Monday, September 29, 2014

Jean-Luc Godard on The Man Who Knew Too Much

It’s on Ed’s blog Les Cahiers-Positifs that I discovered Godard also reviewed Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). I thought he only reviewed Strangers on a Train and The Wrong Man by Hitch. I guess, I was wrong. It happens. Anyways, on the cover of the November 1956 issue of Cahiers (N.64) there is a still of Joshua Logan’s Bus Stop with Marilyn Monroe, which is reviewed by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (a critic whose output deserves more attention). The early defining features of Cahiers are: André Bazin’s friendship with François Truffaut, the young critics fight to take over the magazine, and Hitchcock as a defining figure for the group. The Critiques were, and are, the most important section at Cahiers – their chronicle of the films, and the times – and these early Hitchcock reviews are the seeds that the magazine would grow out of. (More so than those on Nick Ray, whose affinity never really left the magazine). Even Truffaut and Godard, whose friendship broke in the post-’68 years (c.f. their last correspondence), would remain loyal to Hitchcock throughout their whole careers: the Hitchcock interview book for Truffaut and Godard, who would return more to narrative filmmaking after Truffaut’s death (a reconciliation?), in his Histoire(s) describes Hitchcock as the “greatest creator of form in the 20th century.” Hitchcock would also play a significant role when the magazine renewed itself in the Eighties through their critical appreciation of Brian dePalma and how his films interrogate Hitchcock’s impulses and artistry. And Hitchcock is also at the root of their current appreciation of Steven Spielberg and how he is able to mediate between personal projects within an industrial studio system. – D.D.
The Student’s Path

One market day an Allied secret agent, disguised, of course, as an Arab, is killed right in the middle of the crowd in Marrakech. An important diplomat is shortly to be assassinated. Before he dies, the spy manages to whisper his secret to an innocent witness to the crime, an American tourist who is then uncertain whether or not to pass it on in his turn to the (ex) French police in Morocco. A telephone call helps him make up his mind to say nothing. His little boy has been kidnapped, says a voice at the other end of the wire, and if he talks, he and his wife will never see their child again. An incredible but very real threat, which instantly fills our two Babbitts – James Stewert as a doctor from Indianapolis and Doris Day as a once-celebrated singer – with alarm. Neverless, like a modern Robinson family, they launch out into the unknown, following their adventure without losing heart. Where to? To London. They have reason to believe that the plot will unravel there. Zig and Puce on Dolly’s trail could not show more heroism or more commend sense. Chance it and trust to God. Que sera, sera. This is also the opinion of Scotland Yard, who are waiting as they leave the plane. An important official wants to take the affair in hand. He fears complications of the kind of French Cabinet calls ‘cosmic’. Is it worth the risk of aggravating an already tense international situation for a little boy? James Stewart and Doris Day say yes. Who can blame them? We, too, have little boys, or maybe little girls. But no matter – they must act. And, in fact, with a little luck – but they earn it – our amateur Perry Masons soon pick up the kidnappers’ trail, meanwhile unwittingly foiling the plot of a foreign Power which has once again tried to undermine the prestige of old England.
It is easy to see what is likely to shock the susceptible in this story: the touch of extravagance and, what obviously attracted Hitchcock, the introduction of this extravagance in lives as ordinary as yours and mine. This is perhaps the most improbable of Hitchcock’s films, but also the most realistic. What is ‘suspense’? Waiting, and therefore a void to be filled; and more and more Hitchcock loves to fill it with asides which have little bearing on the event.
When he leaves the studio to shoot on location, the director of To Catch a Thief allows his actors more freedom, lets his camera linger on a landscape, seizes neatly and firmly on every droll character or bizarre object to come his way. The scenes in the bedroom, the Arab café, the two police offices (French and English), the taxidermist’s shop, the Presbyterian chapel, the concert or the embassy ought, if they are logical, to make all the Buñuels and Zavattinis of this world pale with envy. Today Alfred Hitchcock looks all round his characters, just as he forces them to look round. Not that he ever loses interest without tenderness, he had never before stressed with such fierce irony the ridiculousness of the most natural. Everyday gestures. The characters in The Man Who Knew Too Much are not exactly puppets, they are at once more and less than the marionette described by Valéry.
All right, you will say, but what about the suspense? A booby-trap? I don’t think so, here even less than in the other films. Firstly, because the extraordinary serves as a foil for the ordinary, which, left to its own devices, would engender nothing but dullness. Secondly, one must admit, because Hitchcock believes in destiny. He believes with a smile on his lips, but it is the smile which convinces me. If the story were simply frightening, perhaps we would not be naïve enough to play along. Hitchcock cunningly presents us with a well-bred destiny, speaking the language of the drawing-room rather than of German philosophy. The clash of cymbals has the affection disguise itself, to sneak by without drawing attention to itself. People say Hitchcock lets the wires show too often. But because he shows them, they are no longer wires. They are the pillars of a marvelous architectural design made to without our scrutiny.
Que sera, sera: this time, whether you like it or not, it is explicit in the text. I know Hitchcock doesn’t believe it entirely, for the moral of the film is also ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ ‘When Stavrogin believes,’ wrote Dostoyevsky, ‘he does not believe that he believes, but when he does not believe, he still does not believe that he believes.’
But we can believe in Doris Day’s tears, and no other Hitchcock heroine’s tears seem so unlike face-pulling. We who know all, and know that her alarm is needless, perhaps we sympathize even more readily. Why does she weep? Why does she wail? What has she to do with this foreign diplomat? Is she so crazy, so imprudent? She is a woman, or rather she is like us all. We believe in suspense. We believe in destiny. Our anguish is increased by what we know, hers by what she does not know. We watch her with a touch of cruelty, a half-feigned terror, and a pity of which we did not know ourselves capable.
            This film by a supposedly misogynous director has as its sole mainspring = assuming one resolutely rejects metaphysics – feminine intuition. It is, like assuming one resolutely rejects metaphysics – feminie intuition. It is, like his preceding films, without self-indulgence, but the better displays its moments of grace and liberty. Sometimes, like the little boy held prisoner in the embassy who hears his mother’s voice as she sings in the salon, we are touched in the work of his caustic and brilliant man by a grace which may only come to us in snatches from afar, but which minds more immediately lyrical are incapable of dispensing with such delicacy.
            Let us love Hitchcock when, weary of passing simply for a master of taut style, he takes us the longest way round.

Jean-Luc Godard

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