The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay:John Michael Hayes (story by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis)
Stars: James Stewart (Dr. Ben McKenna), Doris Day (Jo McKenna), Brenda De Banzie(Lucy Drayton), Bernard Miles (Mr. Drayton), Ralph Truman (Buchanan), Daniel Gélin(Louis Bernard), Mogens Wieth (Ambassador), Alan Mowbray (Val Parnell), ChristopherOlsen (Hank McKenna)
MPAA Rating:PG
Year of Release: 1956
Country: USA
The Man Who Knew Too Much Poster

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.

The Man WhoKnew Too Much DVD
The Man Who Knew Too Much is availableeither individually (SRP $29.98) or as part of the Best of Hitchcock #1 DVD boxset (SRP $174.98), which includes seven feature films and four episodes of the TV seriesAlfred Hitchcock Presents.
AudioDolby 2.0 Monaural
SupplementsThe Making of "The Man Who Knew Too Much": 34-minute documentary
Production photographs and poster gallery
Original theatrical trailer
Re-release trailer
Production notes
Cast and filmmaker filmographies

The Man Who Knew Too Much is presented anew, anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer. Although technical fetishists will be upsetthat the original VistaVision theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 has been reframed at 1.85:1, theframing generally looks good and the slightly wider aspect ratio emphasizes the movie'sscope, even it is to the detriment of Hitch's original vision. On the plus side, the bright,Technicolor image is well preserved, with strong, well-saturated colors (especially in theMorocco scenes) and a high level of detail (you can pick out the freckles on Doris Day'sface). On the negative side, some of the scenes are a bit softer than the rest, especiallydarker sequences that get a little muddy at times. There is also a fair amount of specklingand a number of horizontal lines, none of which is overly distracting, but still noticeable attimes.

The Dolby 2.0 monaural soundtrack is quite good,especially considering its inherently limited range. The movie features a number ofsequences in which sound effects are important, including a difficult telephone call at anairport and a well-rendered scene in which James Stewart is walking down a deserted streetand he hears another man's footsteps echoing just after his own. Most importantly, thethundering concert at the Royal Albert Hall at the end (conducted in an amusing cameo byBernard Herrmann himself) sounds fantastic.

Laurent Bouzereau's 34-minute documentary TheMaking of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" focuses primarily on the movie'ssettings and the use of music. There are no interviews with any of the actors (James Stewartpassed away in 1997, although Doris Day is still alive and well), so the talking heads arecomprised of associate producer Herbert Coleman, screenwriter John Michael Hayes,production designer Henry Bumstead, Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven Smith, andHitchcock's daughter, Pat O'Connell Hitchcock. Bumstead's discussion of the productiondesign is the most interesting, as he talks about Hitch's adeptness at quickly shooting thenecessary long shots on location, and then returning for the majority of his work in thestudio, where Bumstead would have to recreate the locations. The documentary alsoincludes a fair number of clips from the 1934 original British version of the film toilluminate the major differences.

The original theatrical trailer is included in full-screen, as is the 1983 re-release trailer (innonanamorphic widescreen) narrated by James Stewart. The re-release trailer is actually anadvertisement for the re-release of five Hitchcock films that were, at that time, not availableon home video and had not been seen on-screen for more than a decade due to legal issues:Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble With Harry(1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and Vertigo (1958). Itreminds you of just how lucky we are to have all these films so readily available on DVD.

The disc also includes a nice gallery of international poster art of both the 1934 and 1956versions of the film and several dozen production photographs. Lastly, there is a good set ofproduction notes and cast and crew filmographies.

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

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