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The Man Who Knew Too Much

You Only Live Once: Early American Hitchcock

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

As a general practice, Parallax View doesn’t post Word files of departmental MTN offerings such as “You Only Live Once,” the ongoing survey of repertory offerings around town. However, Peter Hogue’s anticipatory survey of a Hitchcock lineup in the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series contains some exceptional insights above and beyond the call of duty. Besides, Hitchcock is always in season. —RTJ

YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE

“Early/Middle Hitchcock,” roughly 1934–1946, may be the most appealing period of the great director’s career. From Strangers on a Train (1951) to date, Hitchcock is a master, a towering figure who has his complex art under complete control. But the earlier Hitchcock has a certain warmth and expansiveness that are somewhat diminished in the work of the masterful Hitch later on. Somewhere in the Forties the director’s always-ironic relationship with his audience shifts somewhat from a tolerant tantalization to a tortuous temptation. A convenient, highly visible landmark for the change comes when Hitchcock administers an ingenious shock to the audience by firing a gun in our faces at the climax of Spellbound (1945). The process, of course, isn’t as neatly patterned as all that, but a striking change in Hitch is discernible in retrospect. The basic intellectual vision behind the films remains more or less constant, but the earlier films are more relaxed and less elliptical than the later ones, and less given to inflicting themselves upon the audience. It’s as if the later Hitchcock felt he had to explain less to more recent audiences at the same time that he felt more of an inclination to teach us a lesson, to punish us even. The classic example, of course, is Psycho (1960) with its devilishly inspired manipulation of audience expectations and conventional moral assumptions (amply discussed elsewhere by Leo Braudy and Raymond Durgnat). Psycho assaults its audience repeatedly, and the current highly marketable hunger for such assaults (especially by lesser directors than Hitch) perhaps proves the master’s point, confirms his suspicions, authenticates his contempt. The Early/Middle Hitch is a little less the moralist, more the entertainer: the personal vision is fully present but there is a greater flexibility, a more playful humor, in face of the moral ambiguities that edge many of the later films toward a harrowing despair.

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Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Wake in Fright’ and Hitchcock’s original ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’

Wake in Fright” (Image), one of the seminal works of the New Australian cinema of the seventies, is a brutal, blackly funny thriller of an urban schoolteacher (Gary Bond) posted to the Australian Outback, which is a sun-blasted nightmare as far as he’s concerned. He can’t leave fast enough when his Christmas vacation arrives, but his veneer of culture crumbles when he gets stranded in the grimy mining town of Bundanyabba (or just “the Yabba,” as the locals call their little slice of hell), where he unravels in non-stop drink and nocturnal kangaroo hunts. The educated, well-spoken character looks like easy prey to the hard-drinking roughnecks and derelicts of the town but this isn’t an Aussie “Deliverance.” He’s a willing participant in his self-degradation in this lost weekend, and the darkly comic chain of events that keep him stuck the Yabba looks less like a cruel joke by a trickster god and more like a hard lesson in self-awareness. Under all that hubris and arrogance is just another animal acting on base instinct.

The raw, sweaty 1971 film is not a pretty portrayal of life in the outback, where men are crude, hard-drinking mates with no ambition beyond rough-house fun, and it was a flop Australia, but it was critically well received and brought more attention to the nascent Australian film culture. Director Ted Kotcheff is Canadian, its two featured stars (Gary Bond and Donald Pleasance) British, and its producers an international collection, but the self-aware sensibility is unique and impressive and even a little affectionate — the locals (including an impossibly young and beautiful Jack Thompson) are as generous and accepting as they are coarse and raw — and it became an influence on the work of Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir and others.

The film all but disappeared and was thought lost for years until a print was discovered in a film depot in Pittsburgh, and the film was restored by the National Film and Sound Archive in Australia. Drafthouse Films picked it up for its American release, and they present the film Blu-ray and DVD with Image. Both formats feature commentary by director Ted Kotcheff and editor Anthony Buckley, a Q&A with Kotcheff from the film’s showing at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, the new retrospective featurette “To the Yabba and Back,” and archival clips about the film’s production and recovery, plus a booklet with notes on the film and its recovery and restoration. Also includes a bonus digital copy, which can be downloaded from the Drafthouse website.

The original The Man Who Knew Too Much (Criterion), Alfred Hitchcock’s first international thriller of innocents caught up in the intrigue of spies and killers, set the template for the romantic thrillers that made his reputation. It’s also the English language debut of Peter Lorre, whose childlike bursts of laughter immediately set him off from the British restraint and carefully wit of the rest of the cast. Leslie Banks and Edna Best are an ordinary couple whose sports vacation to Switzerland becomes a nightmare when a British agent dies in their presence and foreign assassins kidnap their daughter (Nova Pilbeam) to assure their silence. Hitchcock’s tone is odd, with clever set pieces and tightly-constructed and edited sequences interspersed with awkward scenes of emotional restraint (“Steady, old girl, steady”) and disconnected characters. It lacks the romance and the personality wrestling of his best films of the thirties, something he mastered in “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.” But his pace is snappy and you can see Hitch working out his signature style in key scenes, from the startling assassination of the first act exploding in the midst of a practical joke to the building rhythm of the Albert Hall sequence, and he invites the wife to participate in the rescue of her daughter as only a female sharpshooting champion could.

This public domain film has been widely available in substandard versions, some of them quite terrible. Criterion masters the film from the BFI’s restored fine-grain 35mm print (the original negative no longer exists) for a special edition on Blu-ray and DVD. The source material is not pristine, but it’s been cleaned up and digitally repaired (both picture and sound) as well as could be hoped for, and mastered with a sharpness I’ve never seen in a print of this film. Features commentary by film historian Philip Kemp, a new interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, a 50-minute TV interview with director Alfred Hitchcock conducted by journalist Pia Lindstrom and film historian William Everson in 1972, and excerpts from filmmaker François Truffaut’s 1962 interviews with Hitchcock (audio only).

More DVD, Blu-ray, and digital releases at Videodrone