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The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

October 5th, 2007 · 6 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

Ben McKenna (James Stewart), his wife Jo (Doris Day) and their boy Hank ride a bus bound for Marrakech. When the boy accidentally yanks the veil off a Moroccan woman, a smooth talking Frenchman diffuses the situation. Ben reveals that he’s a doctor, attended a medical convention in Paris and is visiting North Africa for a change of scenery. The Frenchman invites the couple to dinner, but Jo confides to her husband that she finds the man suspicious.

After their host cancels mysteriously, the McKennas befriend a British couple, the Draytons. They recognize Jo from her musical theater days in London. Spending the next day together at market, they witness a man being stabbed in the back by an assassin. It’s the Frenchman. His last words are to warn Ben that a statesman is to be killed in London. He also whispers the name “Ambrose Chappell.”

The McKennas go with the police, but Ben receives a phone call warning him that his son’s life will be in danger if he says anything. Ben learns that the Frenchman was a spy hunting a pair of foreign agents. He realizes those agents were the Draytons, and now they’ve fled the country with his son. The McKennas return to London to rescue Hank, and end up at the Royal Albert Hall, where a foreign leader is to be assassinated during the symphony.

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Production history 
Director Alfred Hitchcock first pitched a remake of his 1934 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1940. Part of his motivation was to help out Angus MacPhail, a former film critic and sometimes screenwriter whose collaboration with Hitchcock had been integral to the success of many of his British pictures. MacPhail arrived in Los Angeles in December 1954 and began reworking the original scenario by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis for James Stewart to star in.

The old friends had hashed out the key plot points by February, when screenwriter John Michael Hayes was brought in to work on the characters. Hayes – who had just received an Oscar nomination for Rear Window – was unaccustomed to being parceled out or sharing accolades. He was finishing the script as exteriors were already being shot in Marrakech, where MacPhail was on location, tweaking Hayes’ script.

Hitchcock had hoped to reunite James Stewart and Grace Kelly for the project. But the actress was under contract to MGM, and they’d suspended her from work as she continued to reject what she considered to be inferior scripts. Instead, Hitchcock’s agent MCA decreed that their client Doris Day be cast with Stewart. Adverse to the idea, Hitchcock was later said to be happy with the pop star’s work.

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Francois Truffaut – in his book Hitchcock – insisted that the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much was far superior to the original. Hitchcock seemed to disagree: “Let’s say that the first version is a work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” The remake was a solid hit for Paramount, grossing $5.1 million at the box office.

The 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is a feature length setup for a single reel of film, the 12-minute sequence at the Royal Albert Hall, where composer Bernard Herrmann conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of “Storm Cloud Cantata”, as a sniper takes aim at his target. The sequence is only fairly exciting, while nothing else in the entire film even shows vital signs.

In Rear Window, Grace Kelly had Jimmy Stewart and Hitchcock under a spell. Working with Doris Day does not seem to have brought out their best. There’s no chemistry between the leads, but it’s fruit of a poisonous tree. The story is contrived, the dialogue flat, the villains are substandard, supporting characters absentee and the ending anti-climactic. Grace Kelly couldn’t have redeemed this material, which is running on fumes from the start and tries to coast home.

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Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant writes, “Frankly, in the 1970s we probably gave The Man Who Knew Too Much short shrift because at the time film students were averse to anything with Doris Day in it. Now Ms. Day’s comedies don’t seem so annoying and her performance in this film comes off as exceptionally good.”

“I can’t say this will become one of my favorite Hitchcock films, I prefer my leading men of the Cary Grant variety, but it’s definitely one to watch,” writes Lisa Skrzyniarz at Crazy For Cinema.

Erick Harper at DVD Verdict writes, “The Man Who Knew Too Much is generally not regarded as one of Hitch’s best, but all the same, it is a very good film. It has all the tension, twisted plotting and whimsical humorous touches that mark most of Hitchcock’s work.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Concert · Interrogation · Paranoia · Road trip

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Damian // Oct 7, 2007 at 7:46 pm

    I’ve always been one of those who preferred Hitch’s original Man Who Knew Too Much to this one.

    Gotta love that “Que Sera Sera” song though.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Oct 8, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Damian: Actually, the response I found to this movie online was pretty positive. I didn’t find anyone else admitting they really didn’t like the remake, so, maybe you’re right about Ms. Doris Day and her memorable ditty.

  • 3 bill // Apr 3, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Just sat through this on Turner classics. It was so bad I couldn’t look away, marvelling at how emperor Hitch had en ough grvitas to look good even in these clothes. I agree that the 12 minutes in Albert Hall was interesting but did not even come close to redeeming the rest of this potboiler. I always hated that song and had it flung in my face often in cathcolic grade school, ca 1960. Just when I start to think maybe the right wing pundits are correct and the hippie era 1960s had no redeeming value, I come accross a piece of acclaimed twaddle likt this.

  • 4 Tim // May 16, 2008 at 10:49 pm

    it was a fantastic film

  • 5 lana // May 25, 2008 at 3:56 am

    its an awesome film i love it especially doris day

  • 6 Nicki // Dec 7, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    I loved this version, Doris Day does an excellent job, not being a “child” of the 60s, I wasn’t swayed against her like some of the critics. She gave a perfectly natural performance, who wouldn’t want her as a mother or wife? Every time I watch the scene where she finds out about her son being kidnapped, I tear up. It was heartbreaking!

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