The Man Who Knew Too Much was the only film Alfred Hitchcock made twice.He was never completely satisfied with the original 1934 version, which was made in hisnative England and was the first of his espionage spy thrillers. He felt that the narrative wastoo confusing and the technical aspects were not all that they could have been. In aninterview with François Truffaut, he said he felt it was the work of "a talented amateur."
The 1956 American re-make is certainly a bolder, slicker movie, a true Hollywood productfilmed in Technicolor and set partly in French Morocco. Like the original, though, one ofthe things that sets The Man Who Knew Too Much apart from much ofHitchcock's other work is that it focuses on a family. In true Hitchcockian fashion, thisseemingly perfect American family at the heart of the story is more complex than it seems atfirst, and the strain of the marriage works its way into the spy thriller narrative, giving it anadded edge.
James Stewart, in his third of four collaborations with Hitch, plays Ben McKenna, a doctorfrom Indianapolis on vacation in North Africa with his wife, Jo (Doris Day), and theiryoung son, Hank (Christopher Olsen). In the marketplace in Marrakech, a French spy(Daniel Gélin) is stabbed in the back and dies in Ben's arms, but before he expires hewhispers in Ben's ears that an important statesman is soon to be assassinated in London.Hank is then kidnapped by the would-be assassins in order to keep Ben quiet, but as onecharacter says rather comically near the end, "Don't you realize that Americans dislikehaving their children stolen?"
Ben and Jo travel back to London in order to track down those who kidnapped their son. Inthe process, they uncover the plot to kill an ambassador at the Royal Albert Hall during aconcert, which leads to a protracted climax that has all of Hitchcock's best elements ofsuspense, including a creative reliance on music and a skillful use of crosscutting. Twelveminutes in length and consisting of some 125 shots, the climax conveys all its informationvisually, without a single line of dialogue. We know in advance that the gunshot will comeduring a single crash of the cymbals near the end of the concert, and Hitchcock builds muchof the sequence's suspense around the cymbalist, who is the unwitting accomplice tomurder.
Still, despite the bravura climax, The Man Who Knew Too Much is only a goodHitchcock film, not a great one, which is surprising since this was his second time around.Part of the problem may lie in the story itself, in that it is not as tight or concise as some ofthe better scripts Hitchcock worked with. The simple fact remains that the espionagemasterminds behind the plot to kill the ambassador are quite timid and dumb. After all, whygo through all the trouble of kidnapping Ben's son and hauling him all the way back toLondon in order to keep Ben silent, when all they had to do was kill Ben? Of course, thatmay be nitpicking since Hank's kidnapping is the event that sets the plot in the motion. Still,the evil characters are not particularly devious or intimidating, which removes some of thetension.
The best scenes in the movie involve Ben and Jo trying to work out what they are going todo. Hitchcock loved using James Stewart in roles of this type because of his average,everyday quality; it's easy to identify with him. The relationship between Ben and Jo isbelievable and poignant in that it is not perfect. There are several moments of maritaltension, and one can easily sense that Jo holds a certain amount of resentment that she hadto give up her successful career as a professional singer in order to become a wife andmother. Doris Day, best known then as a hit singer and comedic actress, gives anoutstanding performance as Jo, suggesting a woman who is both incredibly vulnerable (Benmakes her take pills to "relax her" before confiding in her that Hank has been kidnapped),yet also resilient and intelligent (it is really she, not Ben, who solves the mystery anddisrupts the attempted assassination).
The Man Who Knew Too Much has a number of great moments, but as a whole itnever feels like a truly great film. This is not to say that it is not an accomplished bit ofentertainment, and as a spy thriller with a twist, it's a fun movie. It's never dull, but untilthe finale, it's never particularly gripping, either. As a work by Hitchcock, it lacks thememorable innovation and devious cunning that separates his truly great films from the rest.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick
Overall Rating: (3)
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