Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

"Que Sera, Sera...."

- When looking through Alfred Hitchcock's filmography, by the time one gets to the 1950s they have lost any grasp of a numeral count (and, due to the nature of his career, it is difficult to know where Hitchcock's directorial career even begins). The 1950s is considered by many as the highpoint of Hitchcock's career. Films like Strangers On A  Train (1951), Dial M For Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) and North By Northwest (1959) are some of Hitchcock's finest films that do much to define his entire career.

Smack-dab in the middle of Hitchcock's fine 50s, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is also a very well-known and highly praised Hitchcock thriller. The Man Who Knew Too Much is a significant Hitchcock thriller because it marked the third collaboration with actor James Stewart, the second collaboration with composer Bernard Herrmann and the first and only time that Hitchcock remade one of his own movies. Of course, The Man Who Knew Too Much is also significant because it is a well-made and highly entertaining movie.

The McKennas are a successful but largely average  American family vacationing in North Africa: Ben (James Stewart) is a successful doctor and Jo[sephine] (Doris Day) is a former stage star-turned-housewife to their son Hank (.... it's short for Henry). A charming but mysterious Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin) helps the McKennas out of a dodgy cultural faux pas, only to wind up getting murdered in the Moroccan market right before their very eyes. Before breathing his last, Louis Bernard whispers to Ben broken pieces of information about a secret plot to kill a world leader. Ben now apparently knows too much, as his son Hank has been kidnapped - the perpetrators promising to kill Hank if Ben spills the beans.

One interesting thing about The Man Who Knew Too Much is that it is a remake of a film that Hitchcock made in 1934. Hitchcock confided during his 1967 interview with French filmmaker Francois Truffaut that he considered the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much to be a good film from a talented amateur director and the 1956 version of the film to be a good film from a professional director. Hitchcock stated that he prefers the original 1934 version of the film because of its roughness but I prefer the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. In the 1956 version, Hitchcock really fleshed out his characters and made the film about more than the mystery. The 1934 version of film is a good movie but is more of a straight-up thriller without the meatier qualities of the remake.

In fact, the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is more about the family that is at the center of the murder mystery and espionage intrigue. At the heart of Ben and Jo's struggle, what drives them to run from continent to continent, is not so much the foreign leader under the target of assassination as it is the possibility of losing their child. Hitchcock does a brilliant job of making it clear to the audience that Ben and Jo have only one stake in the mystery - their son - and makes the threat of a broken McKenna family unit the focus of the film.

Of course, the acting on the part of stars James Stewart and Doris Day also helps keep the family at the center of the film. Stewart is naturally great in this film as Ben McKenna, his traditional "everyman" aura in full swing, allowing the audience to be able to put themselves in his shoes. As Jo, Day not only convinces as a former stage star, she is very impressive on the technical levels of her performance. Day has a bright screen presence and, known for her strong singing voice, gets a chance to show off her vocal skills (with the Oscar-winning tune "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)"). However, Day also has moments of rocking intensity as the realities of the Hitchcockian thriller confront her character.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is, of course, like any other Hitchcock picture in that it is incredibly well conceived from Hitch's brain to the big screen. The Man Who Knew Too Much was made during Hitchcock's VistaVision era and is subsequently a very vibrant-looking film. In fact, from the streets of London to the markets of Marrakesh, The Man Who Knew Too Much is very similar to Hitchcock's To Catch A Thief that was released just one year earlier in 1955 through its bold, travelogue feel. Every shot choice, every color scheme in The Man Who Knew Too Much was carefully considered by Hitchcock and brought quite brilliantly to the screen; one of Hitch's most memorable scenes of his career can be found in this film: the famous 12-minute, dialogue-free Albert Hall climax.

Another interesting aspect of the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is the prominent presence of composer Bernard Herrmann (he even makes a short cameo appearance). After scoring Hitchcock's previous film, The Trouble With Harry (1955), Herrmann and Hitchcock began a long-standing relationship in which cinema will never forget. The viewer gets a sense of just how important the music in The Man Who Knew Too Much will be by the opening credits - as the film begins with a literal crash of the symbols. Herrmann's contribution to The Man Who Knew Too Much is a tad different that the rest of his films with Hitchcock because he did not write as much original music. Herrmann was so impressed by the piece of music used in the 1934 version of the film, Arthur Benjamin's "Storm Cloud Cantata," that he only wrote a few memorable but sparsely-used musical themes that lead up to the "Cantata" climax at Albert Hall (which also made room for the important "Que Sera, Sera" tune throughout the film). The fact that music plays a huge part in the specifics of the story in The Man Who Knew Too Much is probably coincidental - but Herrmann would continue on and play a huge role in Hitchcock's films through Marnie in 1964.

The Man Who Knew Too Much certainly is a very well-made and highly entertaining movie. Its focus on the family sets it apart from other globe-trotting thrillers, Stewart and Day are excellent leads, the climactic scene at the Royal Albert Hall is unforgettable and Hitchcock's style is a cut above. While The Man Who Knew Too Much might not match up to Hitch's top tier films - caught in the prestigious Hitchcockian shadows of films like Notorious (1946) and Psycho (1960) - but, you know.... "Que Sera, Sera - Whatever Will Be, Will Be."

CBC Rating: 8/10

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