The Man Who Knew Too Much

Never work with children and animals, runs the old show-business saw. Film-makers might be wise to add to this advice: never make a feature of a catchy song , for it will grow greedy and swallow the film. The history of popular music is littered with songs from long-forgotten films – perhaps the classic example is the song from Hall Bartlett’s Unchained, a pleasant but unexciting flick about a California prison with an enlightened governor, now notable only for the unwitting film debut of Dexter Gordon who just happened to be on hand, and its Melody which became one of the most-recorded songs of all time.

Unchained was made in 1955, the same year that Hitchcock made this remake of his own 1934 film. Presumably he wasn’t completely satisfied with the early version, so you’d expect him to make sure he got it right this time. But The Man Who Knew Too Much doesn’t come easily to mind when you think of the Hitchcock greats. I bet you’d all recognise the song though. It’s as much part of Doris Day as the yellow basket was part of Ella.

This is all rather unfair to a fine film. If it sits in the shadow of North by North West or Rear Window it’s probably because James Stewart doesn’t sparkle like Cary Grant, and Doris Day can’t counter his hapless Ordinary Joe with the same touch of glamour that Grace Kelly could give him. Still, the pair of them carry off their portrayal of an unlikely couple wandering blindly into a net of international intrigue, espionage and assassination with their son – the sort of winsome brat so beloved of 50s American cinema – as the McGuffin. You do have to wonder how an international singing star manages to settle down to a life as mother and wife to a gauche Indiana quack. There’s a story here, hinted at but never explicitly told, which would make more sense if Jimmy were Doris’s shrink, but anybody who thought Doris Day was there just for her voice and were unaware that she could act too would be seriously impressed by the scene in which her husband has her all but begging for her medication.

This is good Hitchcock. The crucial scene in the Albert Hall is breathtaking, real edge-of-the-seat stuff. Will The Man Who Knew Too Much eventually be elevated to its rightful place in the pantheon? Who knows – whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see…

A Beautiful Mind

A biography of a distinguished mathematician seems an unlikely source for an Oscar-winning blockbuster. But it’s precisely that aspect, coupled with real curiosity about the work as well as the life of John Forbes Nash, a brilliant but eccentric character (who is still alive so I’d better watch my step), that drew me to it. I never distinguished myself at maths but I penetrated the subject far enough beyond the tedium of the way it’s taught in schools to retain a fascination for it.

What we get is a film that dwells on eccentricity at the expense of mathematics. As a portrait of a man battling with some pretty fearsome devils – Asperger’s syndrome, one assumes, to start with and ultimately a nasty case of paranoid schizophrenia. The central enigma is the demarcation line between what is real and what is Nash’s delusions. By keeping it that simple, it works pretty well as a crowd-pleasing thriller. There’s always the old question to ask about “why now?” Why choose 2002 to make a film which centres on whether or not the threat of terrorist attack on US soil is real or fantasy. Can there be parallels with the real world being hinted at here?

All the same, I get a strange feeling with this film that I’ve seen it all before. These diaries are, for the most part, impressions and not studies. One of these days, though, I’d like to do a thorough analysis of the films of Modern Hollywood (say, post-Jaws), and see just how far each and every big Hollywood production follows the same schema; psychological buttons pushed, emotional strings pulled, all at carefully-planned strategic points. The result is a film that is seductively easy to watch, that draws you right into it, and leaves you afterwards feeling strangely, empty, like a Chinese meal.

What did I learn about John Forbes Nash? Nothing at all, very much, that I didn’t know already. That he was brilliant and arrogant; that like many with an autistic-spectrum condition he could be very charming; that he could make a right fool of himself in public places. Some things I knew about seem to have been carefully airbrushed out, not least his alcoholism and his bisexual promiscuity. Anybody hoping to learn about what Nash actually did would be disappointed. He is best-known for game theory, and this is barely hinted at – after losing a game of Go he complains that Go was a flawed game because he had played first and played a perfect strategic game so should have won (Nash later invented Hex as a game similar to Go that could always be won as suggested.) Any maths heavier than that is hinted as by the stereotypical blackboard scrawl of the geek. Yes, Nash isn’t to be seen as a beautiful mind at all, but as a one-man freak show. Well, what do you expect of somebody so sad as to be a mathematician?

All right. I enjoyed it, and I thought Russell Crowe pulled it off with surprising aplomb. But I didn’t wake up this morning still haunted by it, and I doubt if I’ll remember much about it in a couple of weeks time.

39-steps

Long before there was James Bond, in an age when the cinema was still a novelty and the enemy was Kaiser Bill, there was Richard Hannay, suave hero of John Buchan’s riproaring yarns. Buchan may or may not have realised that his brand of muscular adventure was perfect fodder for the film industry but she sure scored a bullseye. All that was needed to make it memorable was the budding talent of Alfred Hitchcock. Now why would somebody want to make a film with slippery Germans in 1935 of all years? Just as the year before Robert Graves had written a Roman epic also full of slippery Germans? Was something going on that not everybody was seeing properly? It’s even updated to the 1930s.

So, a mysterious and very frightened woman takes refuge in Hannay’s flat. Before the sun rises she’s dead with Hannay’s breadknife in her back, and there the fun begins. There are spies and there are establishment figures of decidedly fuzzy loyalty. There’s a dramatic escape by train including an episode in a compartment with an unknown woman, and there’s a dramatic confrontation in a wild and lonely place. A quarter of a century on, Hitchcock will do much the same thing again, in colour and with the inimitable Cary Grant in the lead, as North by North West. It will be a great film but it won’t be half as charming as this one.

watership-down

To my shame it’s only four years since I read Watership Down for the first time (it was one of the very first books I obtained through Bookcrossing.) For more than a quarter of a century before that, the thought of a book or a film about anthropomorphic bunnies made me a bit queasy. But I loved the book because it was dark and not in the least sentimental, and had a great deal to say about the human condition and the state of the world.

It took until now to see the film, and then only prompted by the fact that Tom Ewing’s excellent Popular blog had reached 1979 and Art Garfunkel’s strikingly dark and moving song Bright Eyes, taken from the soundtrack. The song is woven into the fabric of the film but I was a little surprised to find that it didn’t dominate as I’d feared. Instead there’s a score by Malcolm Williamson that owes a great deal to Vaughan Williams, and that’s apt because what this film does most beautifully is to evoke the countryside of he Hampshire/Berkshire borders perfectly. So lovingly has the background been created in watercolour that sometimes it was easy to forget that this was an animation. Nor was it in the least idealised. This is a countryside complete with electricity pylons and full of hidden dangers: badgers and foxes, hawks, humans with snares, and other rabbits less than cuddly of demeanour.

A hefty novel – 500 pages in this case – is always difficult to translate into a manageable film, let alone an animation, but this film remains remarkably true to teh original. Some minor things have been changed, a lot has been missed out, but nothing has been lost. It’s understandable that the horrors of the Efrafa warren are focused on, and I thought it was a shame that the effete and over-sophisticated rabbits of Cowslip’s warren were glossed over (although I actively disliked this bit of the novel – it came across to me as anti-intellectual, although I did get the point.) But it keeps the dark flavour of the novel intact.

It’s about as far from Disney as you can get, but it’s none the worse for that.

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

1967.  Martin Luther King is making headlines at the head of the civil rights movement.  In a third of the States, mixed-race marriages are illegal.  Vigilantes hunt down voter registration campaigners.  Hell, killing a Negro doesn’t even count as murder.  And the Oscar for Best Picture goes (all right, will go to) a film in which a black FBI man comes face to face with a rednecked Alabama police chief. 

White America is polarised between the old-guard bigots and the liberal intelligentsia intent on sweeping them away. But what happens when those liberals come under scrutiny?  What happens when the daughter of a crusading San Francisco newspaper proprietor brings home the man she’s fallen head-over-heels in love with and plans to marry come hell or high water?  And the man concerned is a brilliant doctor and medical academic who just happens to be Sidney Poitier?  And what about his parents? And, er, the black skivvy in this exemplary liberal household?  The racial revolution of the sixties has been the subject of a lot of films, but not many of them have turned the spotlight so searchingly on the motives of the white middle-class campaigners.

For all that it had its finger on the Zeitgeist (as it were), it’s a curiously old-fashioned piece.  By that I don’t mean that its mid-sixties ambience seems ‘dated’ now – it’s of its time and thet’s fair enough.  But it looks so terribly stagey.  The most surprising thing about it is that it won the Oscar that year for Best Original Screenplay, because it looks like a theatrical performace, acted out before a painted backdrop of San Francisco Bay as if it were a piece of early Alan Ayckbourn.  There are a couple of moments when the action moves away from the house – presumably intended to emphasise the aging  Spencer Tracy’s growing estrangement from the bright young world around him – and they are gruesomely, wince-inducingly, bad.  But it would be unfair to judge the whole film on two short scenes.  It rolls fairly predicatable on to a conclusion in which Tracy gathers all the protagonists around him to give a long speech like an avuncular Poirot, and you want to scream at him to stop wittering and get to the point.  Then you remember that Spencer Tracy was seriously ill at the time, that Stanley Kramer didn’t know if he was going to make it through filming, that it was the last scene he would ever record in a long and distinguished career.  He would be dead in just a few days.

The essence of Mike Leigh is simple. Take a bunch of assorted characters, all larger than life but all very believable. Throw them into a dysfunctional suburban nightmare, and just let them get on with. There’s little in the way of plot but oodles of insight into human nature, especially of the kind to be found in the neglected wastes of north London, with all its limited horizons. There’s a whole world out there, but they can’t see beyond the limits of their housing estate.

Everybody here shines. Alison Steadman as the tireless mother hen who laughs infuriatingly at her own jokes, and Jim Broadbent as her meek husband, a cook who dreams only of running a ramshackle hamburger stand. The terrible twins, Claire Skinner who crops her hair and works as a plumber and might go for a fortnight in America one day if she gets round to it, and Jane Horrocks in huge round glasses who doesn’t have a clue what she wants to be, except very, very angry. Steven Rea as a drunken wide-boy and, best of all, Timothy Spall’s gormlessly intense would-be restaurateur.

It’s all very theatrical. Stagey, I mean. It leaves you with the feeling that it ought to be played out in the round above a pub somewhere. Mike Leigh hasn’t, by 1991, quite found his cinematic feet yet, but he does a good job here. Very enjoyable. And totally bonkers.

The Searchers

It’s so easy to poke fun at John Wayne. He’s such an inviting target; his bone-headed stubbornness, his neanderthal attitudes, his apparently wooden acting. What’s harder is trying to explain how it is he turns up in so many excellent films, and not in minor roles either. Stagecoach and Red River are up there with the greats of any genre, and so is The Searchers.

The history of the Western has been about the America of the European settlers coming to terms with what it has done: what it has destroyed as much as what it has achieved. It’s been a hard lesson to learn, especially as the awful realisation of what was visited on the people who were already there. John Wayne fits into this history perfectly. He’s the embodiment of Manifest Destiny; the pioneer who ain’t gonna let nobody stand in the way of his fortune; the man who takes just what he wants and blasts away anybody who gets in his way. Even his own brother, if his brother has the woman he wants.

And he really hates Injuns. He lost his mother to them. He hates the red man so much that, when he comes back late from the Civil War and finds that his brother’s family have adopted as their own the part-Cherokee boy Marty, the look he gives would freeze whiskey in the full heat of noon in Monument Valley. He hates them so much that he shoots them in the back as they ride away from him. Some Hero of the Old West! He’s even determined to kill the niece he and Marty have been tracking for five years, taken by the Comanche, because she’s become assimilated with them.

Sure, it’s a dreadful thing that the Comanche torch the settlers’ homesteads with the settlers inside and abduct the children. But it’s also pretty bloody awful for the US Cavalry to charge through a tepee village on sight massacring men, women and children alike. And in the end it’s the Comanche who come out of The Searchers smelling sweeter. In 1956 America was waking up to what it had done to its indigenous people, The Searchers still has a touch of moral ambiguity about it, but the Western has come some way from Red River a few years earlier where cutting the throat of an Indian was no obstacle to being family entertainment.

It’s the ambiguity that made the ending, which I won’t give away, such a disappointment for me. It’s undoubtedly a great film, but for now it must yield to Red River the title of My Favourite Western.