I had the privilege and pleasure over the weekend of revisiting this, a Hitchcock film to which one can justifiably apply the three "U"s of cinephilia: underseen, underrated, underappreciated. This is not a picture that begins with a bang (more on that later), and that its conclusion is a punchline (albeit a very good, funny punchline) rather than a conventionally satisfying tying-up of emotional loose ends is a little disappointing, but for all that, this Man (remade by Hitchcock from his considerably sparser 1934 version; as Hitchcock said to François Truffaut, "the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional") is a remarkably rich and engaging film containing some of the most bravura filmmaking of the maestro's career.
I have to say, though, what really struck me throughout the first half was the nuanced but unsparing depiction of a marriage that could, frankly, go either way given a change of circumstance or two. The film's first scene, with Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart), wife Jo (Doris Day), and lively, precocious son Hank (Christopher Olsen), being all normal on the bus to Marakech and having the local ways explained to them by seemingly helpful Frenchman Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin, Maria Schneider's dad, whose character here notes "The Muslim religion allows for very few accidents") establishes a veneer that starts to crack pretty much as soon as the family disembarks at their station. Jo—later established as "the famous Jo Conway," a stage star who gave up her career for family life—aggressively has at Ben apropos the Frenchman's seemingly intrusive inquisitiveness. She's got a point, as it turns out, but her approach to the issue verges on the paranoid. Subsequently, each little encounter with people or customs that irk the McKennas immediately leads to them lashing out at each other, or acting out in a way designed to embarrass the partner. "Is this going to be our monthly fight?" asks Jo pointedly at one juncture. Ben's worries about Bernard—planted their by Jo—prompt him to pick on Jo in the middle of a restaurant meal, and then tear into his chicken dish in a way that's expressly...well, frowned upon by the locals. And so on. When real trouble happens, the good doctor actually sedates his wife before telling her. On giving her a few pills, Jo looks at them in her hand and says, "Six months ago you said I took too many of these." Whoa.
The marital discord was to continue throughout, but its depiction was trumped by Hitchcock's formal concerns. The picture's huge set piece is, of course, the prevention of an assassination attempt during the middle of a musical performance in London's Albert Hall. The script (an excellent one, by John Michael Hayes and Angus MacPhail, from Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham Lewis' story) had Ben and Jo meeting up at the Hall and exchanging any number of cross words before the climactic action occurs. But Hitchcock balked at the dialogue. "I'm not hearing the London Symphony," he apparently groused to Stewart. So, continues Jack Sullivan in his superb book Hitchcock's Music, "[w]hen Ben and Jo find each other, they talk excitedly—but we hear nothing; all speech is obliterated by music, which refuses to recede to the background. Hitchcock's sound notes for the reel are emphatic: 'The main sound will remain exactly as the existing music track from beginning to end.' [...][T]he audience was to hear Ben and Jo's abrasive exchange, as well as other dialogue in the lobby. But during shooting, Hitchcock asked everyone to stop talking: 'Why don't you cut the dialogue and let us hear the music?' Everyone on the set thought he had lost his judgment, if not his marbles, but once the talk was eliminated the sequence became strangely compelling."
Indeed. But it is also here that the film loses that particular thematic thread, Ben and Jo's troubled marriage, and brings definitively to the fore the finding-the-kidnapped-child theme, executed to such wrenching effect in what is, after all, the film's final movement. It is, as Robin Wood notes (in Hitchcock's Films Revisited), the "real climax" of this version, and Wood goes on: "Middle-aged academics are not supposed to admit that they burst into tears every time Doris Day begins 'Che sera, sera,' but in my case it is a fact." Same here, although for me it's actually when Hank returns the singing with a whistle that this middle-aged non-academic chokes up. It's a supremely upsetting moment, and this moment, as well as her entire performance here, represents a career high for Day, who is herself a supremely undervalued performer whose versatility and wit underlies everything she does.
I saw the film at Suffern, N.Y.'s fabulous Lafayette Theater, as part of its Big Screen Classics series. The print was a gorgeous vault print from Universal, featuring the original Paramount logo. While the current DVD begins with a hard cut after the opening credits to the bus ride, this correct version has a nice fade-in from that. It's also more detailed and less loud, color-wise, than the current disc; I would hope that someday a new version might be made (in Blu-ray, even) from the materials that generated this superb print. My next trip to the theater, which I most recently wrote about here, will be on May 8 for the newly-restored version of The Red Shoes. You should totally check it out if you're in the tri-state area.