Even bad Hitchcock is kinda good

>> Monday, January 07, 2008

So, I re-watched the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day as a pair of ugly Americans who smuggle narcotics and nearly cause several international incidents before they sort-of-accidentally save the life of a foreign dignitary who is visiting Britain from... um... foreigncountryland. It begins with an "Ao," maybe, according to the sign on their embassy gate? It had been quite a long time since I'd seen it--maybe junior high school, so we're talking at least twenty years. So I added it to my CafeDVD queue a while ago (there's no way I'll ever watch all the movies in that damn queue, there's, like, 700-something in there--I won't live long enough, or Netflix will buy them out, or the Second Coming will occur), and it arrived with Bad Lieutenant, which I haven't watched yet.

What's kind of impressive about The Man is that it really isn't that good a movie on a lot of fundamental levels: Doris Day's acting is uneven, supposedly sympathetic characters act like jackasses (admittedly, this could be a generational/epochal/cultural thing), the plot is just... kind of... insane, the dialogue isn't particularly believable.... And yet, even bad Hitchcock is kinda good: the climactic scenes at the Albert Hall are beautifully paced, a scene in which Jimmy Stewart visits a sinister taxidermy shop is gorgeously shot (and drips with suspense even when it's obvious Stewart's character has a red herring in hand), several scenes are beautifully composed, and (speaking of composition) Bernard Herrmann's score is as brilliant as ever.

At some point, Hitchcock's style overwhelms the silliness in sort of the same way David Lynch's sensibilities take over the similarly ludicrous Blue Velvet: a counterintelligence specialist reacts to an international kidnapping by paternally giving his only lead a phone number that he can't actually be reached at (The Man Who Knew Too Much) or a homicide detective reacts to being handed a severed ear in a lunch sack by observing, "That's a human ear, alright," and inviting a (suspiciously old-looking) college freshman to join him in the morgue (Blue Velvet)? If that's what's holding you up, you're missing the point! You should be appreciating the witty way a wide shot is framed by a pair of cymbals (Man) or expressionistic shadows playing eerily on a factory wall (Velvet)! The Man Who Knew Too Much is a swell film to look at, even if it's also a really, really stupid movie.

No, it is. Hitchcock is famous for popularizing the term "MacGuffin" to describe something that drives the plot but doesn't actually have any real relevance to the story. In Man, the main MacGuffin is an assassination plot to kill the Prime Minister of an unspecified country. Do we ever know why the plotters want him dead or what they gain by it or why they're doing it at the Albert Hall instead of somewhere sensible? Of course not. The assassination plot only exists to get Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day mucking around, looking for their child, who has been kidnapped by the plotters to keep them from revealing what they know about their silly and bizarre plan--

--Except that the kidnapping is itself basically a MacGuffin: I mean, these two are the worst parents ever, as far as reacting to their child's kidnapping goes. I'll spare you the cheap shot at the Ramseys that slid across my brain and just say the McKennas (that's Stewart's and Day's characters) don't actually do any of the things sensible adults who want their child back might do--they flee the continent where their child was last seen and embark on a bit of inept amateur detective work without even, say, contacting their Consulate or the police or anyone else who might, you know, help them find their lost child. Because the movie isn't really so much about parents who have lost their child, either, as much as it's about giving Hitch a chance to run through various set-pieces involving sawdust-stuffed animals, symphony orchestras, guns poking through curtains, etc. Honestly, these people could be looking for a sandwich and it would be basically the same movie (except the sandwich wouldn't whistle a tuneless approximation of "Que Sera Sera" during the dénouement.

Oh, did I mention the kid's a lousy actor? Or that he almost precipitates an international incident during the movie's first three minutes? Or that real kidnappers would have returned him to his parents (or the sweet bosom of Mother Earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust) after about an hour with him?

Ah, well. That was fun. Awful, beautiful film: you might as well rent it if it's been awhile since you last saw it (or if you've managed to miss it somehow, all these years).


Wellsian,  Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 1:28:00 PM EST  

The Ramseys? Dude, you are behind the times. The relevant bad parent paradigm is now the McCann's, who "lost" their daughter somewhere in Portugal and later did pretty much what Stewart and Day do - run off to the UK and whine for a bit.

Eric Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 8:48:00 PM EST  

I am behind the times--how did I miss the bizarre plight of the McCann's? Oh yeah, probably the "no cable" thing. But do they really compare to Day and Stewart? After all, the McCanns did hire psychics and ask the Pope for help! (From the photo, it doesn't appear he was wearing his magical pope-hat at the time, so I suspect the Pope's efficacy was severely hampered. Kind of like trying to get Bruce Banner to move the tank that's blocking your drive. You have to piss him off, first--or, in the case of the Pope, get him to wear his pope-hat.)

The similarities are otherwise eerie: McCanns vs. McKennas, dinner at a tapas bar vs. dinner at an ethnic north African restaurant, etc. Life echoes art again.

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