Continuing on with the ‘Five Nights With…’ series, I’m going to be discussing ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ this morning. Yesterday we discussed ‘Ransom!’, the 1956 thriller starring Glenn Ford and Donna Reed. ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ is another thriller from 1956 that shares another common trait or theme with ‘Ransom!’, the kidnapping of the protagonists son. This particular film is a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s own 1934 film. Hitchcock famously stated that the original was the work of a talented amateur, while this remake is the act of a seasoned professional. I have yet to see the original film, but I wholly agree with the later part of his statement.
This is the work of a professional; a masterpiece if you will.
In this version, James Stewart (a familiar face in this period of Hitchcock’s work) plays an American physician, Ben McKenna, who is attending a conference in Paris. On their way home they decide to make a pit stop to Morocco as a family (father, mother and son). It is in Morocco that Ben’s paranoia causes him to believe that an overly friendly Frenchman is tailing his family for some unknown reason, and so he and his wife Jo find themselves confiding in an older British couple, Edward and Lucy, and even becoming quick friends with them. A chaotic altercation in the marketplace leads to a murder and a whispered confession that places some serious information in Ben’s possession that results in strained relationships and the dropping of a veil, which puts the McKenna family in a state of panic as they find themselves dealing with the kidnapping of their son.
Traveling back to London, where they try and piece together the truth behind their son’s disappearance and the way to get him back, the McKenna family nearly bite off more than they can chew as an assassination plot comes to the light and the hole goes deeper and deeper and the authorities prove to be little help under the tight watch of a very smart and cunning villain.
The film thrives under Hitchcock’s magnificent direction. The way he handles the tension here is remarkable. There is a particular moment, towards the end, that takes place at Albert Hall that is the epitome of great filmmaking and is probably my favorite single scene in film history (the crashing symphony and that blood curdling scream). This is aided so beautifully by Doris Day’s tremendous performance. Often known for her comedic or lighthearted work, Day is on all cylinders here as she completely absorbs not only her character’s panic and deep-seated worry but also her determined vengeance and her maternal spirit. Stewart is also very good here, but he is overshadowed by a scene stealing Day. The sets are also beautifully designed and give such rich life and light to the film. Moving from city to city, Hitchcock maintains prime tonal control over his subject and fleshes out so many details. It’s a visually and emotionally impactful experience.
I’m quite astonished that this film didn’t pick up any Oscar attention outside of the Original Song, ‘Whatever Will Be’. The song is beautiful and serves as such a pivotal plot point, and apparently it was a huge hit back in 1956 as well. Still, to see snubs in the technical categories like Cinematography and Art Direction as well as that horrible Doris Day snub is just sad. Hitchcock missing the Directing lineup is also a shame, but when you consider that he was nominated five times, losing them all (even when his film, ‘Rebecca’ won Best Picture) it becomes obvious that Hitchcock just wasn’t someone the Academy felt the need to reward.
Tomorrow we’ll be discussing another Oscar winner, this time a soapy family drama starring Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson. Yes, I’m talking about ‘Written on the Wind’. Now, I’ve picked a slightly strange specific connection between ‘Written on the Wind’ and ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’, and that is that both contain a singular scene, set to music, that serves as the core of the film and my personal favorite moments in those said films. Sadly, I was not able to find a clip of the Albert Hall scene in ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ (seriously, just see this movie), but I WAS able to find the scene in ‘Written on the Wind’ and I’ll post that tomorrow in my review.
If you can get your hands on ‘Written on the Wind’, I recommend the viewing. It’s not a great film, but it is a pretty good one, and the Supporting performances make it well worth it.