Vintage Cable Box: “The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956”

“Sorry we were gone so long, but we had to pick up Hank!”

The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956 (James Stewart), Paramount Pictures

In what may have been (for the time) the boldest examination of American exceptionalism and “xenophobia” (though I hate to bandy that term in the wake of overuse), The Man Who Knew Too Much provides thrills and agonizing suspense. Indiana tourists in Marrakesh witness the murder of an new acquaintance. Before the man expires, he imparts information about a planned assassination of a statesman in London to wide-eyed patriarch James Stewart. In order to keep this revelation a secret, double agents disguised as a British husband and wife abduct Stewart’s (and wife Doris Day’s) young son, Hank.

Fearing reprisal, Jimmy and Doris take it upon themselves to rescue their son without the aid of local authorities. They keep mum on the assassination plot, travel to London (where former singer Day is given a hero’s welcome), and follow up on clues given to Stewart by the dead man. In an amusing twist, Ambrose Chapel is revealed not to be a person, but a place. Stewart causes havoc on the namesake taxidermist, and it takes a while before he can clear up that misunderstanding. Notice how briskly this plot unfolds? We’re in Marrakesh for a little while, and then we’re in England. Stewart and Day next meet up at the chapel where Hank is being held.

The assassination will occur at the clash of symbols during the allegro agitato’s climax of Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds Cantata at the Royal Albert Hall during a performance for the visiting Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is to be the target. Doris Day lets out a blood-curdling scream that distracts the would-be killer and alerts the audience to the situation. Later, she uses her showcase song, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” (introduced in this movie), to let Hank know she and his father are nearby. Jimmy and Doris find themselves to be reluctant heroes in a story of political intrigue, and that’s what makes The Man Who Knew Too Much an incredibly fun movie to watch.

What is most intriguing about The Man Who Knew Too Much are the unusual character motivations at play. Even before the thrills begin, Doris Day’s character is revealed to be paranoid (she’s always commenting on curious onlookers) and somewhat insecure in her decision to marry a doctor, though she does want to have another baby. Jimmy Stewart’s character seems to have little patience or respect for cultures and practices outside of his perceived friendly and familiar American traditions (his adventure in a Marrakesh restaurant is particular cringe-worthy). British and Moroccan law enforcement is portrayed as downright lackadaisical, inefficient, and incompetent.

Between the years 1954 and 1956, Alfred Hitchcock made two movies per year; an incredible body of work from Dial M for Murder to The Wrong Man. After this highly energetic, creative period, he would begin to slow, averaging one movie every year until 1960’s Psycho (his most commercially-successful film) and the resulting cloud of notoriety that would dog his steps until his death in 1980. Because of Psycho, Hitchcock’s name would become synonymous with psychological horror and shock. He attempted to revise his legacy with an old-fashioned monster movie in The Birds (1963), and another case study of neurosis with Marnie (1964) before returning to political intrigue and espionage with Torn Curtain and Topaz, but none of these films would equal the financial and critical success of Psycho. In a way, he was consumed by his own success.

That about does it for Alfred Hitchcock month. The five “missing Hitchcocks” were re-released to theaters starting in October of 1983. The next year, the movies made their premieres on cable television as part of a Hitchcock retrospective on The Movie Channel. This was my Hitchcock education for a time until home media increased his popularity even more. For more fun stuff about Hitchcock, check out the “Missing Hitchcocks” episode of my podcast, Two Davids Walk Into A Bar, as well as David & David and Gene & Roger: A Siskel & Ebert Podcast.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

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Vintage Cable Box: Boarding School, 1978

“You look like a strong boy.  Do you think you could help me with my luggage when we arrive?”

Boarding School, 1978 (Nastassja Kinski), Atlantic Releasing 

The first image of 1978’s Boarding School (renamed from the more snooty The Passion Flower Hotel for smutty U.S. audiences) shows a young woman’s flaccid, flat nipple slowly becoming erect when exposed to a poster of Marlon Brando as he appeared in his iconic The Wild One.  The other girls count off how long it takes before the fleshy pearls become rigid – like a contest?  It’s an unusual qualification for entry into womanhood, or at the very least hetero-normative womanhood.  What if Brando doesn’t rock your world?  What if you’re a Bogart girl?  Saint Clara’s School for Girls, 1956 is a hotbed of libidinous tarts; as in Barbarella, it becomes a vehicle for feminine empowerment, but is ultimately nothing more than dirty old men ogling jail-bait.

We join American girl Deborah Collins (Nastassja Kinski) en route to Saint Clara’s in a train occupied by clergy.  Who was Saint Clara?  Patron saint of hot and horny young women?  Actually, no.  There doesn’t seem to be a Saint Clara, but there was a Saint Clare.  Canonized two years after her death, Clare was the patron Saint of among many other things, eye disease, laundry, and television.  Huh?  Anyway, Deborah arrives and, almost immediately, starts influencing the girls in the ways of love and sex (although she was originally assigned by the headmistress to keep the girls in check).  Tall and imposing, but with a look not dissimilar to Ingrid Bergman, Kinski’s gum-chewing strumpet quickly sizes up her authority figures, and we are left to wonder if Europeans presume “Americans” to be nothing more than sex-obsessed misfits.

I’m not sure what to make of the girls in Boarding School, except to say upon entering high school, I knew not one girl who behaved in this way.  They were neither oversexed nor undersexed.  They existed as entities with breasts with suspicious, darting eyes and long hair.  Some girls were more developed than others (as with boys) but none of them looked like Nastassja Kinski!  If I must get intellectual on your collective ass, I would say the repression of the parochial authoritarian as represented by the headmistress, her staff, and the various members of the clergy wandering about in juxtaposition to the “latest American craze”, the rock and/or roll music the kids love creates an intriguing sociological groundswell.  In other words, if the kids like to dance, they’ll also enjoy screwing.

In a minor departure from the source material, the best-selling book, The Passion Flower Hotel by Rosalind Erskine (a revelatory pseudonym for Roger Erskine Longrigg), the girls plot to lose their virginity to the boys in the private school across the lake.  In the book, however, the story becomes an exercise in capitalism as the girls sell their services to the boys.  They have a product, and it’s a seller’s market, if you know what I mean!  While the idea of prostitution is debated, the fulfillment of their sexual needs is paramount.  I love the idea of the girls working out a “tier” system of services and specific pricing.  This movie is proof-positive women belong in the workplace.  Sorry.  At least in management and production.

I wonder if there is a place in the world of film today for a movie like Boarding School.  I think the trivialization of such a hot-button issue as underage sex and willful prostitution would trigger (hate to use that word) massive protests and outrage.  If a movie like this were being made today, the material would have to be handled with sensitivity and sympathy, which would drain all the life out of it.  Think of Boarding School as a reverse-gender variation on Screwballs, except, you know, good.  In fact, the only issue I have with the film is the hideous dubbing on the American version.  I would love to see a cleaned-up European version of the movie.  Erotic movies of this nature received endless play on cable television, specifically The Movie Channel, but because of their pedigree being produced and distributed overseas, they often attained higher notoriety than domestic fare.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

“Brimstone & Treacle, 1982”

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“Almighty God, dear gentle father in heaven who sees all and knows all and loves all for the little sparrow falling in the sky.”

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Brimstone & Treacle, 1982 (Sting), United Artists

The Movie Channel was a cineaste’s dream, upon starting in the early seventies, it quickly gained a reputation for showing foreign films, obscure and bizarre work from filmmakers such as Bertolucci, Visconti, and Waters, retrospectives of Truffaut, Hitchcock, Bogdanovich, and Cronenberg, and sometimes movies with specific themes. Brimstone & Treacle was part of a month-long retrospective of musicians in movies. Other movies featured were Alan Parker’s The Wall, Ken Russell’s Tommy, and Quadrophenia, to name a few.

A very young-looking and amiable Sting exits a church along with a gaggle of angelic altar boys, plucks a carrot from the dirt and chews on it. His Martin Taylor is a clever con artist and pickpocket who worms his way into the lives of a writer’s (Denholm Elliot) troubled family. He lies that he was engaged to their crippled and feeble daughter, Pattie, and while he provides them with false hope and religious succor, his true intention is to destroy them.

The movie and Dennis Potter’s screenplay take great pains to avoid calling Taylor out to be the Devil, but there is an Exorcist-like correlation between the infirm invalidity of daughter Pattie and the need to believe she may be possessed by demons, and as The Exorcist, demonstrates, where science fails, people turn to scripture. Sting chews the scenery, the furniture, the windows, and the carpet as he summons up the Lord in prayer to cure the “touched” girl.

Denholm Elliot plays Tom Bates, a writer of sappy greeting cards. Joan Plowright is Norma Bates (cute), his clueless wife. I say clueless because she is blissfully unaware of what her husband gets up to most days: being principally the adventures of an older man whose interests are molestation, pederasty, and biblical text. The maudlin, overripe, and overdecorated atmosphere coupled with feverish, uncomfortable performances from the cast leads me to believe that the movie could be edited a hundred ways. What could’ve been a dark comedy, instead plays as a horror-infused MTV video (this was when MTV played music videos).

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Sting chews the scenery, and washes it out down with a glass of milk. It does a body good!

Dennis Potter’s work worries and intrigues me. As a playwright and television writer, he had always sought out irony at it’s purest, and he went out of his way to write unlikable characters with a tinge of talent to them; you can’t completely hate a Dennis Potter character. You’d have to hate the story, as the character propels the narrative so thoroughly. This is true for 1981’s Pennies From Heaven and later, The Singing Detective. A movie like Brimstone & Treacle could not be made today, or if it were, it would be quickly shelved in favor of something more antiseptic.

With a soundtrack that includes notable musical acts of the time like The Police, The Go-Gos, and Squeeze, the movie was publicized heavily on MTV, and several of the musical interludes in the movie look like standalone music videos, particularly Sting’s “Only You”. Director Richard Loncraine directed another favorite of mine, Michael Palin’s The Missionary. Denholm Elliot is known mainly for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as Indiana Jones timid colleague, Marcus, as well as Dan Aykroyd’s loyal valet, Coleman, in Trading Places. Joan Plowright won two Golden Globe awards in 1992, for Stalin and Enchanted April (for which she also received an Academy Award nomination). Sting, I believe, is some sort of musician.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: “Easy Money, 1983”

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An eleven-year-old in the year of Our Lord, 1984. Hankins Drive in Lebanon, Tennessee. It was our first cable box. At first glance, a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.

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Easy Money, 1983 (Rodney Dangerfield), Orion

“Work banishes those three great evils. Boredom, vice and poverty.

The resurgence of the classic screwball comedy started with Arthur, continued with Easy Money and Trading Places, and ended with Brewster’s Millions. The ne’er-do-well gets a shot at untold riches, ludicrous amounts of money, power, and respect but only if he or she can turn their life around. Easy Money follows the Arthur paradigm except that Rodney Dangerfield’s character already has a pretty awesome life. He smokes weed, he gambles, he drinks, he eats unhealthy food, he tosses money at big-breasted strippers, he bowls, he has fun. Yet, he’s happily married. His daughter is getting married, and he runs a business taking baby pictures.

Typical of this narrative, his mother-in-law hates him. There is a definite ethnic vibe running through the familial hostility. Uptight Irish in-law hates stereotypical Italian. When she drops dead, her executor makes note of a clause in her will which stipulates Rodney (or his family) doesn’t get a dime unless he changes his “evil” ways. Something on the order of $10,000,000! Where did this lady get that much green? So the movie spends some time showing Rodney getting increasingly frustrated as he tries to live a life of restraint (i.e. no fun) or else he won’t get the cash.

Rodney Dangerfield’s particular brand of humor, from Caddyshack on, bordered between obnoxious and likable, a happy schlub who carried a wild party in his back pocket everywhere he went. Considering his Al Czervik character in Caddyshack is another nouveau-riche elemental force and an annoyance to the uptight members of the country club, “Easy Money” could very well be a prequel. 1986’s Back To School could also fit into a trilogy of this character’s story.

Post Raging Bull, pre-Goodfellas Joe Pesci plays Dangerfield’s best friend, Nicky. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Dangerfield’s daughter, who is about to marry the sexually-ambiguous Taylor Negron. The director, James Signorelli, a frequent Dangerfield collaborator, produced over 400 films for Saturday Night Live. This is classic Dangerfield; a fun, sexy movie filled with large-breasted women (is it me or were breasts much bigger in the 80s?). Billy Joel performed the catchy title theme.

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Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.