The Man Who Knew Too Much

Written by:
Bob Aulert
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a cd that includes

music from the film

The 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much has a unique place in the Alfred Hitchcock filmography. It’s his only remake, produced 22 years after its initial version, and it’s his only film to feature a musical number (the Oscar-winning "Que Sera, Sera"). It’s part of Hitchcock’s body of work from the 1950s – a period when he became renowned as "the master of suspense." Along with Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry, Rope and Vertigo, it’s one of the celebrated "Five Lost Hitchcocks" that were unavailable for decades because their rights were bought back by Hitchcock and willed to his daughter. The five were eventually re-released in theaters in the mid-1980s.

By the mid-1950s, Alfred Hitchcock had long been established in Hollywood. A recent hit TV series – Alfred Hitchcock Presents – had given him the opportunity to do densely crafted half-hour mystery thrillers for weekly television. His theatrical features became freer to use stories focused on darker issues, emotions and psychological factors. The Man Who Knew Too Much shows this assuredness.

By today’s standards the film develops at a tedious pace – it’s fully 45 minutes before the complete problem scenario is known. In Morocco, American tourists Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart) and his wife Jo (Doris Day) are witness to the street killing of a Frenchman (Daniel Gelin) they’ve recently met. Before expiring, the victim whispers some amazing information to McKenna – a political assassination will soon take place in London. But McKenna is unable to tell the police – conspirators have kidnapped his son to insure his silence. Even after English authorities deduce that something’s afoot, the McKennas must act alone.

As a snowdrift grows from individual gently falling flakes, suspense is built slowly as Hitchcock parcels out information with an eyedropper. There’s a minimum of dialog – facts are revealed by glances, tics, and omissions. There are many false starts and dead ends along the way, containing some of Hitchcock’s most notable and suspenseful set pieces, including a murder attempt in Albert Hall and a false lead in a taxidermy shop that switches from chilling to hilarious in an instant. His use of scene blackouts and comic relief (especially the last line of the film) rank with his most distinctive.

The Albert Hall concert finale is a classic example of Hitchcock’s use of music. It’s also a reiteration of one of his standard themes: things begin in perfect order before degenerating into total chaos. Music is always an important component of any Hitchcock picture, but this film contains perhaps the pinnacle of his long-time collaboration with composer Bernard Hermann. Even the work being performed, " The Storm Cloud Cantata" represents the intrusion of nature’s chaos into man’s purportedly ordered world. Hitchcock sets this theme up visually by using a series of triads demonstrating the order before the chaos: first, he shows us the conductor (a Hermann cameo), the chorus, and orchestra. Next we see another group of three: the cymbalist (whose climactic cymbal crash will mask the assassin’s gunshot), the assassin, and an accomplice. Then, three innocents: Dr. McKenna, Jo McKenna and the assassination target. Then events begin in parallel to disrupt order – the cymbalist picks up his instrument with his right hand, the assassin picks up his weapon with his right hand. It’s a masterful 12-minute, 124-shot sequence that contains not one single word of spoken dialog – communicating solely through images and music, the editing building in tempo in time with the music.

Compared to its 1934 predecessor, this version is more technically accomplished and suspenseful than the action-oriented original. It’s also an example of a change in female movie images from the 1930s to the 1950s. In the original, the heroine is a skilled shot who takes a high-profile role in the final rescue. Here, Doris Day represents a more stereotypical Cold War wife – she may be more observant than her husband, but is also more dependent on him to take action. There are still a few plot holes, particularly being asked to believe that an assassin firing at someone from over a hundred feet away would use a handgun, but these are minor. Or as Hitchcock himself once stated, "A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow."

When asked about his two versions of the film, Hitchcock said: "The first was the work of a talented amateur, while the second was the act of a seasoned professional." There’s no doubt that the later version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is the product of a master in his prime.

– Bob Aulert

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