The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) / Thriller-Mystery

MPAA rated: PG for some violence
Length: 120 min.

Cast: James Stewart, Doris Day, Christopher Olsen, Bernard Miles, Brenda de Banzie, Ralph Truman, Daniel Gelin, Mogens Wieth
Small role: Carolyn Jones, Alfred Hitchcock
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: John Michael Hayes
Review published December 22, 2012

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)The Man Who Knew Too Much is one of the rare instances of a director remaking one of his own earlier works.  This 1956 release is the better known of the two, with the original having been made in England in 1934.  While some critics and Alfred Hitchcock (The Trouble with Harry, To Catch a Thief) fans (particularly of his early British film work) champion the earlier film, this Hollywood version is generally regarded as the more entertaining of the two films from a populist eye (Hitchcock deems the first the work of a talented amateur and the second a professional), with good acting turns by the two stars, a lavish budget, a polished script, and a sumptuous score by Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Vertigo), who also appears in the film's orchestra house climax.  The titles and the gist of the story are the same, but the two films feature completely different characters and locations, to the point that they should be seen as entirely different films at different times in the director's life, though both are important and entertaining thrillers, even if they aren't among Hitch's masterworks.

The new version starts off in French Morocco, where Dr. Benjamin McKenna (Stewart, Rear Window), his former musical theater star wife Jo Conway (Day, That Touch of Mink), and their rambunctious young son Hank (Olsen, Bigger Than Life), are spending a few days as tourists in Marrakech, while on a business trip and subsequent vacation through Europe and North Africa, away from their home in Indiana.  While there, they befriend a mysterious Frenchman named Louis Bernard (Gelin, Murmur of the Heart), who is murdered mysteriously while the couple are visiting the local outdoor market, but not before he passes along a bit of information to Ben that an assassination is to take place in Albert Hall, in London.  However, the married couple can't take this to the police, as their son goes missing and is held for the ransom of their silence regarding the assassination.

Although The Man Who Knew Too Much isn't among Hitchcock's masterworks, there's no doubt that it is made by a director at the top of his game.  Part of the reason the film works is due to Hitch's use of fluid camera movements, mesmerizing framing (taking full advantage of the Vista Vision widescreen), and lush, sophisticated color schemes.  The one downside is the use of obvious rear projection during many scenes, especially in Marrakesh, that create the feeling of artifice, though not enough to take one out of the story as a whole.  Its use of music is what many will remember best, as it utilizes Doris Day's vocal talents on more than one occasion, and it fits in importantly with the  with the film's emotional ending in a touching way.  Her song, "Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" would win the Academy Award for Best Song in a Motion Picture.

The film is in keeping with many Hitchcock works, although instead of an 'innocent man accused' storyline, we have an innocent couple.  Also in keeping with other Hitchcock films, the police are inept to disinterested in their plights, forcing the couple to take matters in their own hands in order to affect a positive outcome. Although the film's subject matter is dour, it mostly plays like a thriller, with some healthy amounts of comic relief (including a final scene that plays more like a punch line than anything else).  What is somewhat novel is that the film has a married couple as the heroes, and that this couple would be portrayed as realistic, in that they are shown getting on each other's nerves when too much time is spent together (one senses that the doctor is particularly resentful of how others fawn over his entertainer wife's fame), yet desperately relying on one another during times of trouble.

In this way, though the film isn't overtly religious, there is an underlying theme that might be read into, as the traditional Christian couple traverse uncomfortably through an Arabic nation and encounter troubles, then it takes them to London, where they must return to a traditional chapel for salvation, finally culminating in the "Storm Clouds Cantata" symphony with full chorus regaling the saving of a child.  It's a traditional tale of faith being tested in the face of adversity, and a common theme in Hitchcock's works, especially in his lesser films like I Confess and The Wrong Man (his film just after this one).

The climax of the film, which is set lavishly in Albert Hall, is a bit of a contradiction, too long in developing (we watch several minutes of the actual orchestral and choral performance as the assassin gets situated), yet too abbreviated (nearly everything that happens after the gunshot feels as if it is heavily truncated in a mad dash for a conclusion) in the way the events play out.  But the suspense is there, as is the internal conflict within the two benevolent main characters, as they must way the balance of trying to save their son with the complicit silence that might allow for the murder of a key world figure.

A top-flight piece of entertainment, The Man Who Knew Too Much is essential viewing for any Hitchcock fan, even if it isn't as resonant or groundbreaking as his other, more studied works.  Lovers of Doris Day should enjoy seeing her perform quite well in a nuanced, dramatic 'mama grizzly' role, and Jimmy Stewart is, as always, the everyman to readily identify with.  It's a solidly made, professional, and very entertaining work, with Hitchcock giving a perfect contrast, and an endless subject of discussion, between the work he did in England that drew the eye of Hollywood, and the Hollywood director he would eventually become. 

Qwipster's rating:

©2012 Vince Leo