The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Man Who Knew Too Much Stewart and DayNever endanger an American’s children. That is the advice given by a foreign minister to his English lackey when it is already too late for the villains in this remake of a film that Alfred Hitchcock originally directed in England before he crossed the pond.  Wishing to enlarge and improve on his earlier film, he teamed up with his signature actor and composer to produce this widescreen thriller in 1956.

An American family, Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart), his famous musical wife, Jo (Doris Day), and young son, Hank (Christopher Olsen) are touring Morocco after a medical convention in Paris, when Hank accidentally yanks the veil off of a Muslim woman and gets them in trouble. A Frenchman, Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin) steps in helps them out of the jam, then invites them to dinner that evening.  Jo is suspicious of his many questions, but Ben shrugs it off.  Passing an English couple, Edward (Bernard Miles) and Lucy (Brenda De Banzie) Drayton at their hotel, Jo again suspects that they are being watched. That evening, a strange man appears at their door during cocktails and it excites Bernard enough that he leaves them.  They meet the Draytons at the restaurant and Lucy admits that she recognized Jo from a London concert and the two couples have dinner together.  When Bernard appears at the restaurant with a date and ignores them, Ben gets upset, but Jo soothes him, complaining that he gets upset too easily.

The next day, in the bazaar, Bernard, dressed in desert costume and make-up is stabbed in the back. As he is dying in Ben’s arms, he tells him that a statesman will be assassinated at Albert Hall in London and that he needs to tell the authorities there to beware of Ambrose Chapell.  Lucy offers to take Hank back to the hotel while the police question Ben and Jo.  Called aside to the phone, Ben is told that he must not tell anyone what the dying Bernard told him or Hank may suffer.  Later, Ben discovers that Lucy never returned to the hotel and that the Draytons have checked out.  Ben sedates Jo before he tells her that Hank is missing, but she is overwrought until the drug takes effect.  Determined to get Hank back, they go to London to follow up on the message that Bernard gave them–and a date with Albert Hall.

At two hours, this movie runs a little long for its thin plot. Some of that time is occupied with several songs the studio put in for Doris Day, some of it is frittered away in the Marikesh bazaar.  A good deal of the time is used in the Albert Hall music leading up to the attempted assassination.  When it is all added up, this film, among all of the Hitchcock canon, seems a little indulgent.  The suspense that the director is so well-known for is definitely present, but at a slightly lower key than in his other films.  The color seems a little too bright, the rear projection effects a little too stark.

Although many scenes in the beginning of the film were actually shot in Morocco, the studio cutaways feel like movie sets. In all, the pace is just a little too slow to be an altogether successful movie.

James Stewart is good as the American doctor and Doris Day, who was a popular singer at the time, not well-known for her acting, does quite well. The script handles the two roles quite well, inserting quirks that make them more human.  Jo’s outward calm, for example, is balanced by her inability to cope with the loss of their son.  Her husband, aware of this vulnerability, convinces her to take medication before revealing that their son has been kidnapped.  Ben himself is just the opposite.  He is easily angered and tends to respond without thinking, yet when the chips are down, he is calm and steady.  The two characters and the two actors are very good foils for each other.

The supporting acting and the script for the supporting characters is less well defined. Many times, I had the feeling that I was watching stock characters from the films of the forties.  The notable exception to that is the entourage of Jo’s friends in London, who all seem to be more interesting and well-developed, especially given that they have little time on the screen.

It is also unusual for Hitchcock that the comedy seems a little forced in this movie. The action in the restaurant, for example, where Stewart cannot fit his long legs under the short table seems funny and first, but then it is continued and grows old.  Likewise, the action in the taxidermist’s shop in London seems contrived and unnatural.  Normally, Hitchcock develops his comedy directly from the script–it is organic to the action and thus seems completely natural.

Although it is most interesting to see a concert at the Albert Hall, and is even more interesting to see Hitchcock’s musical collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, directing the London Symphony. Unfortunately, the sequence goes on much too long and the tension is not as heightened as it usually is in a Hitchcock film.  And that leads to the final, nearly torturous scene in the foreign embassy that climaxes with a gimmicky solution.

I generally love to watch Hitchcock’s movies, but any time I find myself looking at my watch during the show, then the movie has failed on the most fundamental level: keeping my interest.

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2 thoughts on “The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

  1. Pingback: Alfred Hitchcock |

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