The New Wave, and The Man Who Knew Too Much

March 23, 2010

With my viewing of The Man Who Knew Too Much, I began to think about the film in relation to the French New Wave. In my class on the French New Wave, we continually read excerpts, articles, and interviews from the Cahiers du Cinèma, and the New Wave directors revered and loved Hitchcock, declaring him inexorably an “auteur.”

In The Man Who Knew Too Much, a 1956 remake of his own film produced twenty years prior, Hitchcock certainly exhibits those qualities that Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, and other Cahiers contributors considered the marks of an auteur — an involvement in his own story, an assurance that he was telling it correctly, etc. What’s intriguing to me is the degree to which Hitchcock is stylistically different from these directors while maintaining that status within their minds of someone who is on a higher tier than a mere director.

One of the most striking parts about The Man Who Knew Too Much to me is its use of diagetic music, and long sequences in which there is very little (or no) dialogue, such as the Albert Hall scene.  With this scene, not only does Hitchcock abandon standard soundtrack music, but also the standard method of storytelling for moves after the advent of sound — having the characters speak to one another while allowing the audience to hear every word. Testing boundaries such as this one by this time have become commonplace for Hitchcock, as we saw in Rope when he decided to use the longest possible takes.

Indeed, music is integral to the story of "The Man Who Knew Too Much," with Doris Day not only saving the nice European dignitary's life using her voice, but also saving her son with those musical chops.

But what of the New Wave directors? Though they are known for testing the limits of cinema, one thing they seemed incapable of at this time was shutting up their characters.

In Breathless, Michel Poiccard steals cars, sleeps with Patricia, and walks around Paris – but he does all of these things while almost constantly talking. Likewise, in both Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad, the characters base the entire story (whether in the past or present) on words, sentences strung together to hold the fabric of the story together.

In Godard's "A Bout De Souffle," the two main characters do little besides talk, and while the film certainly has a soundtrack, it by no means carries the story at any point.

Another interesting thing about The Man Who Knew Too Much is that it is a remake of Hitchcock’s own film, released over twenty years earlier. Though I have not seen it, I’m sure it is no coincidence that this film seems to have gotten so much better — Hitchcock himself said that the 1934 version of his film was “the work of a talented amateur,” while the 1956 version was the “work of a seasoned professional.” It seems that with age, Hitchcock truly may have gotten better, but perhaps better at doing similar things. Filmmakers from the New Wave like Godard and Truffaut arguably got better with age, but also changed (sometimes drastically) the films that they made and the things they desired to say through those films.

The subtle nuance of the unsaid that Hitchcock employs is especially interesting — a secret told to only us, the viewers, and McKenna, but a secret that must remain so to ensure the future, the McKenna's son.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate or like films like Breathless as much as films like The Man Who Knew Too Much. I just recognize that they’re fundamentally different, and I think that’s an important distinction to make when dealing with Hitchcock or the New Wave directors in the context of the rest of the film world. If one thinks, “Well, OK, Hitchcock is great and all, but was he more than a Hollywood director out to make the big bucks?” one can consider the New Wavers reverence for him and realize that they respected him not because he was just like them, but rather because he was Hitchcock.

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