The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956, Alfred Hitchcock)


The legend that’s developed around Alfred Hitchcock over the decades has been dependent on a number of half-truths, many propagated by the director himself: he storyboarded every shot, planning his films so meticulously that they already existed in his head before a frame was shot; he hated actors and only cared about the placement of the camera; and he loathed location shooting. In fact: Notorious went into production without a complete script and was largely written “in camera”; no small number of grand Hollywood personalities gave their best-ever performances under his aegis; and, most significantly, after studying the notion of storytelling within all sorts of experimental confinement, peaking with Rear Window, Hitchcock made a whopping six location-porn pictures in a row, all neatly placed within his greatest decade of output.

This film was the third in that sequence, set and shot mostly in Morocco and London, following To Catch a Thief (the south of France), The Trouble with Harry (New England) and preceding The Wrong Man (New York City), Vertigo (San Francisco) and North by Northwest (a veritable U.S. travelogue). It also holds the unique distinction of being a remake of one of Hitchcock’s own films, his 1934 masterpiece The Man Who Knew Too Much, a scrappy and breathless thriller he made at Gaumont, which offers a handy primer on the way his approach to storytelling changed in the intervening two decades. That relatively simple, action-packed story is expanded here into a sprawling Technicolor Hollywood epic of sorts, spanning two continents and powered by a couple of huge stars at career peaks, to say nothing of the presence of the squad of experts that made Hitchcock’s run from the 1950s to the middle-’60s such a well-oiled machine: composer Bernard Herrmann, editor George Thomasini, cinematographer Robert Burks, production designer Robert Boyle, producer Herbert Coleman. To say it’s more polished than its predecessor would be a brash understatement.

In the original Man Who Knew Too Much, Leslie Banks and Edna Best portrayed jolly travelers in the Swiss Alps who got mixed up in an espionage plot, with their teenage daughter kidnapped to keep them silent, that climaxed at the Royal Albert Hall. In 1956 the Alps become North Africa, the quirky working class vacationers become a well-off doctor (James Stewart) and his wife, a celebrity singer (Doris Day); their sprightly daughter becomes a rather tiresome sitcom-ish little boy who tries to look adorable while making bad jokes that adults laugh at. And yet, the basic story points (and the Albert Hall) are retained. Both couples befriend a man — with considerable erotic suggestiveness in the 1934 film, none whatsoever in the remake — who is killed in front of them and imparts secrets to one of our heroes with his dying breath. Upon learning that their child has been kidnapped, Stewart (the man who knows too much in 1956) and Best (the woman, in point of fact, who knew too much in 1934) both choose to keep the big secret to themselves rather than spill to the police and therefore take matters into their own hands; but the personal responses of the male characters in these films almost couldn’t be more different. Banks’ Bob Lawrence is the classic Hitchcock “ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances,” intelligent but hapless, employing understated humor at even the bleakest moments; Stewart’s Ben McKenna is, comparatively, suave in a manner that seems to deliberately skirt close identification with the audience — he’s also prone to violent outbursts and behaves more than a little abusively toward his wife.

As is the case in all the films Stewart made with Hitchcock, his is a surprisingly dark characterization. This enriches the film, though it sets it considerably apart from something like The Wrong Man or even The 39 Steps in which so much hinges on us being in the same corner with our protagonist. Stewart seems to have been encouraged to inject quite a bit of mystery into his portrayal of the character, so that we never quite know what he’s thinking; nearly all of his dialogue is accompanied by weighty, enigmatic silences that underscore his all-too-stoic, classically masculine demeanor. You get the sense that 1934’s Bob was a character Hitchcock related to; Ben is one of a sort he finds intriguing, but from a considerable distance, and one he intends to break down and even slightly humiliate: what little comedy there is in the film is never generated from Ben’s own dialogue or actions but from his own unfamiliarity and ineptitude, which give the lie to his outer confidence. In some ways it’s a dry run of sorts for Stewart’s even more conflicted and tortured Scotty in Vertigo two years later, and this is not the only way in which the remade The Man Who Knew Too Much feels as much like a look forward as backward.

One of the clearly demarcated ways in which we can track Hitchcock’s evolution as a filmmaker is in the average length of his movies; his British thrillers were tight and ruthless and typically wrapped up within around ninety minutes. But on the move to Hollywood, his running times tend increasingly to sprawl out; The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is a rather shocking forty-five minutes longer than The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and arguments can and should be made about what the story gains or (mostly) loses with this vastly increased legroom. Nearly all of Hitchcock’s sound films carry a sense of urgency, but there is no question the flavor of a 75-minute thriller is different from a methodically paced one like this even if the stakes are technically the same. There also isn’t any reason to believe that the newer film has deeper, more resonant characterizations or more believable relationships — the ’34 film tells us more about its occupants with greater economy, and they’re inherently more interesting as people to boot — but there’s nevertheless a great deal of interest in how the extra time is used. Superficially, you can say that Hitchcock is now, as he said himself, a “professional”: gone are the awkward jump cuts and haphazard staging that even survived, a little, into his early Hollywood career — every scene in this film is seamlessly executed and clearly the work both of the rarest kind of master of his craft and of a deep-pocketed studio. Looking a bit more carefully, though, what this film is indicating is that Hitchcock’s ambition at this stage in his career went beyond the mere bells and whistles of creating and sustaining suspense, and into the possibilities of building up then exploiting real emotional attachments. It doesn’t fully succeed, but its lessons would prove fruitful.

It would later be the most defining feature of both Psycho and The Birds: a lengthy buildup laying out relationships and conflicts within and between characters that might be enough for a cracking story all their own, only to have these carefully cultivated associations abruptly employed in favor of a very different scenario. Think of the way the flavor of Psycho changes when Norman is introduced, or how one has nearly forgotten what film they’ve signed up to watch up to the point when Melanie is first attacked by an errant seagull in The Birds. Both these moments are preceded by elaborate, lengthy setups that carry a kind of dreadful pregnancy with them, something that would eventually be familiar enough to become a key trope of the modern horror film, enough to become an exhausting cliché. But here, in the long space of benign, minor conflict that passes through the whole half hour before the man who knew too much learns too much, we find ourselves curiously riveted, acting as voyeurs — defying the supposedly stilted context of the Hollywood studio picture, we feel we’re looking into someone’s life in the moments just before their world caught fire.

John Michael Hayes — in the last of his several collaborations with Hitchcock — played a major role in this structure; as recounted in Bill Krohn’s Hitchcock at Work, his fascination with career-marriage conflicts that served him so well in Rear Window was eventually an albatross here, with Hitchcock seemingly disinterested in making the McKennas’ relationship the major subject of the film. In the original version, any threats to the central couple’s mutual feelings are pointedly omitted, which lends that film some of its vitality; one supposes Hitchcock preferred a similar structure here, both because it would be a rather unorthodox (at least since The Thin Man) Hollywood interpretation of romance, and because it would allow for the thriller elements to take the lead in the narrative. However, the compromise the two of them reach is handily provocative; the character arcs are essentially a clone of Rear Window, with Doris Day’s inevitable moment of breaking into song fused well with the story — quietly dismissed as an artifact of the past by Ben, her talent and notoriety end up saving their son’s life.

All that’s missing is the precise indication of future change — in the characters, and in the world — that signaled the end of Rear Window; instead the film ends very abruptly with a quick joke, which is possible to interpret as a fuck-you to Hayes, leaving unresolved the hidden rockiness in the marriage itself. But to provide the payoff of Day singing Livingston-Evans’ “Que Sera, Sera,” written especially for the film (and winning it the rare competitive Oscar for a Hitchcock movie), Hitchcock and Hayes expertly weave a lengthy first act that exposes the McKennas’ strengths and weaknesses as a couple, with ample suggestions of how their lives will play out once fate strikes. After their son literally stumbles into a confrontation on a bus, they’re rescued by an enigmatic Frenchman named Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin) — one of the few character names and nationalities consistent in the two versions of the film — who takes an oddly disproportionate interest in their having a nice time in Morocco. It eventually turns out that Louis is a spy who mistook them for another out-of-place American couple, who are involved in an assassination plot; those would be the Draytons (Brenda de Banzie and Bernard Miles), who maybe a bit too coincidentally end up having dinner at a restaurant with the McKennas, who then spy Louis Bernard with what appears to be a date.

The dinner scene is a remarkable microcosm of how engrossing Hitchcock’s work can be even when not very much is happening — the truth of course being that a very great deal is happening, but much of it is unknown to us at the time. The first-time audience sees the mingling of two upper-class couples (the McKennas rather flaunt their privilege all through the picture, joking about whose kidney operation paid for what, a sign of the prosperous times for sure but also something that son-of-a-greengrocer but by now wealthy Hitchcock would not have interpreted without irony), then an ornery husband whose increasing furor when he sees Bernard canoodling a few tables over, sparking an argument with his wife, creates understandable and very apparent discomfort in their guests. We eventually learn that their discomfort comes from their being startled at the McKennas’ familiarity with Bernard, since he is targeting them; in the moment, however, it’s a vivid example of Hitchcock’s nearly supernatural strength with both characters and actors. Underplayed and spontaneous, the more relaxed and even the more troublesome moments, helped along by Stewart and Day’s impressively easy chemistry, feel as though one is watching real people interact, not the schmoozing of Hollywood actors. This presentation of naturalism in the context of grandiose thriller scenarios is one of the real keys to Hitchcock’s ingenuity and lasting appeal; it goes all the way back to the remarkable shots of chorus girls chatting in downtime in The Lodger thirty years ahead of this.

Still, the scene and the film as a whole are nothing without Stewart and Day, who are both extraordinary and do much of the work to lift this up beyond a very middle-tier Hitchcock picture artistically. An extremely underrated actress whose singing career and uncomfortably impeccable image overshadowed her immense talents, Day here offers one of her finest performances, completely convincing as a woman underestimated in every respect by her husband and, perhaps, her audience in the film as well as in the real world. Jo McKenna runs into fans everywhere she goes and takes it in stride to the unspoken but occasionally visible consternation of Dr. McKenna, who clearly prides himself on upholding the 1950s ideal of the male breadwinner. Jo brings up wanting to return to the stage, but she also mentions wanting another child, both ideas that get smugly dismissed by Ben, although they also seem initially to have a decent relationship, exchanging repartee with easy charm, which harkens back of course to the Lawrences in the earlier film.

That is, until the startling moment when Ben learns their son has been kidnapped and then drugs his wife, essentially forcing her to take a sedative before she has learned what’s happened; Stewart is genuinely unnerving in this scene, his usual tentative speech patterns suggesting like never before a degree of coldness that simultaneously says something about the necessary detachment of his profession and about his inability to look upon the humans in his life as much aside from mere patients. Stewart would of course tap into this well again in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, though in that film he would at least present as a somewhat warm-hearted figure at times, and in Vertigo, whose Scotty is uncertain and weak in ways that Dr. McKenna isn’t. It’s a surprisingly troubling performance, brilliantly well-tuned, and further gives the lie to Stewart’s reputation as the American cinema’s resident Eagle Scout. And when Jo finds out what he’s done, Day plays the moment with totally believable horror and anger, an injection of impassioned anguish from the last source an audience of today would tend to expect. She maintains that pitch for the rest of the film; while Edna Best too ended up saving her child with one final act of badassery in the 1934 film, Day too is permitted to play the operative role in securing her son, though she does it by luring him out of the woodwork with music, rather than firing a gun.

For all these virtues and for all the miraculous confidence of an undeniable master at work, this isn’t a film with the beating heart and immense emotional sophistication of Hitchcock’s best films; it even lacks his usual touches of lovable perversity, save in the casting of an uncredited Betty Baskcomb as a wonderfully bizarre, bespectacled church organist (and spy) and the totally superflous but outstanding comic setpiece, replacing the dentist sequence in the 1934 film (which still had more relevance to the story), that has Stewart misinterpreting “Ambrose Chapel,” Louis’ dying tipoff, as a reference to a man named Ambrose Chappell who turns out to be a taxidermist and not to take kindly to off-the-street weirdos hurling accusations at him. That Hitchcock sets this up, in the manner of the sinister projectionist in David Fincher’s Zodiac, with fully taunting and foreboding camera work and frightening stillness and such indicates simultaneously his brilliance and his boredom. On the whole, as entertaining as the film is, for the seasoned viewer it is like the concurrent To Catch a Thief a work of small pleasures, if admittedly numerous ones, both for their own enjoyable features and for the ways in which they call other Hitchcock pictures, particularly those contemporary to this one, to mind: those shots of the ambassador’s house as Day’s voice echoes through it, the entire church scene which is a pristine example of Hitchcock’s flawless fortitude with the camera and with the setting of mood (and smartly one-ups a gag from the first film; when Day and Stewart begin to have a conversation to the tune of the hymn being sung by the parishioners around them, Day distracts everyone with the strength of her voice, the opposite of what happened to Hugh Wakefield), and of course there is the golden opportunity to watch Bernard Herrmann on screen actually conducting.

This was Herrmann’s second collaboration with Hitchcock, following his lovely score for The Trouble with Harry; he would go on to write the music (or help design the sound, in the case of The Birds) for every film the director made until their acrimonious split during the postproduction of Torn Curtain in 1966. Knowledge of the fruits of this relationship, including several of the most iconic film scores ever produced as well as one of the most unheralded masterpieces of the form (his score for Marnie), to say nothing of his marvelous scores for other works ranging from Citizen Kane to The Twilight Zone, it’s quite touching to watch him at work here conducting the orchestra at the Albert Hall for the first of the two protracted musical climaxes in the film. Interestingly, Herrmann chose not to write a new piece for this sequence but actually used the one specially written by Australia’s Arthur Benjamin for the 1934 film, Storm Clouds Cantana, configured so that the pivotal shot could be fired simultaneously with the crash of cymbals, of which much is made in both films, especially by their startled leading ladies. Herrmann expanded the suite to ten minutes at Hitchcock’s request, which illustrates how much more protracted the Albert Hall scene is in the newer film (in addition to having actually been filmed there!), building suspense from every possible angle with increasingly frantic editing including a shot of Herrmann’s sheet music. It’s effective and fun, even if it shows a relative paucity of real ideas compared to some of Hitchcock’s greatest setpieces, since all it really has to show is the orchestra building, the preparation of the assassin, and Day watching helplessly. In so many ways, this single sequence illustrates everything grand and disappointing about the remake; and, some cynics would undoubtedly argue, with Hitchcock’s Hollywood career compared to his British work.

More had changed since 1934 than Alfred Hitchcock or the film business. Back in the early 2000s, when I was transforming from a Hitchcock buff to an obsessive partisan, I ran across an IMDB comment by someone known as larcher-2 that all these years has never left my mind, so concisely does it attack the core issue in play dividing the two films. Perhaps unethically, I will reproduce it without permission here:

There were better women then — and children — that is, before the 1950s. Hitchcock made this picture twice, and the two versions are practically a feminist text about the fall. In 1934, woman is athlete, expert in firearms, able to save her child when every man around her is paralyzed with fear. In 1956, woman is Doris Day, able only to wail a song that the child hears and wails back at. In 1934 the child is a delightfully and slightly impudent half-adolescent girl; in 1956, an ineffectual little boy. In 1934, woman can tease her husband with another man, but without in any sense betraying him; in 1956, she is a possession who has given up her career to cater to him. The 1934 movie is a good thriller, with a good subtext about real marriage; the limp 1956 remake is a mere simulation of tension covering bland propaganda for the sort of ’50s marriage that inevitably produced both feminism and widespread divorce.

The director himself wouldn’t have been unaware of these ideas, at least superficially; this very divide between real love and false marriage is the entire subject of his own Rich and Strange from 1931. The comment may take a slightly harsh view of the McKennas’ relationship, which is problematic but does not seem unrealistic, and it also somewhat fails to account for the fact that the unequal footing on which Jo and Ben stand in their relationship is being challenged by the story as it progresses — though of course, the facile ending somewhat scrubs this clean. To label it propaganda is extreme when one compares the film to something like Pillow Talk, also starring Day, whose narrow view of the role of women in the world is much harder to take today; or even to films that take a nonchalant but stalwart view of the incidental role of the housewife in their stories, like for instance Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets and Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, both wonderful films that all the same have a more limited, relegated role for their female leads than was ever the case for Hitchcock at any point in his career.

But the reason those remarks have stayed me all these years is really less that I agree the 1956 film is lackluster, and more that I believe it explains what makes the 1934 film transcendent and powerful, and therefore what is lacking in the serviceable good time Hitchcock, Hayes and company provide here. It was once fashionable to charge the director’s films with being empty and having nothing to say, an assertion one can readily challenge when the subject at hand is, say, Sabotage or the self-reflexive, clever North by Northwest; but here, apart from the relatively desultory challenges the script lays against what seems a placid life for a couple of normies and their kid, you can sort of see the critics’ point. There just isn’t much to really sweep us up: the family is all too ordinary, their roles clearly marked (never again would Hitchcock revolve a film around a nuclear family of this sort, unless you count The Wrong Man, a true story of one that gets torn apart), the villains a perfunctory couple of dullards in place of Peter Lorre, whose freaky smile is inherited here by the marksman played by Reggie Nalder. That it looks gorgeous and is absorbing isn’t beside the point — this is Hitchcock, after all — but indicates more how much he could sculpt with less than ideal material than that the story as it’s laid out here is up to standard. In other words, if you want to see how persuasive the usual Hitchcock techniques are in service of the bare minimum of good narrative content, this is your movie.

Nevertheless, it should be acknowledged that one improvement made here is in allowing Day to play a larger role in the film’s action than Best did, though in the end this really just amounts to her participation in the outstanding Ambrose Chapel scene; when Best and Banks split in the older film, that’s the only real story point she misses. Jo is still a proactive character, more than competently participating in all the detective work, and when her despair is visible it’s sympathetic as a motivator. It would be useful if her son were replaced with a better actor than Christopher Olsen, who reads all of his lines in the same tone throughout the picture and doesn’t have a particularly tactile or convincing relationship with his parents. Hitchcock brushes past their reunion at the close of the film with good reason; Stewart and Day feel like a couple, but they and Olsen do not feel like a family, which does harm to the otherwise well-designed second climax in which the boy is called out to via song by his mother — that scene should feel more urgent, more emotional, than it does.

Given that unaffectionate mothers are a fixture of Hitchcock, it’s difficult to say whether the pair’s distance from their child was an accident or not, but it certainly results in the conspicuous absence of the moment of bliss shared between the Lawrences and their daughter (Nova Pilbeam) in the prior version. One outlying quirk here to match is that Brenda de Banzie, as the kidnapper and co-conspirator Mrs. Drayton, is something of a reversal to the typically sinister Hitchcock mother-figure, with her maternal instinct ultimately serving as much to save the boy as Jo’s actions. De Banzie does well in her role, in contrast to Bernard Miles’ totally forgettable work as her husband. In perhaps the film’s weakest moment, he figures in an attempt to replicate or at least recall the breathtaking finale of Notorious that has Claude Rains darkly escorted downstairs by Cary Grant as the former’s Nazi cohorts look on. In this context, this attempt at a getaway falls flat enough that the incomprehensible way it which it wraps up makes very little difference; it just seems like a superfluous addition to a story that’s already over.

You’re left wondering why Hitchcock elected to remake one of his own films, much less this one, though it seems that he personally wasn’t satisfied with the 1934 version, not surprising given that it was virtually the beginning of his career as a thriller director. It’s not hard to see someone being happier with this one on a technical level, given the full resources of Paramount and all the star power thus entailed, but to the modern viewer screening a cleaned-up print of the lean and magical British film, it’s hard to imagine most audiences preferring this one. All the same, in 1956 Hitchcock was at the peak of his career both commercially and artistically, and everything he touched carried a kind of wisdom and explosiveness that remains unique to his work. It’s easy to get lost in memories of this film’s slight failings: the ending, the casting of the boy and many of the smaller parts, the absence of that cathartic embrace of the restored family, the relatively slight story and the overextended feeling of many of the individual scenes… but the fact remains that no one else has made movies that look or feel like Hitchcock’s, especially like those he made in the ’50s, and that canon has such value as a piece that each individual title lifts up the others. The Man Who Knew Too Much may not be a great film in itself, but it’s an indispensable portion of one of the greatest bodies of work in all cinema and, like all the others, carries within it so much that can still inspire and transport an audience even today.

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