So, awhile back I decided to start a new idea/challenge to get me blogging more. I was going to watch pairs of films from my unwatched DVD collection (a fiendishly large pile) and review them on a compare and contrast basis. The pairs would be picked, by genre or type, or even country of origin and age, whatever appealed or seemed potentially interesting at the time. Anyway, it was a good idea and a shame to let it lie just because November didn’t go to plan. So New Year, new leaf turned over.
This pair of films came about accidentally; I was originally planning to do a double bill of ‘black and white suspense films’ in the shape of Shadow of a Doubt and The Third Man. However, I came across one of the those ‘free with a paper’ DVDs of the original version of The Man who Knew too Much and decided to do a Hitchcock double feature instead – purely for the thematics, nothing to do with making a less awkward blog title.
As a forewarning, I feel I should note that I’m not actually a massive Hitchcock fan. Perhaps because his films have been built up so much in popular culture that it was inevitable that I would be disappointed when I finally got to watch them. The first half hour or so of Psycho is brilliant, but after that first iconic murder sequence it falls rather flat for me, and after all the hype I’d heard about Rear Window actually watching it left me rather cold. I persist in watching them though, in the hope of finding one that will give me a light bulb moment when I’ll suddenly understand why everyone else seems to think he’s a genius.
What can we say about The Man who Knew too Much? Well, to be entirely fair to it, the DVD transfer wasn’t exactly pristine. The black and white was very dark, the sound tinny and panned all to one side, so that somewhat went against it to start with. Other than that, well to be honest, I can understand why Hitchcock decided to remake it twenty years later. There’s a decent movie in there somewhere but while it has its moments, they’re few and far between. Motivations are vague and contradictory, relationships are unconvincing and sometimes confusing, and the acting is downright wooden from some of the cast. Jill and Bob seem genuinely more affectionate and concerned for poor dead Louis then they are for poor kidnapped Betty. Peter Lorre does his best with rather thin material, but honestly, I’ve seen him be far more sinister and intimidating without anywhere near as much firepower. Quite what was going on with the creepy ambiguously-Central-European dentist is anyone’s guess. There’s a couple of good moments – Jill gets most of them, and makes me wonder if what was actually going on with her and Louis was him trying to recruit her to be a spy – but in general I’ve had waits at the dentist that were tenser and more filled with suspense.
Shadow of a Doubt on the other hand is a film that really shows what Hitchcock could do. Tension runs through the film like a thread pulling tighter and tighter, unexpectedly slackening only to pull ever tighter. At the heart of the film, and I feel the secret to its success, is the relationship between the two Charlies. The ways they are alike and the ways they are different, the way the affection between them curdles until the only way for either of them to survive is for one of them to destroy each other. There’s something highly appealing about both characters, older Charlie is a character we’ve seen in a thousand movies, the son who left to make his fortune and comes home to shower his family with the spoils of his success. He’s charming and personable, suave and successful, and also a psychopath at the end of his tether. A very human monster, with motivation and backstory. The American dream made flesh, with its entire destructive, rotten core laid bare. Young Charlie is also an archetype, young woman, just graduated high school, whole life ahead of her, longing for escape from suburbia: will she choose conventionality or adventure? These days she’d be the final girl, but here she’s something else. She’s truly the mirror image of the monster, her choice is protect her beloved uncle from the world or protect the world from her uncle. We feel her conflict and her struggle, the terrible weight of the decisions she has to make and make alone. The great compelling tragedy of the film is that she will risk him killing again – sacrifice innocents unknown – to protect her family, he will sacrifice anything, even her, to protect himself. Compelling to the end, it may not be one of Hitchcock’s ‘classics’ but to my mind it’s his best work.
Underneath all that, these two films do have something else in common beyond their director. They both deal with sacrifice, what people are willing to sacrifice for their principles and what principles they will sacrifice for their loved ones.