative.

Present day. We revisit them both. The 1935 original? It's not very literary after all (thank God, if literary means merely stuffed with clever dialogue). It's something rarer: a movie that tells its story visually. And with witty, jolting cuts.

But in the remake, quickly-drawn one-dimensional baddies from the original become complex, sympathetic figures. The Albert Hall sequence is mind-blowing. 12 minutes, 125 shots, not a single word spoken, concluding with a blood-curdling Doris Day scream and the mighty crash of a cymbal that saves a life. As for the above-mentioned feminist readings, it turns out they were sharp and prescient.

To sum up, no contest. "Let's say that the first version was the work of a talented amateur," Hitchcock told Truffaut, "and the second was made by a professional". Amen.

And now, over to you. Remakes you fancy? Duck into the comment cave below if you dare, or care.

9 Comments:

Anonymous acquarello said...

Hmm...I still prefer the British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, but I think a lot of that had to do with the annoying kid. Great comment about the undercurrent of sexual politics in not letting Doris Day perform though, her blunt question about having another baby completely took me aback. :) In the same vein of similar, but different takes on a story, I prefer Georges Franju's version of Judex over Louis Feuillade. He retains the tone of the serial, but updates it by making it more compact, which I think helped to make the film more atmospheric and taut.

July 04, 2005 6:21 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Yeah, that kid was pretty damn annoying, but thankfully he spent half the film in the hands of kidnappers, out of earshot. :-)

The scene where he climbs out of the chapel by the bell rope, emerging from the top, is an interesting, unconscious foretaste of Vertigo where he is unable to climb to the top of the church.

Judex is a great recommendation. I'd love to catch Franju's version sometime.

July 04, 2005 6:23 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Perhaps I should revisit both versions (it's been many years). I just recall finding the Doris Day film tedious and drawn out. Though in that version, there's the informed bit about avoiding handshakes with the locals (!).

I prefer Phil Kaufman's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" over Don Siegel's. When Siegel's was reissued in the late '70s without its tacked-on framing device, twenty-odd years had gone by and the film seemed terribly dated. But it's been twenty-five years since Kaufman's, and it's still fresh and timely.

July 04, 2005 3:37 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Que sera, sera. Speaking of remakes, I watched The Maltese Falcon (v.3) a couple of days ago. The DVD includes the trailer for the second version with Bette Davis which tries to be another Thin Man. I'd like to see Roy Del Ruth's version sometime. I got to see Franju's Judex a couple of times when I lived in NYC.
I also am looking forward to Peter Jackson's version of King Kong.

July 05, 2005 12:28 AM  
Anonymous Darren said...

The original version has that crazy scene in the dentist's office, right? That's about all I remember from my one viewing years ago. Talk about tapping into primal fears.

Is it safe?

July 05, 2005 9:05 AM  
Blogger girish said...

The dentist's office scene in the old version, yeah it's so creepy/hilarious. I love how it's thrown in there by Hitch for no plot-related reason whatsoever, just to release some free-floating anxiety into the room!

Darren, I just read your new post, and it's giving me some ideas...

July 05, 2005 9:17 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

I normally despise the idea of remakes -- in many cases (of late, at least) it has to do with taking a great (or simply good) foreign film and remaking it for an American audience. In EVERY case the remake has been far inferior to the original. The remakes of Oldboy, My Sassy Girl, and 6ixtynin9 will no doubt be watered-down garbage.

That said, there have been a few remakes that I think have worth -- two that come to mind are Soderbergh's Solaris and Miike's The Happiness of the Katakiris. (Then of course there is Ocean's 11 which was such an awful film, that a remake could only be an improvement.)

Most remakes of foreign films are simply dreadful - remember Breathless, Wicker Park, Cousins, Unfaithful, City of Angels, The Vanishing, Swept Away etc.

July 05, 2005 2:16 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Yeah, those remakes can sure be awful. Like Point of no Return, the utterly pointless remake of La Femme Nikita, or van Sant's weird xerox of Psycho. Although, I have an affection for the new Freaky Friday, and I heard it's better than the original.

I'm curious about the new French remake of Toback's Fingers.

July 05, 2005 6:28 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Ah...yes! The Audiard film. One of the best things I saw at the Berlinale this year, and a vast improvement on the original!

July 06, 2005 10:52 AM  

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