Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
This week I watched two movies that both celebrated their 60th anniversary in 2016. Both are classics by two of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers and even though I’d seen each one several times, both of them made me cry for the first time. Neither seem like anyone’s idea of a tearjerker. One film Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and the other was John Ford’s The Searchers (also from 1956).
Being moved to tears isn’t a feeling you usually ascribe to Hitchcock, but it’s definitely not something associated with John Ford. I know how Ford is commonly viewed, as an ultra-male, right-wing, John Wayne man’s man asshole who made westerns that bore the shit out of modern audiences. But I think that’s unfair. I love Ford the poet, the man who hid his otherworldly talent beneath a macho guise for fear of being taken seriously, laughed at, or possibly considered a homosexual (which he may have been, but it’s all hearsay and who knows?). John Ford is the man who almost single-handedly invented the Western feature film, who effortlessly straddled silent and sound pictures, won four Oscars for Best Director (a feat that’s never been topped), and was arguably America’s greatest film director (Yep, I said it. Come at me).
Yet Ford resisted the label of “artist,” constantly claiming that he “just made pictures” even though his careful preparation and artful composition proved him to be a liar. Hitchcock never shied away from the “artist” label, nor did he shy away from interviews and retrospectives, which is part of the reason why he’s still so well-known and well-regarded. Ford hated interviews and would never have been caught dead hosting a TV show, let alone one that had him doing comedy skits before and after each show.
Hitchcock was an opportunist, but he was also honest about wanting the attention and praise of others. Hitch’s films are also less rooted in history, and more based in classic filmmaking technique. Parsing the racial subtext of The Searchers in the context of Ford & John Wayne’s onscreen twenty-year relationship requires background; no extra knowledge is required to appreciate the best Hitchcock sequences and films.
So does that mean that Hitchcock is a better director? No, not at all. Neither could have done what the other did. Ford loved shooting in far-flung locations like his beloved Monument Valley, and creating tributes to man and nature, letting his story meander while he explored character and setting. Hitchcock hated location shooting because it disrupted his carefully planned shooting schedule & storyboards; he only had complete control in a studio. Any location shoots in Hitchcock films would be in major European cities not far from four star hotels and restaurants.
While neither was a huge part of the Hollywood scene, they undoubtedly met or knew of each other’s work. John Ford rarely if ever spoke about other filmmakers, so we have no idea what he thought of the Master of Suspense. But Alfred Hitchcock was confident enough in his own abilities to dole out praise, saying (albeit posthumously) that “A John Ford film was a visual gratification, his method of shooting eloquent in its clarity and apparent simplicity.”
But this isn’t Ford 52 (it couldn’t be, as John Ford directed over 70 feature films, and countless silent shorts), so let’s talk about The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – I’ll come back to The Searchers. Last week I talked about how rare it is for a director to remake his own work, yet Hitchcock had it on his mind as early as 1938, when he described much of the new opening in Marrakech (a change from the Switzerland opening of the 1934 version) to an interviewer. Clearly Hitch was already looking at ways he could improve this film; probably stemming from his dissatisfaction with producer’s oversight and penny-pinching at Gaumont-British studio.
And certainly the 1934 version shows the seams where it’s stitched together. Some of the sets are unconvincing, the pace is rushed, and even the legendary Albert Hall sequence was a mix of brief location shooting and extensive special effects and matte paintings.
So two decades later, after many false starts, Hitchcock embarked on the remake. Bringing in his old British writing partner Angus MacPhail to work with John Michael Hayes (who had already written Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and The Trouble With Harry), the trio took the bones of the story, about a traveling couple whose child is kidnapped to keep them quiet about an assassination, and rebuilt it to their needs. As Jimmy Stewart was onboard for the remake, the couple became an American “old married couple.” Doris Day was cast as his wife, and the kidnapped girl of 1934 became a younger boy in 1956. The opening was set in Marrakech, per Hitch’s desire and the rest of the picture plays out in London.
The centerpiece of the film is still the attempted assassination at the Royal Albert Hall with the gunman firing during a cymbal crash, now expanded into a wordless 12 minute sequence. Clearly Hitchcock relished this chance to shoot on location at the Albert Hall, even cheekily showing the film’s composer Bernard Hermann (genius composer for Hitchcock’s 1950s-1960s golden era) as the guest conductor. Most of this sequence still plays like gangbusters, with much of the sequence a carbon copy of the original, but now in VistaVision widescreen color. There’s added pressure as Jimmy Stewart arrives and tries to force his way into the shooter’s box, but overall it’s a bit much. It’s still excellent work, but it misses the brevity and breathless rush of the 1934 version. Plus Hitchcock plays us the cymbal crash ahead of time not once or twice (as in the 1934 version), but THREE times, also adding in shots of the cymbal player waiting for his cue and closeups of the camera traveling across a musical score, as if to say to the audience, “Do you get it? Remember?” Hitchcock, enjoying his large budget and lack of limitations, seems to have forgotten the quintessential show-biz adage: always leave them wanting more.
Normally when you see Jimmy Stewart in a Hitchcock movie, it’s your cue to brace yourself for a career-best performance. He’s used to brilliant effect in Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958). Yet here he clearly struggles with an underwritten part, trying to improvise and add comedy in painfully unfunny scenes at a local restaurant in Marrakech and a taxidermist who turns out to be a red herring. Instead it’s Doris Day, known mainly as a singer and light comedienne, who has the best part in the film.
Studio heads insisted that a song be added for Day, then one of the most popular entertainers in the world. Hitchcock was willing to oblige, but didn’t want to compromise his film by stopping it cold for a corny musical number. They hit on the idea of having Day be a famous singer, albeit one who retired to raise her son (why a world-famous singer with fans meeting her at an airport retired and married a doctor from Indianapolis is something the film never answers). Her song, the Oscar-winning “(Que Sera, Sera) Whatever Will Be, Will Be) was written for the film by Jay Livingston & Ray Evans (who both admitted to writing the song in a day, then sitting on it for a week or two to make it seem like it took a while). Day hated the song and sang it only at the studio’s insistence. It would go on to become her greatest hit and the theme song for her own television show.
Day first sings the song with her son Hank while she’s getting him ready for bed at their hotel in Marrakech. It’s a lovely scene that conveys both her closeness with her son, but also hints at her marital troubles (while she sings, Stewart is in the other room, drinking by himself).
Later in the film, after the Albert Hall sequence, Day & Stewart think that their son is being held at an unnamed country’s embassy (Sidenote: this might be the first time that someone in a Hollywood film professes exasperation at an embassy’s “foreign soil,” immunity, with Stewart blurting out “So they can kidnap kids and get away with it?!”). Day agrees to perform a song to distract partygoers so Stewart can search for their son. Chairs are arranged in front of a piano and with diplomats assembled, her husband watching, and her son hidden somewhere in the house and about to be killed, Day’s character sits behind the piano and launches into “Whatever Will Be, Will Be.”
This time it’s no teasing sing-song. Day is belting it out and all of the emotion that she’s been holding back, all the fear, anguish, and worry over her son, is spilling out into the song. Hitchcock augments this performance with a deft sequence of cuts showing her voice drifting upstairs to where Hank hears her and his face lights up. The female kidnapper (who has grown attached to Hank and doesn’t want him killed) urges him to whistle along. Cut back to Day, still hammering away at the piano and pouring out her heart, when she hears Hank whistling. She stops and for a second you can see her about to break down, about to lose it all. Without music or even dialogue, Day tells us everything in this split second. She carries on with the song, now practically shouting, willing herself to be heard by her son. Meanwhile Stewart also heard the whistling and rushes upstairs to save his son.
It’s the best scene in the film, despite the must-vaunted Albert Hall sequence. The flaw with the Albert Hall sequence in both films, is that none of our main characters are in peril. The drama is abstract, as none of us want to see a diplomat shot and killed. But it doesn’t register in the same way that it does when Cary Grant is about to fall from Mount Rushmore, when one of our main characters is in peril. The song sequence of the 1956 film mirrors the mother saving her daughter’s life in the 1934 version, but it adds an emotional undercurrent, with a mother literally saving her son’s life with her singing.
That’s what made me cry. Day sitting behind the piano, her face alive with emotion as she sings out that silly but beautiful song, using all her talent, skill, and courage to help her boy. I’ve seen this film numerous times before and enjoyed it but I’ve never come close to crying. But this time it hit me.
It’s worth noting that a day later, a similar moment hit me in The Searchers. This is a film I’ve seen many, many times before. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a ruthless Civil War vet with a hatred for Native Americans. When his brother’s family is slaughtered by Comanche and his niece kidnapped, Edwards and his brother’s adopted son (a “half-breed” as Wayne charmingly puts it), embark on a bloody, seven-year quest across the Southwest to find the girl.
The film is a stunning spectacle, Ford’s most visually spectacular picture, shot almost all on location in Monument Valley. And Wayne is never better, his weathered face standing up to the gigantic pillars of red rock that frame him. He does the best acting of his career here, mainly in small moments that betray his hatred and inhumanity, like a shot closing in on his face as he looks at a white woman driven mad by her captivity with the Comanche (It is a racist film, to be sure, with the lead antagonist, Scar, played by a white man in makeup. Yet it’s not that simple, either).
Finally after seven years, Wayne finally finds Debbie. At the beginning of the film, in happier times, we see Wayne hoisting a seven year old Debbie high into the air, delighting in her youth. Now, with a fourteen year old Debbie dressed in Comanche garb and a “bride” of Scar, Wayne towers over her, driven by hatred and ready to kill.
And then suddenly he grabs her and lifts her into the air, the same way he lifted her as a child, his giant frame still hoisting her like a doll. He pauses, and in that moment his humanity returns. He sees her as the child she was, as the innocent she still is, and he swings her into his arms saying, “Let’s go home.”
And that’s when I cried again. Man, I was not prepared for it. It happens right at the end of the film and while I wasn’t sobbing per se, I definitely felt like I was the only one in the theater who had turned on the waterworks. It’s strange how crying in a movie theater is such a source of embarrassment, and I don’t think it’s just me either. The worst was when I went to see Fast & Furious 7 (2015) with a group of friends when it came out, and got the expected laughs, cheering, and thrills. These films, goofy as they are, not only contain the best stunt and action work of the past decade (with the obvious exception of Mad Max: Fury Road), they’re full of diverse, mutli-ethnic casts, substantial roles for women, and a generous 21st century message of acceptance.
During the filming of Furious 7, star Paul Walker was killed in a real car crash (not related to the movie), and the film is dedicated to him. But not only that, through doubles and amazing special effects work, the film manages to pull off the impossible and give his character a proper send-off. This is a series that wears its emotions on its sleeve and never resorts to clumsy snark. During this tribute sequence, I could feel the tears welling up. “What’s happening?” I thought. “Surely none of my cool friends are crying at this dumb movie.” I tried to hold it back as Vin Diesel talked about brotherhood and family, and then, just as I was about to break, I heard flat-out sobbing coming from a few seats down. I looked down the row and yup, me and all my friends were crying in a big, dumb, cathartic way over the end of Furious 7.
So I shouldn’t be embarrassed to admit that I cried at the end of The Searchers. But it took me a while to get there. For years I puzzled over the ending of this film. It’s abrupt, seemingly clumsy, and I never understood it. Unlike Hitchcock in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Ford doesn’t spell out the connection. He plants it there and waits, hoping that you’ll figure it out one of these days. And I finally did.
Both films end quickly after the moment that made me cry. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) has some overblown bits with the male kidnapper falling down some stairs, but it ends with shocking speed, as a rescued Hank runs into the room with Jimmy Stewart and the film dissolves mid-hug to the reunited family, now a cohesive unit, returning to their hotel room where Day’s friends and hangers-on have been waiting for hours. It’s one of Hitchcock’s famously unsatisfying endings, as though someone told him he had to end the film in the next thirty seconds. Meanwhile The Searchers has maybe the best ending in American cinema (Yeah, I said it. Come at me!), as John Wayne takes his niece back home and watches from outside as everyone else enters the homestead, happy, coupled, and contented. Wayne remains silhouetted by the door, staring inside then turning to look at the unforgiving desert behind him before walking away as the door closes. There’s no place for a brute like him in civilized society, and no place for him in the family he brought together.
I’ve already talked about how we perceive films differently based on our age when we see them. Just as people love to re-read books at different points in their lives, I think it’s important to do that with films you love.
It’s not lost on me that both of the moments that made me cry center around family. Continuing what I talked about last week, I’ve been in therapy for a while and a lot of what I’ve worked on is my relationship with my parents. It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve really gotten to the point where I can accept their limitations and love them, really love them for who they are, not what I want them to be.
The best part of the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is the way the family grows stronger over the course of the film. There’s a horrible moment early on when Stewart (playing a doctor), drugs Day so she won’t freak out when upon hearing the news that their son has been kidnapped. It’d be easy to read this as Hitchcock’s cruelty towards women, but I think it’s more complicated than that. The film portrays this as a despicable action, as Day is massively sympathetic as she cries, wails, and beats at Stewart before the drugs take hold. It’s clear that their marriage is full of problems (Day comments before he doses her that “you used to say I take too many of those things”). Yet at the end of the film, when Stewart is watching Day at the piano, there’s a new admiration and respect on his face, as he realizes how strong she truly is.
I spent a lot of time talking about blackface in Young and Innocent (1937) and that issue comes up again here. In the film, the family is walking through a Marrakech market when a chase breaks out and a man is fatally stabbed in the back. In a beautiful shot, the man staggers toward Jimmy Stewart while trying to reach the knife in his back, until finally collapsing. As he falls, Stewart’s hands brush against his face, rubbing off his brown “arab” makeup in streaks to reveal actor Daniel Gélin, who plays a secret agent. It’s a brilliant filmmaking moment and one that Hitchcock apparently had in mind since the late 1930s. Yet it’s also a case where an artist has an idea and wants to use it, regardless of the consequences.
While Hitchcock isn’t a realist, he is shooting on location in Marrakech with his actors. And this truly informs the atmosphere; the film functions as a travelogue, showing the viewer what the place and people is like.
Then suddenly Hitch is inserting a sequence where a caucasian man wearing preposterous brown makeup (that’s darker, by the way, than any of the actual Moroccans in the scene), yet everyone accepts him as just another guy in the marketplace until his makeup comes off. This is a theatrical trope, where we’re supposed to believe that with makeup or a change of clothing, people believe someone is a different race or sex. It might have worked for Shakespeare but in film’s visual medium, it simply doesn’t fly. Not only is it racist; it’s antiquated and Hitchcock can do better.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is a collection of great scenes and weaker scenes, rather than a cohesive movie. Hitchcock needs a strong through line to keep his films moving, and it never comes together here. John Ford is the opposite, someone who revels in digressions: scenes of people sitting around a fire, longs shots of horseback riding, and the genteel civility of a bygone era. The Searchers is a mess dramatically, veering from cold-blooded killing to broad comedy to stunning spectacle and back again, often in the span of several minutes. Yet it’s also a craggy, two-fisted, heartfelt masterpiece, probably Ford’s best, and as different from Hitchcock as you can imagine. I can really onle recommend The Searchers if you can see it on a big screen with an open heart and mind. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is still enjoyable second-tier Hitchcock and worth seeing for Doris Day at that piano.
Watch It: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is not available on any streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO). It is available to rent or buy on iTunes or Amazon Prime, and can be found at almost any existing rental store or library collection.
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