The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day
“The Man Who Knew Too Much” is one of my favourite Hitchcock films and I don’t think it gets the respect it deserves certainly compared to his more famous films. Maybe because it’s a remake of his own 1934 British version – an early acclaimed classic which helped him garner international attention. I confess not having seen the original, so I can’t compare the two, but all skills from the master of suspense are on display in this riveting thriller about a man whose son is kidnapped by a group of international terrorists.
Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day play Ben and Jo McKenna on vacation in Morocco with their young son Hank. They meet a kind Moroccan-French stranger named Louis Bernard who shows them around town. But Bernard is not who he says he is, and Ben uncovers an international assassination plot involving Bernard. With this knowledge Ben becomes a target and finds his own son Hank kidnapped and ransomed in exchange for his silence. Ben and Jo are forced to conduct their own investigation which takes them to London for a climatic cinematic showdown at the Royal Albert Hall.
Like so many of Hitchcock’s films location play an important role in the action. The film starts out in Morocco where the McKenna family are cultural outsiders and victim of their own naiveté and friendliness. Hitchcock expertly uses foreign and exotic Marrakech to establish his shady characters. The second half takes place in London, a place more familiar to Ben and Jo but still a foreign land without the safety net of familiarity.
The Royal Albert Hall sequence is one Hitchcock’s finest set pieces of suspense. Hitch, aware of his own brilliance, even sets up the scene in the opening title credit sequence. But a number of slow brewing tense situations lead up to the Albert Hall sequence. One of the best is the preparation Ben takes before revealing to Jo that their son has been kidnapped. The build-up starts with the phone call Ben takes at the Moroccan police station. Ben is scared but knows he can’t assume the worst yet. A hysterical wife would not help the situation. He makes the difficult choice to hold the information from Jo until he has all facts. And when he gets to his hotel room and realizes its true he’s even more careful to spill the beans. All of this is implied by Stewart’s reactions, mannerisms and facial expressions. When Ben eventually does tell Jo, Doris Day plays the scene perfectly. It’s arguably one of Day’s finest moments as an actor.
Another classic sequence is Ben and Jo’s visit to the Ambrose Chapel, when they hide at the back of the service scouting out the scene for the Draytons. In each of these sequences Hitchcock uses controlled pacing and reaction shots to build his tension.
As always comedy plays a vital role as counterpoint to the seriousness of the situations. There are only two comic sequences and both are placed at key moments in the story. The first is Ben’s misdirected visit to meet Ambrose Chappell, a scene which starts with a classic sequence of Hitchcockian suspense but ends with a slapstick fight. And the second key scene is the running gag with the snobby British guests of the McKennas who stay at their house and drink tea while Ben and Jo rescue their boy from the kidnappers.
If there’s a fault with Hitchcock it’s his rather flat and uncreative use of rear projection – something which stands out even worse in technicolour. The entire opening bus ride and then the following rickshaw ride are played against ugly and obvious rear projection. It was the technology of the time, but considering Hitch was so ahead of the curve in other aspects of his storytelling, his stubbornness with studio shooting has always irked me.
Jimmy Stewart is my all time favourite of Hitch’s everymen actors. I much prefer the innocent intelligence to Cary Grant’s playboy suaveness. The role of Ben serves the talents of Stewart better anyways. “The Man Who Knew Too Much” is one of Hitchcock’s most involving and tense films because the so-called Maguffin is a tangible person – a child of the protagonist. The adventure and stakes are taken to another level of intensity and intrigue, resulting in a thoroughly enjoyable Hitchcock masterpiece. Enjoy.