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Week 42: ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ – 1956

October 23, 2010

Unique in Hitchcock’s career is this remake of his own 1934 minor classic, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’. This 1956 version boasts multi country locations and star power that its predecessor lacked – James Stewart and Doris Day as the innocent couple (Ben and Jo McKenna) who find themselves embroiled in an international terrorist ring and pay for their nose-poking with the kidnap of their young son, Hank (Christopher Olsen).

‘A single crash of cymbals and how it rocked the lives of an American family’

So states the opening caption before we launch into this twisty turny tale of terrorism. The family take in the sights of Marrakech and then witness a stabbing, Dr. Ben helping the victim, Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin), and being given some illicit information. Ben’s knowledge of an impending assassination leads to Hank’s kidnapping and an increasingly fraught journey to get him back – culminating in said Albert Hall based cymbal crash and Jo’s scream saving the target from death.

I didn’t quite buy that any parents would let their young son go off to be taken care of by another couple that they have only just met – a slight plot flaw that has to happen to get shot of Hank and ramp the whole thing up (ok, they spent some time with the other Mr. and Mrs.  the previous evening but I certainly wouldn’t do this with one of mine – probably different times). Ben is even confused why this other couple, Edward and Lucy Drayton (played by Bernard Miles and  the equally shifty Brenda de Banzie) are even party to the fact of the kidnapping, surely enough to give him pause before passes his child over to them?

Like ‘To Catch A Thief’ there’s an interesting mixture of location and rear projection scenes – slickly done but, as usual, fairly obvious. It’s pretty distracting as the actors literally start on location, walk out of shot and then appear against rear projection. And yes, I know this is a budgetary thing and they didn’t have time on location and it’s cheaper in the studio and maybe there were shots that were then needed post the location shoot (although with Hitchcock’s reputation as the arch storyboarder, probably not) but it’s still weird and derails the enjoyment a little.

There is an element of light heartedness in the early stages of the picture before it all goes south (they are a family on holiday after all) – Stewart allowing his height to be joked upon by having to curl himself into some low slung Moroccan seating in the restaurant. I also liked Jo with her suspicious nature, causing a little marital frisson with Ben. She picks up very quickly that they are being watched by the dodgy Mr. and Mrs. Drayton and also notices Louis Bernard chatting amiably to the very Arab guy that they previously had a bit of a spat with. Bernard is fishy from the outset, all too convenient the way they meet on the coach (an accident involving Hank and a Muslim woman’s veil) – although this would then reveal itself as a mistake as the dodgy couple Bernard is supposed to hook up with is the Drayton’s, not the McKenna’s.

Ben is much more naïve and trusting, and will obviously be proven wrong in the events that unfold. When the kick off murder occurs, Ben goes up to full speed very fast – Stewart great at showing  a strong steely side to his character – then quickly derailed as he gets the call about Hank’s kidnap. He has a great range of emotions and it’s another clear example of why he is such a star/actor. There’s a lovely camera track round Ben as he takes the fateful phone call telling him Hank is under threat – Bernard Herrmann’s music creeping in to gently reinforce the point. The repeated cut to Ben flicking the pages of the telephone book and cutting back to him slowly realizing the truth are excellent – finally he snaps the pages as if to put a full stop to the situation, and straight back into action he goes.

The murder of Bernard and the passing of the vital info to Ben is well handled, a family’s pleasant holiday sightseeing interrupted by violent death. Ben’s look to his hands – smeared with Bernard’s dark make up disguise – is a classic Hitchcock shot, very unusual but striking and effective.

The whole scene of Jo losing it and having to be drugged by her husband is very well done, Day perfect at expressing a mother’s hysteria. Hitchcock cuts to a great low shot as Ben restrains on the bed (@ 50’51”) and the whole scene is superb. Even better are the scenes later when the couple eventually track Hank down by hearing his whistling in Ambrose Chappell – Jo recovering her steel and composure – and there are wonderful sequences as they doggedly track him down. The final cymbal crashing, Jo screaming Albert Hall set piece is superb – justifiably classic and worth the price of admission alone.

Ben’s diversion off to the incorrect Ambrose Chappell (he assumes it’s a person rather than a building) is well handled and suitably steeped in suspicion. Chappell the younger works with his rather more doddery father (as taxidermists) and when Ben talks to him Chappell is flanked by a stuffed and roaring tiger looming to the left of frame* – giving a suggestion of threat where in reality there is none.

The struggle that then ensues is marvellous, it’s the kind of humour Hitchcock does all too rarely but handles well – a bizarre scene of stuffed animals being brandished about and Ben then getting his arm stuck in the mouth of the tiger before escaping. Very mad, silly and good. This whole suspenseful sequence/buildup and comedy payoff is a complete red herring to the story but a welcome slice of light heartedness to the trauma the parents are going through.

I don’t quite buy that the explaining of when the assassin (Rien – [his name is ‘nothing’!] played by the fantastically creepy Reggie Nalder**) can shoot his target by playing him a record of the music to be performed that evening is quite detailed enough. Drayton literally plays Rien about three seconds of the music before the vital crash and the assassin seems perfectly happy to go out and do his dastardly duty. Personally, I’d know the score inside out if I was going to try to pop a politician like this, maybe that’s just me. Hitchcock does add in a female companion for Rien, who diligently follows the score as the music progresses – but still.

As Ben and Jo find themselves in the congregation at Ambrose Chappell they do a little bit of that ‘talking in tune to the hymn’ that was done so well in the 1934 original with Leslie Banks and Hugh Wakefield – but not nearly as extensive here, which is a shame as it’s a funny technique and works well. The earlier film also had a wildly more destructive and entertaining church scene with pretty much all of the furniture being totally smashed up – whereas here Ben just gets a sound clonk on the head and he’s out for the count.

Hitchcock classic composer Bernard Herrmann appears in person as the conductor in the climactic Albert Hall scene, a nice big poster as Jo approaches the hall boasting his name.

Rien approaches Jo with a sinister: ‘You have a very nice little boy, madam. His safety will depend upon you tonight’ – genuinely chilling at the best of times but, when delivered by the creep meister Reggie Nalder, it would be enough to make you soil your britches.

It puts Jo in an enormous quandary, does she intercede in the assassination or save her son? The tension ramps up as the scene plays out, the music and choir soaring as Jo is more and more torn. The next few minutes play out entirely as a silent movie, Ben more and more frantically trying to gain access to the box housing Rien and the pace of cutting increasing as the music winds up to its high point. All classic and wonderful stuff and a set piece to rival any others in Hitchcock. I liked the brief appearance of Richard Wattis here (playing the assistant manager at the Albert Hall) – he’s one of those British thesps who pops up in loads of films and TV and is generally unsung. Here’s to Richard Wattis, well done.

The final scenes in the Embassy, Jo endlessly singing ‘Que Sera Sera’ as Hank whistles along and Ben searches him out, are effective and exciting – Drayton ready to kill the kid to get everyone out of the mire. Drayton eventually buys it by his own bullet and, in typically rapid Hitchcock fashion, the film ends fast – but with a nice coda back at the McKenna’s hotel where their guests from an age before are all sparko on chairs and sofas:

‘I’m sorry we were gone so long – we had to go over and pick up Hank!’

Says Ben brightly, as if nothing had happened.

The film is at times a bit creaky, with the usual mixture of questionable rear projections and location shots, the story sometimes veering around and not standing up to too close analysis, but all in all it’s a good old yarn and very entertaining. The parents’ genuine feel of desperation at their lost son is well depicted and acted, a high crane shot closing in on them as they talk to Hank for the first time. The slight tacking on of the inevitable Doris Day toon ‘Que Sera Sera’ seems slightly out of whack with other proceedings but it does give the makers a device to get the McKenna’s into the embassy and also plays with sound nicely with Hank having to whistle to be found by his father. There may well have been some kind of contractual thing to do with Doris Day also, and it’s a pretty classic song.

Stewart and Day are top notch – Day in particular rising above her traditional persona of the more light comedic roles she is often associated with, her impassioned singing as they finally find Hank impressively done. ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ is a fascinating curio when stood next to its namesake, and well worth watching as a double bill. I don’t think either of them completely succeed and neither are amongst my favourite Hitchcock’s – but check them out anyway if you have three and a half hours spare.

Miscellaneous notes

*this kind of animal association will be used to marvellous effect in 1960’s ‘Psycho’.

**Nalder is a great baddie and has a really creepy face, apparently the victim of a mysterious burns incident when younger.

Monsieur le H. popping up in Marrakech market in the opening scenes, back to camera, left of frame – in the crowd watching rear projected tumblers perform.

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