The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) [DVD]
Screenplay : John Michael Hayes (story by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1956
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), Christopher Olsen (Hank McKenna)
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 his native England and was the first of his espionage spy thrillers. He felt that the narrative was too confusing and the technical aspects were not all that they could have been. In an interview 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 product filmed in Technicolor and set partly in French Morocco. Like the original, though, one of the things that sets The Man Who Knew Too Much apart from much of Hitchcock's other work is that it focuses on a family. In true Hitchcockian fashion, this seemingly perfect American family at the heart of the story is more complex than it seems at first, and the strain of the marriage works its way into the spy thriller narrative, giving it an added edge.
James Stewart, in his third of four collaborations with Hitch, plays Ben McKenna, a doctor from Indianapolis on vacation in North Africa with his wife, Jo (Doris Day), and their young 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 he whispers 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 one character says rather comically near the end, "Don't you realize that Americans dislike having their children stolen?"
Ben and Jo travel back to London in order to track down those who kidnapped their son. In the process, they uncover the plot to kill an ambassador at the Royal Albert Hall during a concert, which leads to a protracted climax that has all of Hitchcock's best elements of suspense, including a creative reliance on music and a skillful use of crosscutting. Twelve minutes in length and consisting of some 125 shots, the climax conveys all its information visually, without a single line of dialogue. We know in advance that the gunshot will come during a single crash of the cymbals near the end of the concert, and Hitchcock builds much of the sequence's suspense around the cymbalist, who is the unwitting accomplice to murder.
Still, despite the bravura climax, The Man Who Knew Too Much is only a good Hitchcock 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 of the better scripts Hitchcock worked with. The simple fact remains that the espionage masterminds behind the plot to kill the ambassador are quite timid and dumb. After all, why go through all the trouble of kidnapping Ben's son and hauling him all the way back to London in order to keep Ben silent, when all they had to do was kill Ben? Of course, that may 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 the tension.
The best scenes in the movie involve Ben and Jo trying to work out what they are going to do. 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 is believable and poignant in that it is not perfect. There are several moments of marital tension, and one can easily sense that Jo holds a certain amount of resentment that she had to give up her successful career as a professional singer in order to become a wife and mother. Doris Day, best known then as a hit singer and comedic actress, gives an outstanding performance as Jo, suggesting a woman who is both incredibly vulnerable (Ben makes 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 and disrupts the attempted assassination).
The Man Who Knew Too Much has a number of great moments, but as a whole it never feels like a truly great film. This is not to say that it is not an accomplished bit of entertainment, and as a spy thriller with a twist, it's a fun movie. It's never dull, but until the finale, it's never particularly gripping, either. As a work by Hitchcock, it lacks the memorable innovation and devious cunning that separates his truly great films from the rest.
|The Man Who Knew Too Much DVD|
|The Man Who Knew Too Much is available either individually (SRP $29.98) or as part of the Best of Hitchcock #1 DVD box set (SRP $174.98), which includes seven feature films and four episodes of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.|
|Audio||Dolby 2.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| The Making of "The Man Who Knew Too Much": 34-minute documentary|
Production photographs and poster gallery
Original theatrical trailer
Cast and filmmaker filmographies
|The Man Who Knew Too Much is presented a new, anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer. Although technical fetishists will be upset that the original VistaVision theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 has been reframed at 1.85:1, the framing generally looks good and the slightly wider aspect ratio emphasizes the movie's scope, 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 the Morocco scenes) and a high level of detail (you can pick out the freckles on Doris Day's face). On the negative side, some of the scenes are a bit softer than the rest, especially darker sequences that get a little muddy at times. There is also a fair amount of speckling and a number of horizontal lines, none of which is overly distracting, but still noticeable at times.|
|The Dolby 2.0 monaural soundtrack is quite good, especially considering its inherently limited range. The movie features a number of sequences in which sound effects are important, including a difficult telephone call at an airport and a well-rendered scene in which James Stewart is walking down a deserted street and he hears another man's footsteps echoing just after his own. Most importantly, the thundering concert at the Royal Albert Hall at the end (conducted in an amusing cameo by Bernard Herrmann himself) sounds fantastic.|
| Laurent Bouzereau's 34-minute documentary The Making of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" focuses primarily on the movie's settings and the use of music. There are no interviews with any of the actors (James Stewart passed away in 1997, although Doris Day is still alive and well), so the talking heads are comprised of associate producer Herbert Coleman, screenwriter John Michael Hayes, production designer Henry Bumstead, Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven Smith, and Hitchcock's daughter, Pat O'Connell Hitchcock. Bumstead's discussion of the production design is the most interesting, as he talks about Hitch's adeptness at quickly shooting the necessary long shots on location, and then returning for the majority of his work in the studio, where Bumstead would have to recreate the locations. The documentary also includes a fair number of clips from the 1934 original British version of the film to illuminate the major differences. |
The original theatrical trailer is included in full-screen, as is the 1983 re-release trailer (in nonanamorphic widescreen) narrated by James Stewart. The re-release trailer is actually an advertisement for the re-release of five Hitchcock films that were, at that time, not available on 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). It reminds 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 1956 versions of the film and several dozen production photographs. Lastly, there is a good set of production notes and cast and crew filmographies.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick