The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Long after its initial release, director Alfred Hitchcock, whose career spanned two continents, remade his own 1934 British film The Man Who Knew Too Much for Paramount Pictures. The new version, which was released in 1956, was one of a number of Hitchcock films from that decade that resonated with audiences and have continued to be well-regarded in subsequent decades. (Among Hitchcock’s movies from the ’50s were Stranger on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest, all of which have received much critical attention.)
The story involves an American couple (portrayed by Hollywood stars James Stewart and Doris Day), whose young son is kidnapped by mysterious people planning a political assassination. As with a number of his other movies, the film has a main protagonist who is basically an ordinary person caught up in events and intrigue that he does not fully understand.The complex narrative has many of the hallmark features of Hitchcock’s most iconic films. Throughout, the director skillfully builds suspense and keeps his audience guessing about many aspects of the plot.
For a film with essentially dark subject matter, The Man Who Knew Too Much has a surprisingly light touch. Hitchcock toys with his audience, skillfully building narrative tension and then taking seeming delight in making viewers wait for any sort of resolution. Along the way, the film includes wry dialogue and occasional throwaway comedic lines.
The Man Who Knew Too Much fits well within the cultural climate of America in the 1950s. This period was the height of Cold War anti-communism, and there had emerged an anxious underside to American culture. Consistent with the era, the film shows that beneath the surface veneer of ordinariness on the surface of everyday life, there are dangers and troubles that present hidden dangers. The movie also has many aspects that are as blatantly sexist as mainstream American society was in that era.
The earlier, black and white version of The Man Who Knew Too Much has its charms, but even Hitchcock was aware of its limitations, going so far as to later call it “the work of a talented amateur.” Most people, including the director himself, much prefer the newer version, which has essentially the same plot but in most other respects is a new work.
Shot in a widescreen format and in vibrant Technicolor, The Man Who Knew Too Much is a visually engaging, even if its too-bright world (which contrasts markedly with the film’s murky intrigue) is pure Hollywood. The movie was partially shot on location in Morocco and London, with additional studio scenes filmed in Los Angeles.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is now more than a half-century old and it is clearly a movie of its times. But for viewers with an appreciation of classic Hollywood, it’s a movie that more than holds up over time.
Nevada Atomic Test, April 15, 1955
Members of the party of 17 Canadian and United Kingdom observers at the 400-foot tower shot at Frenchman Flat are shown illumined by both the sun and the burst.
Source: U.S. Government photograph & description, National Archives
WHAT TO WATCH
“Bringing Up Baby” (1938)
Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.
With a witty script, solid direction, and wonderful performances from an excellent cast, Bringing Up Baby — an unlikely love story involving a man, a woman, and a leopard — is one movie from the 1930s that remains approachable and entertaining almost three-quarters of a century after its release. It’s well worth watching today, not only for its entertainment value, but also as one of the best examples screwball comedy genre of the 1930s.
Somewhat ironically, the bleak 1930s were the heyday of the so-called screwball comedy, a popular genre that also included such movies as It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, My Man Godfrey, and many more. These essentially light and witty films stood in stark contrast to the larger social context of 1930s. Indeed, during these years the United States and much of the world were still in the midst of the Great Depression. Joblessness, poverty, and a generally gloomy outlook on life were facts of daily life at this time. In fact, in 1938, the year that Bringing Up Baby was released, the unemployment rate was nearly 20 percent, much higher than any figure seen in the recent economic downturn. Against this backdrop, screwball comedies and other types of comedic films were perhaps an antidote to the bleak social conditions of the day.
Screwball comedies often poked fun at high society and the staid traditions it represented, even if movies in this genre ultimately did not do much to challenge them. Indeed, however much they sometimes pointed to the failings of existing social arrangements, their stories usually ended up reinforcing these very ideas. Typically in these films, which were forerunners of the “romantic comedy” genre that continues today, idealized love and marriage are affirmed, with the stories leading up to this outcome being little more than entertaining bumps along the way. Still, beneath the surface these films sometimes posed provocative questions.
Courtship and marriage were frequent targets in such movies. Although it is seldom recalled now, the social institution of marriage was under considerable strain in the early decades of the twentieth century. Despite popular belief today to the contrary, by the 1920s divorce was increasingly common. As Elaine Tyler May noted, “By the end of the 1920s, more than one in six marriages terminated in court,” and between 1867 and 1929 “the divorce rate rose 2000 percent.” (These comments appear May’s book Great Expectations: Marriage and Divorce in Post-Victorian America, published by Oxford University Press in 1980.)
Hollywood certainly responded to these shifting conditions. And behind the screwball comedies of the 1930s is the recognition of a changing society and a questioning, although often very tentative, of female and male roles and stereotypes of the time. One writer notes:
“The legitimacy of marriage itself was being questioned by society, and this questioning gave rise to a set of films exploring this crisis of legitimacy, including The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, My Man Godfrey, Libeled Lady, and Bringing Up Baby. Companionate [sic] marriage was being discussed as an alternative to patriarchical Victorian sensibilities, and the focus on raising a family and economic responsibility took a back seat to the friendship and mutual satisfaction between the couple. Comedies from this period imagined marriage as a sphere of leisure in which the pursuit of happiness was to be the goal.” (Quote from N. Richter “Hollywood Romantic Comedy: States of the Union,1934-1965” [Book review], MLN 122:5 (2007).]
Bringing Up Baby is now generally regarded as one of the best of the screwball comedies of the 1930s, but it did not initially meet with overwhelming success. A review in New York TImes (available here) at the time was far from generous in its appraisal of the film. But in subsequent years, audiences have responded well to the film and especially to the banter between its stars, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Although it may have been largely lost on original viewers, Grant’s performance displays an underlying sexual ambiguity, which modern audiences are quicker to notice. In her role, Hepburn pushes the boundaries of the era’s expectations for how women should act and think, as she also did in many other films throughout her career.
Bringing Up Baby is one product of its times that remains entertaining and relevant decades later. It’s a movie worth watching.
Image (top): Public domain, Wikimedia
Movies to watch — an incomplete and informal list to get you thinking
Today’s movie buff has many options for viewing. With DVDs, Netflix, Hulu, cable, and the Internet, films from the entire span of movie history, across continents and genres, are readily available. Finding films to watch is easy, but finding films that may be worth your while and may expand your appreciation of film beyond the comfort zone of what you usually tend to watch may be more problematic.
I’ve been teaching a course on the history of film for a number of years and have had the pleasure of working with many students. Thanks to social media, I’m still in touch with many folks who have taken the class. Wondering what films continue to make an impression on people, I recently took the opportunity to ask them what movies they would recommend for people with a similar interest in film. Many former students graciously sent along their responses, and I’ve compiled a listing here of movies they recommend, organizing the selections chronologically. There is nothing scientific or balanced about this list, but I think it’s a good source of ideas for people wondering what films from the past they might add to viewing selections. Obviously this list is a starting point, and many favorites do not appear here. Admittedly, the list itself is far from comprehensive, so please feel free to share your comments and your own suggestions as a comment to this posting. I’ll update the list from time to time with new suggestions.
MOVIE SUGGESTIONS (an incomplete and informal list to get you thinking)
- 1927 – Metropolis (directed by Fritz Lang, starring Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel)
- 1932 – Freaks (directed by Tod Browning, starring Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams)
- 1938 – Bringing Up Baby (directed by Howard Hawks, starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant)
- 1939 – Union Pacific (directed by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Anthony Quinn, Robert Preston)
- 1939 –The Wizard of Oz (directed by Victor Fleming, starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack haley, Margaret Hamilton)
- 1940 – The Grapes of Wrath (directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine)
- 1941 – The Maltese Falcon (directed by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogard)
- 1944 – Double Indemnity (directed by Billy Wilder; starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson Freaks
- 1945 – Spellbound (directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck)
- 1946 – The Big Sleep (directed by Howard Hawks, starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, screenplay by William Faulkner)
- 1948 – Rope (directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring James Stewart and others)
- 1948 – Red River (directed by Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru)
- 1948 – The Bicycle Thief (Sometimes translated as Bicycle Thieves; original title: Ladri di biciclette. Directed by Vittorio De Sica, starring Lamberto Maggiorani, Lianella Carell, Enzo Staiola)
- 1950 – Roshomon (directed by Akira Kurosawa, starring Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô and Masayuki Mori)
- 1953 – Pickup on South Street (directed by Samuel Fuller, starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Richard Kiley)
- 1956 – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (directed by Don Siegel, starring Kevin McCarthy, Dana Winter, Larry Gates, Carolyn Jones)
- 1958 – Vertigo (directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring James Stewart. Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes)
- 1959 — Hiroshima Mon Amour (directed by Alain Resnais, Starring Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada)
- 1959 – North by Northwest (directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason)
- 1960 — La dolce vita (directed by Federico Fellini, starring Marcello Mastroiani, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee)
- 1960 – Psycho (directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh. Vera Miles)
- 1962 – Lawrence of Arabia (directed by David Lean, starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn)
- 1962 – To Kill a Mockingbird (directed by Robert Mulligan, starring Harper Lee, Horton Foote, Brock Peters, Paul Fix)
- 1963 – 8 1/2 (directed by Federico Fellini, starring Marcello Mastroiani, Anouk Aimee, Claudia Cardinale)
- 1964 – Dr. Strangelove (directed by Stanley Kubrick; starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and others)
- 1966 – Alfie (directed by Lewis Gilbert, starring Michael Caine, Shelley Winters, Millicent Martin)
- 1966 – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (dieted by Sergio Leone, starring Clint Eastwood)
- 1967 – Bonnie and Clyde (directed by Arthur Penn, starring Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard)
- 1967 – Le Samouraï (directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, starring Alain Delon, Nathalie Delon)
- 1969 – Easy Rider (directed by Dennis Hopper, starring Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson)
- 1969 – Satyricon (directed by Federico Fellini, starring Martin Potter, Hiram Keller, and others)
- 1970 – Five Easy Pieces (directed by Bob Rafelson, starring Jack Nocholson, Karen Black)
- 1970 – Gimme Shelter (directed by Albert Maysles and David Maysles)
- 1971 –Straw Dogs (directed by Sam Peckinpah, starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan)
- 1973 – Mean Streets (directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Amy Robinson)
- 1973 – Sleeper (directed by Woody Allen, starring Woody Allen, Diane Keaton)
- 1974 – The Conversation (directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Gene Hackman)
- 1974 – Blazing Saddles (directed by Mel Brooks, starring Cleavon LIttle, gene Wilder, Slim Pickens, Mel Brooks, Madeline Kahn, and others)
- 1975 – Nashville (directed by Robert Altman, starring Keith Carradine, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Shelley Duvall, Henry Gibson, Jeff Goldblum, and many others)
- 1977- Annie Hall (directed by Woody Allen, starring Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Marshall, Shelly Duvall, Christopher Walken)
- 1979 – Apocalypse Now (directed by Francis For Coppola, starring Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford)
- 1979 – Kramer vs. Kramer (directed by Robert Benton, starring Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander)
- 1984 – The Killing Fields (starring Roland Joffé, starring Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich)
- 1985 – Brazil (directed by Terry Gilliam, starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert De Niro, Iam Holm, Bob Hoskins, Katherine Helmond, Michael Palin)
- 1986 – Peggy Sue Got Married (directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Kathleen Turner, Nicolas Cage, Jim Carrey, Sofia Coppola)
- 1988 – Akira (directed by Katsuhiro Ohtomo, starring Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama)
- 1988 – Thin Blue Line (directed by Errol Morris, starring Randall Adams, David Harris)
- 1989 – Roger & Me (directed by Michael Moore)
- 1992 – Glengarry Glen Ross (directed by David Mamet, starring Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Bladwin)
- 1993 – Short Cuts (directed by Robert Altman, starring Andie MacDowell, Julianne Moore, Tim Robbins, Jack Lemmon)
- 1995 – Smoke (directed by Wayne Wang, starring Harvey Keitel, William Hurt)
- 1998 – Pi – (directed by Darren Aronofsky, starring Sean Guillette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman)
- 1999 – American Beauty (directed by Sam Mendes, starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch)
- 2000 – High Fidelity (directed by Stephen Frears, starring John Cusack, Jack Black, Iben Hjejle, Todd Louiso)
- 2000 – Requiem for a Dream (directed by Darren Aronofsky, starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly)
- 2001 – Amélie (directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, starring Audrey Tautou, Mathieu, Kassovitz)
- 2002 – Morvern Callar (directed by Lynne Ramsay, starring Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott and Linda McGuire)
- 2003 – The Return (original title: Vozvrashcheniye. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, starring Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov and Konstantin Lavronenko)
- 2006 – Pan’s Labyrinth (directed by Guillermo del Toro, starring Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil and Sergi López)
- 2008 – Slumdog Millionaire (directed by Danny Boyle, starring Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Saurabh Shukla)
- 2008 – Hunger (directed by Steve McQueen, starring Stuart Graham, Laine Megaw)
- 2011 – Hugo (directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Lee)
Acknowledgements: My thanks to Dani Shirtcliff and many other former students at Montserrat College of Art and other contributors for suggesting films of this list.
Image (above): Wiki Commons, Creative Commons License
Dr. No and Spy Movies of the 1960s
By G. Arnold
Fifty years ago, the release of Dr. No, the famous James Bond film starring Sean Connery, launched one of the longest running and most successful franchises in movie history. The film opened in Britain in early October 1962, just a few days before the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis — perhaps the most dangerous confrontation between the United States and the USSR of the cold war era –plunged the world to brink of nuclear war.
Although it premiered in the U.K. in 1962, Dr. No, the tongue-in-cheek adventure story about the fictional British master spy James Bond (a.k.a. secret agent 007), was not released in American theaters until the following spring. Historically, then, this entertaining and escapist take on cold war anxieties came to U.S. audiences in between the dark hours of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the even more traumatizing assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963.
Watching Dr. No today — indeed, watching any of the early Bond movies — it’s easy to forget that the times in which they first dazzled movie-goers were genuinely frightening and light years from the far-fetched, sanitized version of international troubles that was portrayed in the world-according-to-Bond films. The 007 movies are permeated with sly humor, high-tech gadgets, and a sense of Western invincibility. They suggested that there was nothing to worry about so long as Agent 007 was on the case. In many respects, James Bond, though nominally a British agent, stands in for the whole of the Western world at a time when the clash between East and West loomed large and periodically threatened to erupt into a hot global war.
The confidence and swagger projected in Dr. No and the early sequels were not so much a reflection of reality as it was, perhaps, as a projection of what Americans and their Western allies wanted reality to be. The ease and certainty with which Bond dispatched nemeses may have seemed especially appealing in a world where real-life problem-solving and certainty often seemed in short supply. Indeed, throughout the 1960s, there was ample evidence that the world’s troubles defied simple or clear-cut resolution. The Vietnam War, which escalated soon after Kennedy’s death, would provide stark evidence that American might and know-how were not enough to solve the complicated problems with anything that might be called ease. Yet, in the Bond movies that continued to be produced, every encounter with an evil enemy was soon solved, leaving no doubt and no ambiguity. In general, it’s useful to remember such things. The original context of a film is often revealing, especially when viewing it from a chronological distance.
Dr. No and other 1960s Bond movies were never meant to be artful or serious, of course, but their almost naive portrayal of an imagined version of the world remains interesting and entertaining. Venerable film critic Bosley Crowther saw Dr. No for what it was. In his New York Times review after the 1963 American premiere, he said the movie was “wildly exaggerated” and “pure, escapist bunk, with Bond, an elegant fellow, played by Sean Connery, doing everything (and everybody) that an idle day-dreamer might like to do.” Although Crowther didn’t mention it, the movie is also steeping in the stereotyping and sexism that was pervasive in that era.
The great popular success of Dr. No was followed not only by the long series of Bond movies, including Goldfinger (released in both the U.K. and the United States in 1964), but also a spate of imitators, such as Our Man Flint (1966). The imitations usually tried to capture the freewheeling spirit of the Bond films, but they typically failed to capture whatever it was that drew movie-goers to the Bond films. Most of the imitators have been largely forgotten.
Of the non-Bond espionage movies that came after Dr. No, a few did make their mark, however. The fictional British spy Harry Palmer, played by Michael Caine, was the subject of three well-received films in the mid-1960s. (Other actors played the character in later appearances.) The films were based on the books of Len Deighton and portray a far more cynical attitude about cold war espionage and politics than is found in any of the James Bond movies. Indeed, the first of the films to feature the Harry Palmer character, The Ipcress File (1965), is in many ways a superior movie to most of the Bond films. Whereas Bond was debonair, unflappable and droll, Harry Palmer comes from humble working class origins and displays a cynical attitude, especially towards his supposed superiors who are mired in tradition and a bureaucratic haze. (The Bond and Palmer series are connected, however. One of the producers, Harry Salzman, also was a producer of many Bond movies, including Dr. No.)
Another 1960s-era film that treated the espionage theme in a more somber and downbeat way was The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Based on the novel of the same name by John le Carré, the film starred Richard Burton as a disillusioned spymaster plying his trade in the divided Berlin of the era. It’s a gritty and dark movie, far removed from the lighter Bond cavalier treatment of the era’s espionage intrigues. According to a New York Times review,The Spy Who Came in From the Cold revealed “the hideousness and extent of deceit, cynicism, corruption and sordidness in the spy game.”
In the half-century since the 1960s, audiences have continued to be drawn to movies with espionage themes. Many of the more recent espionage films are dark and serious. But throughout the years and with only minor updating, the Bond films have continued.
Ian Fleming, who created the Bond character, died in 1964, so we’ll never know how, or even if, he would have adapted James Bond to changing circumstances and world events. But the James Bond franchise has remained popular, with a series of actors portraying 007 and with scripts that have tried to update the character and the stories.
Still, while the producers have found ways to make the Bond series viable over time, the early 007 films, which were released in the same cold war period that the original stories depicted, retain a certain charm that has not been seriously rivaled. They may also reveal — inadvertently, perhaps — something about the powers of denial in a dangerous world.
G. Arnold is the author of Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics and several other books.
Text copyright 2012. All rights reserved.