8/12/09

Hitch on the Hump: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) would probably more accurately be titled as The Man Who Didn’t Listen To His Wife When He Should Have An He Will Be Hearing About It For The Rest of His Life. This would more accurately portray the events of the film, and more importantly, the aftermath. I don’t think that I had the same appreciation of this film the last time I saw it. Back then, I was young unmarried snot beholden to no earthly son of a bitch. Now with eleven years of happy marriage under my belt and a greater appreciation of films, the cinematic “I told you so.” looms much larger over this picture that it ever has. If I don’t buy something when it’s on sale, then I get to hear about it. If I should have rotated the tires six months ago, yeah, I hear about that too. If my wife and I had a kid and I lost him to a spy ring based in Marrakesh, oh, I would be in for a world of hurt, and unlike Jimmy Stewart’s character, I would not have a cache of tranquilizers to force feed her.

The film centers on a typical American family. The father, Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart) has taken his wife Jo (Doris Day) and son Hank (Christopher Olsen) with him to Paris for a medical convention, and then they venture down into French Morocco where Ben was stationed in the war. During a bus ride between Casablanca and Marrakesh, a casual conversation with mysterious fellow traveler Frenchman Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin) begins innocently enough, but Jo thinks the man was too probing, asking tons of questions about Ben while revealing nothing of himself.

The next day, as the family browses the market with their new friends, the Drayton’s, they are shocked to see an Arabic man stagger into the square toward them, a knife protruding from his back. Dr. McKenna rushes over to help the man only to discover that the Arab is in fact Louis Bernard in disguise. Weakly, before he expires, Louis whispers to the erstwhile Doctor details of an assassination plot set to take place in London shortly.

The McKenna’s are brought in to give their statement to the police, but before they do Ben receives a call telling him to not utter a word about the plot or their son will face the consequences. Ben doesn’t say anything, and when they return to their hotel they discover that Hank has been abducted by Mr. and Mrs. Drayton. With no choices left to them, they go to London intent on saving their son and stopping the assassination.

Hitchcock first made The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1932 starring Edna Best, Leslie Banks, and the “walking topcoat” Peter Lorre. I must admit that, even though I've had it for quite some time, I haven’t had a chance to see it. So you’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for a comparison of the two. For now, let’s just suffice it to say the only person with the balls to remake Hitchcock is Hitchcock. (So Hollywood, take note, he’s dead so that means no versions of Vertigo starring Zac Efron and Miley Cyrus.) The original version was adapted for the screen by Charles Bennett, the same scribe behind The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, and Sabotage, and for the 1956 version, Hitchcock called in Massachusetts born screenwriter John Michael Hayes who had penned Alfred’s three previous films, The Trouble with Harry, To Catch a Thief, and Rear Window.

Doris Day may no longer be the household name she once was, but there was a time when she was one of the bigger names in show business with her singing and movie career both flourishing. Coming off a string of hits in the early Fifties such as the wildly inaccurate Calamity Jane (1953), Day was an actress that Hitchcock was very interested in working with because of her “emotional range“. Day surely uses every bit of that range in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and her performance is nearly flawless, but the actress didn’t think so at the time. Ms. Day commented, "I was convinced I must have been the worst actress he's ever had…. I told him that of I wasn't pleasing him, and that he wanted to replace me with someone else, he could. He was astonished! He told me it was quite the reverse, that he thought I was doing everything right--- and that if I hadn't been doing everything right, he would have told me."

This was not usual behavior for Hitchcock and over the years many of his female leads got the impression he didn’t like them. Bernard Miles who played Mr. Drayton said Hitchcock "always seemed more concerned with technical matters than with the actors. And he didn't like having anyone else on the set but himself to tell a joke--- so he used to sulk or retire into himself if Jimmy Stewart or another player really made me laugh.” In some ways this attention to detail had been with him all his life. As a child at family gathering Hitchcock said he often “would sit quietly in the corner, saying nothing and observing a great deal. I’ve always been that way and still am.” Deep down, Alfred Hitchcock was a reserved fellow who confided in few, and still retained the unease of a shy child.

The Man Who Knew Too Much was the third film that James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock made together, and each of the pairing got progressively better until they culminated in Vertigo. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Stewart’s affable, laid back demeanor in the beginning of the film perfectly illustrates the ease of the American abroad. Americans on vacation are perhaps the most unguarded people in the world, and even though his more cosmopolitan wife tries to warn him, Dr. McKenna opens right up to one stranger after another. Now once his boy gets taken, the other side of the American personality emerges, the dogged, determined stop at nothing side. Stewart brings both with equal vigor, and once more proves why his performances are so legendary.

The film would not work if only the lead performances were strong, and while none of the roles are very sizeable, each of the performers steps up to the plate. The real standout though has to be English actress Brenda De Banzie as Mrs. Drayton. Alternately vicious and tender, her performance was really a surprise as I assumed that she would turn out to be stock baddie #3. As with most Hitchcock films, you never quite get what you think you might, and the character arc of Mrs. Drayton really enhanced the film by making the baddies seem very real and very human. When the viewer can relate to the person we are set up to hate, it makes the crimes seem much more real.

Music plays a very important part to the film although there was very little composed for it. Usual suspect Bernard Herrmann returns and provides a slight accompaniment to the picture. He also shows up in the flesh conducting the London Symphony Orchestra during the climatic end of the film. The music he is conducting is the same piece composed by Arthur Benjamin for the 1936 film. Hitchcock gave the composer the choice to provide a new piece of music, but Herrmann declined saying he was a fan of Benjamin’s cantata.

While there was little score to the film, it did contain a piece of music that was integral to the film and the career of one particular actress. Written by songwriters Livingston and Evans, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be) made its debut in Hitchcock’s film. Doris Day was hesitant to perform the song saying it was a “forgettable children’s song”. Not only did Mrs. Day underestimate the song it won the Academy Award for best song and became her signature number.

The cinematography for The Man Who Knew Too Much was handled by 12 time collaborator Robert Burks, and anyone who’s been reading my Hitchcock reviews will know that I love this man’s work. Once again Burks finds all the angles, all the beautifully composed shots, and all the smooth transitions that you could ever need. However, the real star of the show this time is the editing so let’s give it up for George Tomasini. While there are some great cuts in the film, the climatic sequence in the end, played without dialog, relies on the images to tell the story and keep the suspense alive. I don’t want to spoil the ending so I won’t go any further, but I watched that sequence twice just to enjoy how it was cut together.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is a classic example of what Hitchcock did best, taking average people and throwing them into crazy scenarios. This film may well not have the intricate plotting of Vertigo, the shock factor of Psycho, or the excitement of North by Northwest, but what it does contain is a story that is very real and powered by some compelling performances. So go out and check this one out, and then I’ll be the one saying “I told you so.” for a change.

Bugg Rating


3 comments:

  1. I am the opposite, I have seen the original '35 version, but not this one. A few differences right off are that in the first one, they go to Switzerland instead of France and the have a daughter instead of a son. Perhaps we should exchange copies!

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  2. Another great review. I watched this one recently, after a great many years. And what I hadn't realised (or missed) is what a debt so many Eurospy films owe to this film (I often think of Eurospy films as Bond ripoffs - but it is no surprise really that they 'borrowed' their share of Hitch too).

    Cheers
    D.

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  3. Lightening bug: Excellent post! I really enjoyed this lot. I love the background you provide here; particularly the Doris Day info. I had always imagined that Hitchcock himself was disappointed or perhaps simply muddled through with Doris Day. I am very pleased to learn otherwise. She was such a good actress, and I love the scene you provide and can just imagine Hitchcock saying, "Oh no, my dear, quite the opposite."

    Who knew Day was such a harsh critic of herself. She thought Que Sera Sera silly children’s song. I just love that.

    Very good post! -- Mykal

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