The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Angus MacPhail, Charles Bennett, D.B.Wyndham-Lewis, John Michael Hayes
Starring: Bernard Miles, Brenda de Banzie, Doris Day, James Stewart
HCF REWIND NO. 256: THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH [US 1956]
RUNNING TIME: 120 min
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY
THE HITCHCOCK CAMEO: Watching a troupe of acrobats in the crowded outdoor marketplace in Marrakesh, on the left side of the frame with his back to the camera, just before the murder of Louis Bernard
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Vacationing in Morocco, Dr. Ben McKenna, his wife Jo, and their son Henry meet Frenchman Louis Bernard on their bus to Marrakesh. Jo is suspicious of his many questions and evasive answers and thinks that he is hiding something. At the hotel, a sinister-looking man knocks at the McKenna’s room claiming to be looking for another guest’s room. At a local restaurant, the McKennas befriend an English couple, Lucy and Edward Drayton, and are totally ignored by Louis who sits at another table. The next day, they see a man in Arab clothing being chased by police through a market and stabbed in the back. Actually Louis in disguise, the dying man whispers to Ben that a foreign statesman will be assassinated in London very soon and that Ben must tell the authorities there about ‘Ambrose Chappell’. Soon after, a man on the end of a phone line tells Ben Hank has been kidnapped…
You can make claims for Hitchcock having remade The Thirty-Nine Steps twice with Saboteur and North By Northwest, while certain other films clearly borrowed from others, but the only one of his films he officially remade was his 1934 British thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. He thought that it could be improved upon, and in fact told Francois Truffaut that: “Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” People seem to be roughly split over which version is better and both versions have their merits and flaws [though this is Hitchcock so there are far less flaws than merits], while the story and its structure are almost the same. The 1934 version, running at 75 min as opposed to 120, is a much faster, tighter affair, but the 1956 version is far stronger on characterisation and the tale certainly withstands a longer, slower telling. I suppose it comes down to what style you prefer, though it’s not always easy to say that if you think both methods work. I used to slightly favour the remake over the original, but time often changes one’s opinions, and I would now say the original just has the edge –for a start I think it achieves a little more with less – though in the end all that really matters is that they’re both good thrillers anyway.
Hitchcock, riding high in 1955 due to the success of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, had actually wanted to do a remake back in 1941, to be set in Idaho, than Brazil, than New York with a gala at the Metropolitan office climax replacing the Albert Hall climax. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes, of Hitchcock’s last three pictures, was hired on the condition that he would not watch the early version or read its script, with all the plot details coming from Hitchcock. Only the opening scenes of the script were actually ready when filming begun, Hayes having to send by airmail the subsequent script pages as he finished them. Hitchcock also hired the original film’s co-writer Angus McPhail to help, but the very sick alcoholic contributed nothing, Hitchcock angering Hayes when he submitted both Hayes’ and MacPhail’s names to receive screenplay credit. On location in Marrakesh, Doris Day was so shocked by how animals were treated that made the studio set up an animal-feeding station and she began a lifelong commitment to preventing animal abuse. Many of the Moroccan extras had been mistakenly informed that they would only be paid if they were actually visible in the film, leading to a lot of pushing and shoving to get close to the camera. At first, Day refused to record the hit song that came from the film Que Sera, Sera, dismissing it as: “a forgettable children’s song.” It not only went on to win an Academy Award, but also became her biggest hit. She would sing it in two later movies and even have it as the theme song for her TV show. The Man Who Knew Too Much received mixed reviews but restored Hitchcock’s power at the box office.
It’s often said of this version that the Marrekesh-set first 50 min are slow and tedious, something which I don’t entirely agree with. The pacing is undoubtedly leisurely, one misses the way the way the 1934 version got to the killing of Louis at quickly as possible, and some amusing stuff involving the tall Ben struggling with Moroccan seating and food is rather unnecessary, but Ben and Jo are far more convincing as people, us getting a good sense of a marriage which has been founded on uneasy compromise and habit and especially some tension revolving around ex-singer Jo having to give up her career so Ben’s doctor career can flourish. There’s still a decent feel of mystery about what’s going on around the McKenna’s even if nothing exciting happens for a while, but sadly most of the outdoor Marrakesh footage is badly hampered by some of the worst back projection in Hitchcock’s career, even extending to scenes which are obviously shot on location but which still feature back projected footage behind it, dark, wobbly and jarring. This even extends to Louis’s murder. We get a good chase through a market, Louis being quickly stabbed, then crawling towards Ben where Ben’s fingers remove some of the Arab makeup of Louis’s face, but the drama, effective editing and images are weakened by the back projection. Even in London, it’s there, usually when Jo is walking, and it’s very distracting and nowhere near as effective as the dark, labyrinthine city portrayed in the earlier film.
Once we get to London as the couple set out to find their kidnapped son, the pace does pick up as we get the usual Hitchcock set-pieces, though they don’t always compare well to the original. A comical bit in a taxidermist’s seems really out of place and compares poorly to that sinister dentist’s scene in the first film, and the finding of, and confrontation with, the villains in the church is disappointingly muted by comparison, but the big Albert Hall set-piece, where we’ve been told that a shooting will occur during a clash of cymbals but, as before, don’t know where the bars of music leading up to the cymbal crash will begin, is even better, a masterpiece of cutting and gradual build-up. This time, as well as lots of angles of the huge and very convincing Albert Hall set and shots of Jo trying to finding the shooter, we get shots of the sniper preparing – suspense over surprise remember – and even close-ups of the music bars. Again the piece is Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds Cantata, slightly re-orchestrated by score composer Bernard Herrmann who is seen conducting. Herrmann, given the opportunity to write a new piece, replied that he couldn’t top what Benjamin had written, and the piece even allowed to drown out the dialogue of Jo and Ben when he arrives at the scene. The original film followed this with a big shoot-out between police and crooks and young Hank menaced on the roof-tops. This one has a more low-key finale with Jo singing [which of course is bloody Que Sera, Sera again] to distract everyone while Ben finds Hank and, in an extremely tense couple of moments, has to walk down some stairs with a gun held on them.
Though Reggie Nalder, as the sniper, has a creepy presence, the villains, the Drayton’s sometimes seeming like an extremely boring English couple, are more down to earth in this version, which often seems like it’s trying to be more realistic and believable but fails in this due to the heavily contrived story being almost the same and of course all that shoddy back projection. The thing which really tends to split viewers of both versions tends to be whether a basically simple thriller tale like this can withstand the deeper characterisation and psychological complexity that the second version attempts to give it. There’s a scene in which Ben gets Jo to take a sedative just before he tells her that their son has been kidnapped, and we get those hints of a troubled back story elsewhere, though I don’t think it’s as to the fore of what is still basically a straight-forward thriller as some like to say. It’s interesting how, despite this being made two decades later, how the heroine in this one isn’t allowed to pick up a gun and properly go into action. Hayes’s script has a few awkward moments, such as :”Don’t you realize that Americans dislike having their children stolen”? It’s hard to tell if it’s supposed to be funny, ironic or intended as a serious line that falls terribly flat. More intentional comic relief is provide by Jo’s showbiz friends who spend the whole day in their London flat while the couple are out looking for Hank. Rarely for a Hitchcock film, two of the characters are representations of real people: the impresario Val Parnell and his wife Helen, though as usual for Hitchcock the real world barely intrudes, with the story’s background politics barely mentioned [the nationality of the intended victim isn’t even mentioned].
Outside the Albert Hall sequence, Hitchcock’s direction has the odd interesting flourish, such as the set of still shots showing how Jo’s singing wafts upstairs and is heard by Hank, though it’s a bit static at times. James Stewart, though too old, does fine in what his perhaps the least interesting of his Hitchcock roles, but Doris Day, usually in far lighter roles, is a revelation, superbly conveying shock, panic and desperation so well I don’t know why she couldn’t have gone on to be a full-blown dramatic actress. Herrmann’s score helps provide some brooding tension but only erupts into full-blown drama in two scenes – the murder and the taxidermist’s – and is overall very sparse, Herrmann perhaps wanting to emphasise the Benjamin piece. The Man Who Knew Too Much is smooth entertainment with some terrific moments, but it’s probably Hitchcock’s least interesting 50’s picture after Dial M For Murder and To Catch A Thief, the director not quite marking time with his remake of the first sound film which really made his name, but not moving forward either. It was spoofed in the 1997 The Man Who Knew Too Little comedy and also inspired 1974’s The Black Windmill.