Monday, June 29, 2020

Doris Day in Hitchcock and Hitchcock-Lite

In regard to his two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), Alfred Hitchcock famously quipped: "Let's just say that the first version was the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional." These days, it's fashionable to prefer the earlier film, though I firmly believe the 1956 version is the stronger of the two.
Doris Day and James Stewart as the McKennas.
James Stewart and Doris Day star as Ben and Jo McKenna, American tourists spending three days in Marrakesh with their young son Hank. They encounter a mysterious man named Louis Bernard as well as Lucy and Edward Drayton, a friendly British couple. In the middle of a bazaar, an Arab--who has been stabbed--approaches Ben. As the dying man staggers to the ground, Ben realizes it's Bernard in disguise. He whispers to Ben that there will be an assassination in London and that Ben must tell the authorities about "Ambrose Chapel."

Later, at the police station, Ben receives a phone call that his son has been kidnapped and will remain safe as long as he says nothing to the authorities. When they return to their hotel, Ben and Jo realize that the Draytons kidnapped Hank. They follow them to London, determined to find their son.

Brenda De Banzie as Mrs. Drayton.
The opening scenes in Marrakesh set up the plot nicely (though Hitch's use of rear screen projection is distracting at times). However, once the action shifts to London, the tension unexpectedly lets up, punctuated by a goose chase in search of Ambrose Chapel that seems like filler material. Still, The Man Who Knew Too Much ends on a high note with a suspenseful extended climax at Albert Hall and a foreign embassy.

There are still sequences featuring Hitchcock at his best, such as when the face of the disguised Bernard slides through Ben's hands, leaving brown make-up on his fingers. The Albert Hall scene, in which an assassin's shot must be timed with the crash of cymbals, shows Hitchcock at the height of his craft. It also features composer and frequent Hitch collaborator Bernard Herrmann as the orchestra's conductor.

James Stewart and Doris Day are fine as the determined parents and Doris even gets to sing the Oscar-winning "Que Sera, Sera," which would become her signature song. Acting honors, though, go to the marvelous Brenda De Banzie as a reluctant kidnapper.

Doris walking in the fog.
Made four years later Midnight Lace (1960) is a Hitchcock wannabe starring Doris Day as heiress Kit Preston, an American newlywed in London. Even before the credits roll, she hears an eerie voice threatening her during a heavy night fog. Her husband, financier Tony (Rex Harrison), tries to convince her it was just a practical joke. However, when she starts to receive similar phone calls, Kit and Tony go to Scotland Yard.

Kit's problem is that no one else hears the disturbing phone calls. Is she delusional and imagining the voice? Or is someone really planning to kill her? There are certainly plenty of suspects: the housekeeper's creepy son (Roddy McDowell); the handsome construction chief (John Gavin) working on a nearby building; the strange man hanging around the neighborhood; or even her husband Tony.

Doris Day and Rex Harrison.
Unfortunately, the outcome becomes apparent early on in Midnight Lace. That doesn't keep it from being moderately entertaining. The supporting cast, which includes Myrna Loy as Kit's aunt and John Williams as (what else?) a police inspector, is first-rate. The London setting is both atmospheric and contributes to Kit's uneasiness (until the arrival of her aunt, she has no real friends in town).

Unlike The Man Who Knew Too Much, Midnight Lace is a "Doris Day vehicle" and she's in almost every scene. For the most part, she carries the picture, although her histrionics in the later scenes verge on overacting. Director David Miller compensates by keeping the narrative to a crisp 103 minutes.

Midnight Lace was remade for television in 1981 with Mary Crosby in the lead role. Carolyn Jones has a supporting role in that version, just as she did in The Man Who Knew Too Much!

3 comments:

  1. I still prefer the earlier version of The Man Who Knew Too Much but admit that the 1956 movie has started to grow on me over the years.
    https://www.caftanwoman.com/2016/10/caftan-womans-choice-one-for-november.html

    After the first viewing, Midnight Lace becomes a comfortable thriller watched for the fashion show.

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  2. This is a great article! I really enjoyed reading it. I haven't seen either of these film, but you described them so accurately and interestingly that I really want to see them now! Doris Day is one of my favorite actresses, so I look forward to seeing these two movies with her.

    By the way, I would like to invite you to join two events we are hosting in July. Firstly, we are hosting the Code Concepts Blogathon in the middle of the month to celebrate American Breen Era (1934-1954) adaption of classic literature: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2020/06/06/announcing-the-code-classics-blogathon/. Also, we are hosting a month-long celebration of Code movies called #CleanMovieMonth2020: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2020/06/09/announcing-cleanmoviemonth2020/. We could really use your talent!

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

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  3. Great stuff, as always, Rick. I recently bought a digital version of this film on Amazon Video. I was fortunate that the print and transfer were top-notch. So, nothing to distract me from Hitch's first-rate craftsmanship.

    The thing that is interesting about TMWKtM is that it doesn't seem like it is going to be a good, or even great Hitch film, in part because it seems like a Hollywood formula effort. I think that is partly because the late, great Doris Day was criminally under-rated as an actress, and as a proto-Feminist.

    Day is very good in this role, which doesn't give her a lot of room to maneuver. She's written as a kind of stereotypical of-the-time Wife and Mother but she stretches the role, squeezes iit for as much as she can.

    And Jimmy Stewart, well, what can you say. Like Cary Grant he was always so good, so professional that you almost forget he is acting.

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