Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: James Stewart, Doris Day, Brenda De Banzie, Bernard Miles, Alan Mowbray

The Man Who Knew Too Much, a 1956 remake of Hitchcock's 1934 U.K. film of the same name, has long been one of my least favorite Hitchcock films. For starters, I dislike the "wrong man" premise that Hitchock revisits throughout so much of his work. I also -- I know this is probably going to be shocking -- am not the biggest fan of Jimmy Stewart. Doris Day, Hitchcock's first choice for the role of Jo McKenna and only in her early thirties here, looks somewhat tired and washed up. The first half of the film concerns a child, which is another obstacle for me. But I realized I hadn't seen The Man Who Knew Too Much in more than 10 years, so I forced myself to watch it again and hopefully develop some new opinions.

The McKennas, an American family vacationing abroad, meet a stranger during a bus trip in Morocco. The mysterious Frenchman, Louis Bernard, never answers direct questions about himself. Later that night, he promises to take them to dinner, but cancels, only to show up at the restaurant with someone else. They meet another friendly couple, the Draytons, who they become fast friends with. When they McKennas witness an Arab being murdered, they realize it is Louis Bernard in disguise, who whispers a secret message with his dying breath - a statesman is going to be murdered in London. Soon after, the Draytons kidnap their son and the McKennas realize they are in the middle of an extremely precarious situation involving espionage, murder and blackmail.

I can appreciate that this film is certainly technically superior to the original, though there are a lot of inexplicable plot changes that made this version feel like little more than an experiment. Supposedly the film was made to fulfill a contract with Paramount, which makes sense. Initially, the script suffers from some unlikable characters. Jo is paranoid and complains a lot; Ben is dismissive of her feelings and seems to prefer reading the paper or interacting with strangers. Their son is a very two-dimensional child, but when he gets kidnapped, things begin to heat up. We learn of the cracks in their personalities, Jo's occasional hysteria, and how fame has affected her. I think that my initial assessment of Doris Day being annoying was correct, but I think Hitch did it on purpose. She plays a housewife married to a small-town doctor who has had to abandon fame and a successful career for love, but perhaps also for darker psychological reasons that are only hinted at. Ultimately, she does a great job breaking out of the icy blonde mold. She is unfortunately allowed to sing, but we later realize Hitch is getting his money's worth and using it as a clever plot device.

There is some beautiful cinematography from the great Robert Burks, responsible for shooting the majority of Hitchcock's films in the '50s. The shots of London alone make the film worth viewing at least once. Though I generally hate the plot device of a normal couple involved with spies and international intrigue, there are some nice moments and the film is rounded out with a quick, charmingly comic ending.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is still not one of my favorite Hitchcock efforts. It suffers from a sometimes clumsy, sometimes dull script and a particularly anticlimactic suspense scene at Albert Hall that just feels silly. I enjoyed it more than I remembered, particularly the amusing mix ups that occasionally occur, but overall it is one of Hitch's lesser, more formulaic efforts. You can find it as a single-disc DVD from Universal or in the wonderful Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection box set.

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