Film of the Week | 21st May 2021
“Que Sera, Sera,” the biggest hit of Doris Day’s career, playing everywhere in 1956 and floating in the background as a ten-year-old boy stands nervously on the tarmac while he watches his parents drive away. He is on his first day at prep school. That was me. Note from ten-year-old self to grown-up self: “Do not do this to your own children.” I listen now to “Que, Sera, Sera,” with mixed feelings. Doris Day sings it in The Man Who Knew Too Much, but I didn’t know that then.
Hitchcock had made a film with this title before in 1934, “the work of a gifted amateur,” as he described it, starring Peter Lorre and Leslie Banks, set in London and ending with a version of the Sidney Street Siege. This version stars James Stewart as Dr Ben McKenna and Doris Day as his wife Jo, and moves from Marrakech to locations in London, ending in the Albert Hall and a concert conducted by the great Bernard Herrmann himself, “the work,” this time, “of a professional.” Shot in VistaVision, it is full of glorious colour, the Herrmann soundtrack, and sequences in which Hitchcock prefers to intensify suspense with natural sounds, as in the marketplace, or footsteps on a London street, to music. And there are some typical Hitchcock tricks, Ambrose Chapel among them.
Hitchcock began his career in silent films, and because of his focus on what he called ‘pure cinema’ large passages of his films do without dialogue. The sequence in the Albert Hall consists of one hundred and twenty-four shots and lasts for twelve minutes without a single spoken word. Originally, James Stewart was supposed to deliver a page of dialogue, but Hitchcock dumped it. “Just wave your arms a lot and run up the stairs.” Let the camera tell the story.
Hitchcock’s cameo appearance is on the edge of a crowd watching acrobats in Marrakech: easy to miss because our eyes are drawn to the acrobats. Apart from making fun of American tourists abroad, there are several Hitchcock coded potentially censorable ‘jokes’, one being about which hand Ben is using with food in Morocco, an allusion to lavatorial customs, and the reference to the couple’s “monthly rows”. Misogyny? Ben has forced Jo to give up her own career to support his. He drugs her to insulate her against stress when he is preparing to tell her of their son’s kidnapping, behaviour which might be seen either as psychopathic or typical of medical practice at the time (and a dry run for Stewart’s controlling behaviour in Vertigo). Anti-misogyny? Ben tries to handle everything on his own but is eventually forced into getting the wife whose abilities he had previously underestimated to help him.
When a man is unmasked as not being black but wearing make-up, they couldn’t find a make-up that came off easily, so they painted the fingers of the man white, leaving white streaks on the other man’s black skin.
Traces of this film can be found in The Manchurian Candidate in the assassination scene, and in Travis’s rescue of Iris in Taxi Driver, and elsewhere.
Hitchcock is always, always, worth watching.
Best wishes, Bill.
PS. Wim Wenders’ haunting examination of alienation and reclamation, Paris, Texas(1984) is on at 11.15pm on Film4 on Thursday 20th May and has Harry Dean Stanton outstanding in his only lead role. Poetically filmed, it has an unforgettable Ry Cooder score (he heard desert sounds as E flat, so he tuned everything to E flat). This is a powerful and intelligently moving and instructive film.