Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1956)
★★★ / ★★★★
After attending a medical convention in Paris, Dr. Benjamin McKenna (James Stewart) decides to vacation in Marrakech, Morocco with Jo (Doris Day), his wife, and Hank (Christopher Olsen), his young son, before they return to Indianapolis. While on their way to the hotel, a Frenchman named Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin) befriends the tourists and offers to take them around the city and recommend must-see places. All appears to be fine, with the exception of Jo’s nagging suspicion that they are being followed, until Mr. Bernard is stabbed in the back. Before he dies, he manages to whisper important information about a possible assassination in Dr. McKenna’s ears.
Based on the story by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, before “The Man Who Knew Too Much” immerses us with its suspense and thrills, it works like a travelogue. The decision to allow the first part of the story to take place in Marrakech is not wasted because it gives the McKenna family, as well as the audience, a chance to interact with their foreign surroundings.
The camera consistently pulls itself back and features places like the marketplace: the amount of crowd that shops on a typical day, the scent of vegetables and spices emanating from their respective containers, down to the sweat and grime of the vendors whose bodies are sprawled on the floor despite the blistering heat. I was surprised that I even had the opportunity to learn how to eat properly in a Moroccan restaurant.
Since the mood is somewhat lighthearted for such an extended period of time, when the shift in mood and atmosphere occurs, it feels sudden even if elements that hint that something is going to go wrong eventually never step out of the shadow. The direction by Alfred Hitchcock is felt in scenes where uncertain paranoia evolve into a real fear.
For instance, as characters panic, the camera remains motionless as if it dares us to absorb every tiny emotion that radiates from the tragedy. When Jo and Benjamin’s son is taken, it is natural that we feel sympathy for them. But, with the aid of Stewart and Day’s sublime acting, I caught myself feeling angry for them–angry because they are helpless, confused, and, perhaps most importantly, anybody could have made the same mistakes they did.
Furthermore, I admired that the screenplay by John Michael Hayes places emphasis on the partnership between husband and wife. It might have easily been about a hellbent father who is willing to hurt anybody if it meant getting back his only son. Instead, there is more depth in what is unfolding. Since both husband and wife are given equal things to do, it almost feels like their quest to get their son back is an act of attempting to conceive another child. This is neatly tied to a scene in the beginning about Jo wanting to get pregnant again. In a way, the trial they attempt to overcome is an opportunity for a rebirth as a couple and as parents.
“The Man Who Knew Too Much” is a title dipped in irony. It is not a cerebral experience. It is about the emotions that we and the characters go through rather than an evil plot.
Trouble with Harry, The (1955)
★★ / ★★★★
Arnie (Jerry Mathers) is playing in the woods when he hears three shots. Instead of running back home to his mother, Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine), the curious kid walks closer to the source of the shots and finds a lifeless body in the clearing. Scared, he sprints to tell an adult about his discovery. Meanwhile, Capt. Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), who happens to be hunting for rabbits, stumbles upon the dead body. Convinced that he had accidentally killed the man, he hides the corpse instead of reporting it to the police.
Based on the screenplay by John Michael Hayes, “The Trouble with Harry” has an interesting premise stretched so thinly, its comedy eventually becomes a product of diminishing returns. For instance, Dr. Greenbow (Dwight Marfield), so absorbed in the contents of his books while walking, trips over the cadaver several times under different circumstances. Someone not noticing a dead body that is out in the open is funny. But a person who consistently fails to take notice, more than three times, is not.
Naturally, the doctor happens to make an appearance during the most inopportune times. We do not know who killed the man so this threatens an otherwise innocent person, who just so happens to be in the vicinity, to become a potential scapegoat. At times I held my breath each time he walks by. However, it is too bad that once Dr. Greenbow finally has a chance to be useful, he turns out to be a pretty banal, charmless character.
The film is largely episodic in that we follow an artist named Sam (John Forsythe) chatting to various people about the dead man and what should be done with him. His most interesting interaction is with Jennifer. Sam thinks Jennifer is breathtakingly beautiful and Jennifer reckons Sam has a kindness about him that her former husband lacks. While Forsythe and MacLaine share good chemistry, the type that is perfect for a romantic comedy, their flirtations often get in the way of the mystery. Every time they give each other a look of yearning, my mind goes back to the corpse and what should be done with it once and for all.
The picture could have been over halfway through because the body has been buried. Philosophical musings about conscience are brought up. Then the body has to be dug up. The act of putting the body in and out the hole becomes a cycle but the set-up is not equipped with enough punchlines to be riotously funny. The repetition forces scenes to become less effective over time.
I found more amusement in the subplot involving a millionaire (Parker Fennelly) who wishes to buy Sam’s artwork. I was tickled because I believed the paintings look plain on purpose but the rich gentleman sees something priceless about them.
“The Trouble with Harry,” based on the novel by Jack Trevor Story and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, offers dialogue that sounds natural which allows some of the more whimsical elements to go undetected. However, the mystery is so often brushed to the side and is only placed front and center whenever it is convenient. But that’s the thing with dead bodies: they never are.
★★ / ★★★★
During the premiere of “North by Northwest,” Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), having made forty-six movies so far, is asked by a reporter if he has considered quitting while he was ahead. This touches upon one of Hitchcock’s biggest insecurities: despite being the most prominent director in the world, he remains to be doubted by many because of his age. On his next film, his goal is to prove to the skeptics that he still has “it” and he will not be going away any time soon. Based on Robert Bloch’s novel, “Psycho” is so fresh and so daring at the time that Hitch feels he has to make it… even if it means putting his palatial home up for mortgage because Paramount decides not to finance the project.
It is somewhat of a disappointment that the film’s focus is the relationship between Hitch and his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), instead of showing the audience, through modern lens, how the legendary director made, down to the nitty-gritty details, one of his most iconic pictures. However, “Hitchcock,” based on the screenplay by John J. McLaughlin and directed by Sacha Gervasi, must be evaluated for what it tries to accomplish rather than what one wishes it should have been. On that level, it remains a mixed bag of tricks.
Appropriately, most effective are the interactions between husband and wife. It is important that we feel immediately why Hitch and Alma choose to be partners, in life and in the film business, without knowing too much about them. Right away, there is a level of camaraderie between them. Throughout, we are made to understand why they complete one another even though they have increasingly big marriage-related problems that must be addressed. I liked that their interactions are often cold but they have enough warmth from time to time to suggest a strong history.
Although Hopkins is very convincing as Hitchcock, due to the precise mannerisms and posturing as well as good makeup, Mirren manages to outshine him. Each time the camera focuses on her character’s sad eyes, I was drawn into her thoughts. I imagined how it might be like to be married to someone who is so talented but does not always know his worth because others devalue his many successes. Worse, how it must be like to be treated like a convenience rather than a spouse through many good and bad years. When Hitch and Alma are at the center, the film radiates an energy so magnetic, I could care less about the goings-on on the Paramount set.
However, there are too many scenes between Alma and Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a writer who hopes that Alma will influence Hitch to look at his screenplay. From the harmless flirtations to a visit to a seaside getaway, it is predictable. Eventually, it begins to feel like a dull romance picture. There is a sweetness to their exchanges, but they are consistently one-note. Whenever they are together, I felt the urge to get up and use the restroom. At least with scenes between Hitch and Alma, there is a tug-of-war of needs. With Alma and Whit, it all feels too flat, bland, boring.
The fantasy sequences involving Hitch and Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), a mass murderer from Wisconsin with whom “Psycho” is based on, do not work either. A parallel is drawn between Hitch’s increasing jealousy toward Alma and Whit as well as his own increasingly violent ideations, but it is not executed with enough verve. It feels sloppy, an afterthought. I would rather have seen more exchanges between Hitch and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel). Their relationship evokes real drama because the legendary director treats one of his stars like she is not even there.
What Lies Beneath (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
After Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Norman (Harrison Ford) dropped their daughter (Katharine Towne) off to college, strange things started to occur in their lakeside Vermont home. After hearing her neighbor (Miranda Otto) cry while tending the garden and the woman suddenly disappeared the next day, Claire was convinced that the wife was murdered by her husband (James Remar). Claire concluded that she was being haunted by the wife’s ghost. But was there really a ghost or was it simply that were we watching a woman with a fractured mind? After all, there were some memories she didn’t have access to because she had been involved in a major car accident a year before. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, “White Lies Beneath” had a very suspenseful first half. The camera was almost always fixated on Claire as she moved about the house. We saw the story through her eyes so every time she turned a corner and someone (or something) happened to be there (or worse, when we saw some weird happenings behind her through a mirror), we, like her, couldn’t help but react. The scares were earned. There were some eerie scenes such as when the dog wouldn’t go into the water to fetch his favorite toy and when Claire decided to spy on the man of the house next door in order to gather some sort of evidence that he killed his wife. The scene with the Ouija board was also a stand-out because the characters acknowledged the ridiculousness of the situation. It was funny, but it generated uneasy laughs because perhaps there really was a ghost. Sadly, the second half was convoluted. Cheap false alarms were abound and the explanation regarding the supernatural left something more to be desired. I also had a big problem with Ford’s acting. When he expressed his many frustrations regarding his wife’s obsession, I felt like I was watching a play. Ford’s tendency to overact did not complement Pfeiffer’s more natural approach despite the fact that she felt like she was dealing with the paranormal. Thankfully, the movie was saved by the truly scary bathtub scene in which the paralyzed Claire awaited the water to rise until she could no longer breathe. The silence was menacing. We could hear every drop of water and feel Claire’s determination to survive. “What Lies Beneath” was eviscerated by critics upon its release. It may have its weak points but I stand by the picture because of its more classic approach to the scares and references to Alfred Hitchcock’s repertoire. Compared to most horror pictures of the mid- to late 2000s, which were mostly uninspired, this movie was able to deliver good scares without relying on blood.
★★★ / ★★★★
Lovers Richard Loeb (Daniel Schlachet) and Nathan Leopold Jr. (Craig Chester) liked to commit crime and became sexually satisfied by getting away with them. But when Loeb decided to withhold sex from Leopold, the latter was willing to do anything for Loeb in order to prove his love which included kidnapping and murdering a Jewish kid. Based on a tragic true story in the 1920s, Tom Kalin’s “Swoon” was beautifully shot, adopting a cinematic style in that era which included a grainy black-and-white look with accompanying music common in silent pictures. However, the subject was very dark because we had to explore the mindsets of two monsters who were bored with their privileged lives. They claimed to know what love was but their inability to feel for the welfare of others begged the question whether they were able to feel anything at all. The main characters were fascinating to study because, after they were caught by the police, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was still all a game to them. I was certain that they believed they were smart enough to get away with murder, but I detected that they were simply playing with the cops as they were interviewed about the crime. They lied through their fingers, purposefully and strategically recalling incorrect details but there came a point when they started to take it seriously. I liked the fact that it was difficult for me to point at exactly where the game changed for them. “Swoon” is far from being a commercial film. There were images of cross-dressers that left me wondering about their purpose in the story, anachronisms such as the usage of modern telephones which I was not sure to be deliberate or due to the limits of the budget, and the connection of phrenology to the crime other than the fact that the two lovers were Jewish. I’m afraid such polarizing images would leave most audiences confused or frustrated. Furthermore, the picture ran a little too long. I sensed a handful of possible endings that would have worked better prior to the actual one which made me question if the director had a real control and a clear vision of his project. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film from the perspective of character study. Despite the film’s level of detail, I did not feel like I understood the two completely, but perhaps that was the point. Only an irrational and troubled mind could abduct an innocent child and murder that child for no compelling reason other than to prove a point. The story of Loeb and Leopold had been told on film multiple times (Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and Richard Fleischer’s “Compulsion”). Maybe we’re not meant to fully understand.
Diaboliques, Les (1955)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The wife (Véra Clouzot) of a boarding school principal (Paul Meurisse) and the mistress (Simone Signoret) concocted a plan to murder the man between them. Each had their motives. The wife realized that they were only married because he enjoyed spending her money, while the mistress was tired of being in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. But after the two women went through with their plan, the body mysteriously disappeared. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film was smart and precise. With a relatively simple premise, he was successful with accomplishing so much. Each scene had something to do with the murder and we learned a great deal about the women as they tried to wrestle with their own conscience. I was very curious about what was happening on screen and it did not answer the mystery immediately. With each scene, I found myself not only paying attention to the main characters’ words and mannerisms, but also the people on the background. I thought that perhaps one of them, especially the members of the faculty, had something to do with the missing corpse. While I did not find the picture particularly scary, there were some superbly effective thrills. For instance, days after principal went missing, a little boy claimed that he encountered the man in question and had given him a punishment for breaking a window. Despite being slapped and yelled at, the boy, on the verge of tears, insisted that he was telling the truth. I enjoyed that the material kept itself open to many possible explanations. In this instance, perhaps we were dealing with a ghost story because up until that point, nothing seemed to explain the sudden disappeance of the dead body. “Les diaboliques,” or “The Devils,” was stunningly shot in black-and-white embedded with a spice of great acting from the two leading ladies. I had fun observing their differences and, more importantly, their similarities. The tension between them was palpable and the way in which they transported the body from one place after another was unbearable. It certainly did not help that the wife was in a fragile state due to her heart condition. Even though the ladies committed a crime, I didn’t want them to get caught. How far were they willing to go to keep their dark secret hidden? As the film showed, as far as they possibly could. Comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s best thrillers are not only understandable but highly deserved.
★★★ / ★★★★
Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) had a dark ideation. Once a successful playwright but now struggling to keep up with his reputation due to his recent flops, he came across a manuscript written by one of his former students named Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve). Sidney invited unsuspecting Clifford to visit his home in order to offer some advice to make the play better, murder him, and pass Clifford’s work as his own. Sidney’s wife (Dyan Cannon) had heart problems in the past but she reluctantly went along with her husband’s devious plan. It took a bit of time for me to get into this film. At first I thought the plot didn’t quite know how to move forward. I also had some problems with its tone. Did it want to be funny or thrilling or both? I wondered, could it have its cake and eat it, too? I also found the acting a bit amateurish, especially Cannon. I was aware that the picture was based on a play written by Ira Levin but her acting felt stuck in that medium. I thought she was annoying, whiny and needy–a damsel-in-distress who stuck by her husband for no good reason. However, after about forty minutes, it gained its footing and the material showed me it had intelligence. Very unexpected twists upon twists were abound but what I liked best about it was it felt like a play but it gained enough power to work in a cinematic medium. The tension became so high to the point where the exaggerations almost felt necessary. Caine impressed me because I’m used to watching him play quieter characters that are almost grandfather-like and humble. It was a breath of fresh air to see him so bitter, so angry, so flawed. His character caught my attention because it was the kind of character that valued his reputation more than anything else. He talked of sociopaths which made me wonder if he was projecting his own characteristics onto someone else. Sidney Lumet, the director, astutely used mood as a weapon to surprise the audiences. At times watching the film was like reading a novel. Just when I thought the picture was over because the mood was reaching a serene plateau, it suddenly came to life and delivered shocking punches. In less experienced hands, it might have felt too contrived or forced. Lumet’s direction certainly helped the sudden shifts in mood to feel as natural as possible. “Deathtrap” did not start off with flying colors but it is difficult to deny that it was a sublime murder mystery once it found a connection with its core. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s slow but compelling thrillers should eat this one up like candy.
39 Steps, The (1935)
★★★ / ★★★★
Loosely based on the novel by John Buchan and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” was about a man named Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) on the run to prove his innocence after a woman (Lucie Mannheim) who was staying with him told him bits of information about the 39 Steps and was then killed. I’ve read that this was Hitchcock’s first international success in the film industry and I believed it showed. Even though it wasn’t as strong as some of my personal favorites from Hitchcock (“North by Northwest,” “Dial M for Murder,” “Notorious”), this was where he introduced some of the elements that he used in his later films to produce such powerful force of human drama and adrenaline-fueled (yet astute) action sequences. In this picture, I loved how the story would evolve in a matter of minutes or by saying key lines or two. I also admired how the director chose to end a scene, despite it lasting only thirty seconds or so, right when he finished getting his point across. With thrillers (and movies in general) today, many scenes are dragged on which contributes to running times of two hours or more. In “The 39 Steps,” although the movie was under an hour and thirty minutes, it was efficient with its time so it was able to accomplish so much. It actually treats its audiences like intelligence people instead of simplifying everything; the depths and implications in the story allowed us to identify with the characters as we questioned ourselves what would we have done when placed in the same situations. Yet at the same time, this film achieved most thrillers could not: it was comedic. Don’t get me wrong, the comedy did not get in the way of its tone. It’s just that funny things happen when people panic and placed in very desperate situations. Such amusing scenes happened whenever Richard and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) were on screen because they had such chemistry but they did not like each other from the moment they met on the train. It goes without saying that I’m giving “The 39 Steps” a solid recommendation because the way it explored its themes and characters was beyond its time. Another reason was it was downright entertaining. Don’t let the black and white fool you because it was actually able to use shadows to its advantage–like the best noir films in the 1940s and the 1950s.
Dial M for Murder (1954)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Adapted from a play by Frederick Knott and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “Dial M for Murder” is a top-notch thriller about a husband (Ray Milland) who plots to kill his own wife (Grace Kelly) so that he could inherit all of her money. The wife is having an affair with a writer (Robert Cummings) and the two are so close to telling the husband about their relationship, totally unaware of the fact that the husband has his own suspicions. I love how meticulous this film was when it comes to its pacing and detail so that everything made sense in the end. I noticed that the movie was divided into three parts: the first thiry minutes was how the husband essentially forced another man (Anthony Dawson) to kill his wife, the next thirty-five minutes was the actual murder and the first couple of twists in the story, and the last thiry-five minutes was how the good guys tried to capture the villian of the story. The question is, considering this is a Hitchcock film, will they succeed? Most of the picture was shot indoors, which reminded me of Hitchcock’s other film called “Rope,” but that doesn’t make it any less compelling. In fact, I think it worked in its favor because the audiences really got the chance to not only get very familiar with the scene of the crime but also play detective when one very curious and astute inspector (John Williams) suspected foul play. I also enjoyed the fact that Milland’s character was very smart so catching him was no easy feat. With most thrillers nowadays, they succumb to big chase scenes with violence (which can be pretty entertaining) but this one relied more on the subtleties of the characters’ actions and the dialogue between them. There were times when even I was lost because I kept trying to keep up with what a particular character wants to prove or suggest to another. Eventually, however, everything comes to light and there was a nice twist in the end that even I didn’t see coming. I’ve seen most of Hitchcock’s pictures and I have to say that this one is one of the most fun to watch because I really do love movies with a lot of talking. It also helped that the film had a certain sureness about itself so I was absolutely fascinated with how it would all turn out. If you love Hitchcock’s films and have not seen this one, do yourself a favor and watch it now.
Long Weekend (1978)
★ / ★★★★
“Nature Strikes Back” movies are interesting to me because it offers a different kind of horror. There’s no serial killer running around trying to kill half-naked teenagers and there’s no religious people trying to call an exorcist because of a demonic possession. Unfortunately, “Long Weekend” doesn’t impress on any level for several reasons. Most importantly, the couple (John Hargreaves and Briony Behets) who go on a camping trip near the beach are very unlikeable. The first scene they shared, they couldn’t help but bicker. They bickered on the way to the beach. And they bickered at the beach when weird things started happening. Instead of teaming up and putting their differences aside, they actively chose to blame one another for the things that were going wrong. I got so tired of it to the point where I wanted to shake them and tell them to shut up because they were damaging my ear drums. I actually wanted nature to kill them off so that I could get some peace and quiet. I would have cared so much more about the characters (and rooted for them) if they took care of nature and appreciated its beauty, yet for some reason nature was out to get them. I’m not sure if Everett De Roche, the writer, and Colin Eggleston, the director, were trying to be serious or campy. Either way, they succeeded in neither because the acting, tone and storytelling were subpar. Now, movies about nature suddenly going crazy and going on crazy rampages could work. For instance, Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” is one of my favorites. But this one felt like there was no brain behind it all and the scares involving the animals attacking were downright laughable. (Advice: If the animal looks really fake, don’t go for close-ups.) Just when I thought it was about to be successful at building suspense (the creature hiding in the water as Hargreaves goes swimming was pretty effective), a character does something so stupid so I’m taken out of that precious moment of feeling concerned about what would happen next. As cautionary tales go, the lesson is very obvious: treat nature with respect. But as far as horror movies go, Australia’s “Long Weekend” was more like a very long movie I wished would end after the first thirty minutes.
★★★ / ★★★★
Stacy Keach plays a truck driver who likes to play games on the road with his dingo companion in order to eliminate some of the boredom of long drives across Australia. After hearing about a serial killer on the loose who cuts up and disposes bodies all over the place, Keach begins to suspect a man who drives a green vehicle. Since the two stopped in the same area for the night, Keach sees the mysterious potential killer watching the garbage being collected very early in the morning. (As his dog sniffs the garbage bag of interest in an attempt to get food.) Jamie Lee Curtis plays the hitchhiker who Keach picks up and who is eventually taken by the killer. I’ve read from other reviews that Richard Franklin, the director, was a very big fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Being a fan myself, watching this movie was that much more fun for me because I actively looked for certain shots and twists in the story that could reference to Hitchcock’s works. But even if one is not familiar with Hitchcock’s movies, one could still enjoy this psychological thriller because of the suspenseful false alarms and eventual real dangers that the characters had to face. I thought “Roadgames” was very different from other movies about killers on the road (especially American movies of the same set-up). Franklin took the time to establish Keach and Curtis’ characters before really getting into the scares. They talked and formed a genuine connection, so when the two were finally on the killer’s tracks, we couldn’t help but care and wonder whether they really were on the right track and whether or not they would eventually get caught. My favorite scene was when Keach investigated the number of meat in the back of his truck. That scene was done so well because at first I had no idea what he was thinking. But when I finally caught up on why he was so worried, I was so disturbed and I could remember saying out loud that he should get out of the truck as soon as possible. My heart raced so fast because the camera just lingered there as if something was about to go seriously wrong. The scene after that was also very impressive–very Hitchcockian–the way the character got into his own head and trying to persuade himself that everything was alright (which, of course, was not the case). “Roadgames” is now considered a cult classic cat-and-mouse movie and I believe it still holds up today. I wish more people would see this because it did many things that were so unexpected. Instead of simplifying things for the audience, it actually tried to outsmart us which I found to be very refreshing even though it was released back in 1981.