Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Five Nights With...1956: The Man Who Knew Too Much

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.
This moment is EVERYTHING!
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.


  1. Oh, that scene is perfectly executed, and Day is wonderful. I need to rewatch it before I do my ballot in the coming weeks, but I've always enjoyed this film.

    1. Oh I hope Day makes you ballot. She's my winner right now!

  2. This isn't my favorite Hitchcock, not even in my top five actually, but it is a highly entertaining film.

    This and Love Me or Leave Me (to me her best work) are from that brief period where Doris was trying to stretch herself as an actress. In her autobiography she said not being a trained actress so not possessing the technique to put aside emotions once she summoned them up she found heavy drama too brutal on her psyche to continue in that vein. For instance the scene where Jimmy Stewart tells her their son has been kidnapped she envisioned her own son being taken and ended up having a panic attack once the scene was completed. After this she only ventured into melodrama a few more times and the last, Midnight Lace where she used the memories of her first terribly abusive marriage, was so traumatic she committed to only doing light material from that point on. Along with some other issues that was a large part of why she turned down Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate when Nichols offered. A shame, it would have been fascinating to see her try but she was so good at what she did we should just be happy she was as prolific as she was.

    Back to this film. I've seen the original and I agree with Hitch's statement this one is far more accomplished. The first has Peter Lorre who is always watchable but his other player don't have the magnetism of Stewart and Day so don't draw you in the same way and Hitch's control of the scenes is might tighter here.

    I was lucky enough to see this during a theatrical re-release with a packed audience that was a mix of ages and it was quite a different experience since you could feel them getting into the story more and more as it went along. One funny antidote, as we were exiting the theatre a couple in front of us, around their late 20's, were discussing the film and the man said to his female companion "If you had told me last week that I'd go to see a Doris Day movie and ENJOY it I'd have called you a liar!"

    1. LOL, that last paragraph is great all the way around!

      I didn't know that about Day. I knew that she wasn't trained and that she had a hard time with the dramatics, but I wasn't aware of how deeply it affected her.

      I just love your insight.

      She woulod have been an interesting choice for The Graduate, but trying to picture it is hard, since Bancroft is so legendary in the role.

  3. Doris Day has had a fascinating life, in some ways blessed and others cursed. She had initially trained to be a dancer until she was in an accident where the car she was in was hit by a train and her leg was extensively damaged, it was while she was recovering that she discovered that she could sing-with perfect pitch too boot!

    Her first marriage to a musician was horrendous, he beat her frequently, including when she was pregnant. Once she fled from him he stalked her until the law became involved at which point he drifted away ultimately blowing his brains out at a red light one day. Purportedly Martin Scorsese heard the story and used it as the basis, along with the 40's film The Man I Love, for New York, New York.

    Her second marriage was brief but made her the sister in law of actress Virginia Weidler, who played the younger sister in The Philadelphia Story and dozen of other films.

    Her third marriage to her agent Martin Melcher appeared happy, he even adopted her son from that first marriage, until his sudden death when it came to light that he and his business partner had embezzled all her money and left her millions in debt as well as committing her to a TV series and not telling her.

    As she and her son record producer Terry Melcher where trying to dig their way out of that quagmire Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered by the Manson gang in Melcher's house that she and Roman Polanski were renting. It was discovered that not only was he a target but so was Doris which required living under guard until after the trials were concluded. During all that Melcher was involved in a motorcycle accident where he legs were shattered and underwent a long, arduous rehabilitation that Day oversaw.

    She did sue her husband's business partner and emerged victorious with a 20 million dollar judgement but is it any wonder than once her commitment to the TV show was finished she withdrew from public life and focused on animals! It's little wonder she was reluctant to tap into all that for her acting. A complex story but a hell of a life even with all the acclaim.

    1. OH.

      Someone needs to make a movie about her life and win an actress an Oscar. Holy shit!