The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)


An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A couple’s young son is kidnapped to prevent them from revealing some dangerous information…

Alfred Hitchcock once said he wasn’t ‘audience conscious’ when, in 1934, he first made a film called The Man Who Knew Too Much. But 22 years and 25 movies later, he directed a loose remake. It was produced at the height of his Hollywood popularity and power, and as well as the many cosmetic or production differences from the original – colour! Widescreen! Americans! – there was also a significantly different script.

Writer John Michael Hayes was told not to view the 1930s movie or read its script, so instead he worked off an outline told to him verbally by Hitchcock. The result is the same vague storyline: an innocent couple on holiday stumble across some dangerous information and their child is kidnapped to stop them from talking. But the plot has been rejigged and the trappings moved around. One reason for this was to give the father character more action – Hitch argued that if you’ve cast James Stewart, you can’t lock him up for as long as Leslie Banks was in the original.

This was Stewart’s third role for Alfred Hitchcock, after a key supporting character in Rope and the lead in Rear Window. A charismatic powerhouse, Stewart was perhaps the best ‘everyman’ Hollywood’s ever had. He possessed an amazing ability to play decent, likeable men who wear their intelligence lightly. Here, he’s Ben McKenna, a successful doctor on holiday in north Africa with his family. Ben’s wife, Jo, is played by Doris Day. Hitch cast her against the wishes of colleagues who wanted a more ‘serious’ actress – someone like Lana Turner, Grace Kelly or Jane Russell – but he knew Day was more than just a singer. And he was right. She’s fantastic in this film.

In the early scenes of Ben, Jo and son Hank (an irritating Christopher Olsen), the movie has a travelogue feel. Unlike the 1934 film, which began in the Swiss Alps, we’re in Morocco. We see markets and traders and street exhibitionists and bustling buses; we learn about why Muslim women wear veils and all about Moroccan restaurant etiquette. The sequence is a combination of location work in Marrakesh, and shots taken of Stewart and Day back in Hollywood acting against massive rear-projection plates. It’s also a more leisurely opening than in 1934 – but that allows us to get to know Ben and Jo much more than Bob and Jill, their equivalents in that first movie. The couple meet a Frenchman called Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), then an English couple called Lucy and Edward Drayton (Brenda De Banzie and Bernard Miles). Ben is jovial towards them all, but Jo is suspicious of Louis.

The situation is preparing the ground for a suspense plot, but as ever with Hitchcock there’s also time for human moments or humour. In their hotel room, Jo and Hank enjoy singing Que Sera, Sera together – being played by Doris Day, Jo has quite a nice voice and the scene is adorably sweet. There’s also some fun business when Ben can’t settle on a low, soft chair and struggles to eat with one hand.

Then comes a crisis… The next day, Bernard is stabbed in the street. Just before he dies he whispers a message to Ben. There’s to be as assassination in London! This is a nice simplification of the 1934 film, which only got to this information after some silliness about a secret message hidden in a shaving brush. Then Ben receives a phone call while at the local police station – Hank has been kidnapped and Ben better keep quiet about what he’s heard. To make matters even more harrowing, Ben twigs that the kidnappers are the friendly English couple from the hotel.

A big problem with the 1930s movie is that the parents’ reaction to their child being taken hasn’t dated very well. In that film, the Lawrences are too reserved, too pent-up, for us to have much sympathy. This version, though, solves that issue with more heartfelt writing and acting. Ben doesn’t tell Jo straightaway, and James Stewart plays his character’s isolated terror very well indeed. You really feel for him as he tries to maintain an appearance of calmness when he’s clearly going through hell inside. Then when he finally breaks the news to Jo, she balls and cries with anguish. It’s very affecting.

Bernard’s message mentioned ‘Ambrose Chappell’ in London, so the couple head there now. Ben tries to find Mr Chappell, but his quest is a red herring that involves a comedic brawl in a taxidermists’ workshop, the various animals staring down impassively. Jo, meanwhile, deduces that Ambrose Chapel is a place – an actual chapel which turns out to be run by the English couple from Morocco. Ben confronts them but is knocked out and locked up – he later escapes by climbing up the church’s bell rope – while Jo heads to the Albert Hall. That’s where the police chief is because he’s attending a concert with a foreign dignitary. It also turns out to be the location of the assassination…

At the Albert Hall, we get a nine-minute scene with no dialogue as Hitch cuts between the orchestra, Jo looking nervous, Ben arriving, Jo explaining she’s spotted the assassin… The intensity rises with the orchestral music (which is the same Arthur Benjamin piece as used in 1934). Then Jo screams at the key moment, the assassination is avoided, and the shooter dies after a fall from the balcony. It’s a wonderful sequence, staged and edited with real skill.

But Hank is still being held hostage, and Ben and Jo deduce he’s at the embassy of the foreign dignitary. Ben and Jo blag their way in, and a nearly tearful Jo sings a heartfelt performance of Que Sera, Sera to distract everyone while Ben searches the building. It’s a happy reunion for the family, unlike the cursory moment in 1934. And that’s the key reason why this version is the better film. Times change, of course, as do moviegoing tastes. But whereas both films contain suspense, action, intrigue and Hitchcock-style flamboyance, the British-made, pre-war movie now comes off as quite shallow. In 1956, thanks to actors as good as James Stewart and Doris Day, there’s emotion alongside the excitement.

Eight men in the market out of 10


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