Hitchcock Collection: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Somewhere, in the deepest sub-conscious of those who admire Hitchcock, there lingers a huge misapprehension, one so big that it has led to a very good film to be virtually ignored for many years. I refer, of course, to the baffling assertion that the original 1934 British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is better than 1955 American remake. This seems to have become a commonplace during the 1950s, possibly amongst those who were nostalgic for Hitchcock’s British movies and resented his move into star-driven suspense melodrama. We could, perhaps, call it the Halliwell Fallacy, whereby any given film made after 1950 is automatically suspect and almost certainly inferior to any given film made earlier. It’s not hard to see how such a strange view could gain popular currency – and the fact that the remake was withdrawn from circulation after its first release and not seen again for thirteen years didn’t help, especially since the original version remained a staple of film societies along with The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes - both superior films in every respect.

I don’t want to give the impression that I have no regard for the 1934 version. It’s a very well made film, dealing imaginatively and resourcefully with budgetary constraints and the limitations imposed by contemporary censorship. But it’s a straight genre piece which has little time for fripperies or even a great deal of characterisation, relying on strong actors (notably Peter Lorre) to fill in the gaps. What the 1955 remake manages to do, on a grand scale, is combine an unbeatable suspense plot with gorgeous production values and various narrative byways and themes that are so emblematic of Hitchcock that they serve to make the Paramount version of The Man Who Knew Too Much one of his most enjoyable and representative films. The plot of the two films is broadly similar. A married couple on holiday become unwittingly involved with espionage and are party to privileged information about an assassination. In order to ensure their silence, the villains kidnap their child. Events culminate in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall where the assassination is to take place during a performance. In the 1955 remake, the couple are the McKennas (Stewart and Day) and it is their son rather than a daughter who is kidnapped – this time by the Draytons (Miles and De Banzie), a seemingly ordinary couple accompanied by an unbalanced psychopath, played by the wonderfully bizarre Reggie Nalder.

James Stewart appeared in four Hitchcock films and what seems to have delighted Hitch is the chance to subvert Stewart’s popular screen persona. In Rope, he’s an authoritative but bizarrely irresponsible academic. In Rear Window, he’s a voyeur who has a morbid fear of marriage. The process was completed in Vertigo, by which time Stewart’s blue eyes, so often used for their all-American wholesomeness, become opaque pools in which unspeakable fascinations and desires are allowed to float up to the surface. In short, Hitchcock, like Anthony Mann, realised that Jimmy Stewart was capable of being a far more complex and fascinating figure than he was allowed to be in films such as the public domain perennial Pot o' Gold. This process comes near to its completion in The Man Who Knew Too Much but in a more subtle manner than in Vertigo. Dr McKenna begins the film as a man in complete control of his life. He has a beautiful wife, whom he has persuaded to give up her beloved stage performing, a son and a successful GP practise. As the film progresses, he loses every trace of certainty as he sees the kidnapping of his son lead to his marriage coming to the point of collapse and his world descend into a nightmare of half-understood political intrigues and violent crime. Stewart registers this brilliantly, by degrees, and by the end he seems virtually obsessive with his life on the verge of losing all rationality.

This theme of normality turning into chaos is a favourite of Hitchcock’s. Sometimes, as in North By Northwest and The 39 Steps, it’s treated comically. In other films - Strangers on a Train, Foreign Correspondent - it’s the cue for a darkly compelling thriller. In 1957, Hitchcock used the theme in his stark and tragic adaptation of a true-life case of mistaken identity, The Wrong Man. But in The Man Who Knew Too Much, it’s the spur for both a suspense story and, fascinatingly, a domestic melodrama which, as Robin Wood has written, seems to have as much in common with Douglas Sirk as any of Hitchcock’s earlier films. As so often in Hollywood cinema of the 1950s, the Norman Rockwell picture of America is turned inside out and found hopelessly inadequate. This perfect marriage turns out to be made of straw and the kidnapping of their child leads it to unravel. There may be a certain stability in this marriage but it never seems particularly happy – the kidnapping doesn’t fragment the match, it merely reveals cracks which were there all along. Take the scene in the hotel after they have been to the police. “Are we about to have our monthly fight?” says Jo, shortly before her husband tries to sedate her with pills saying, blandly, “You know what happens when you get excited or nervous!”

Doris Day’s performance is magnificent in these scenes. To see this woman, cast for her popular success, losing her professional cool (that irritating eternal-virgin quality which made her a star), becoming hysterical and finally subsiding into mute incomprehension is remarkable and it’s a shame so few other directors offered her the same challenge as Hitchcock did.

Equally interesting is the way Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes develop the role of the villains. The Draytons are a bland, middle-aged couple who seem banal and rather tedious company when they first appear. But Hitchcock uses their banality to make a key point about the sheer ordinariness of ‘evil’. When Mr Drayton issues his sermon, he talks about adversity and he seems to be allowed to make a point which the film then echoes in its closing shots. Why Hitchcock would put the point of view of the film into the mouth of the bad guy is an interesting question and not one which is easily answered – although he does the same thing in several other films and suggests that he felt himself closer to the dark characters than the positive ones. Bernard Miles is allowed to make the hypocritical Mr Drayton surprisingly matter-of-fact and at times he seems a considerably more rational person than Dr McKenna. As for Mrs Drayton, she’s turned into a genuinely touching portrait of maternal love versus the tug of loyalty to a husband which seems to have sprung from Hitchcock’s own childhood. Brenda De Banzie, a good actress rarely given the chance to play anything except a harpy, does her finest work in the scenes where you can sense her desperate conflict of loyalty and it seems entirely right that, at the end, Doris Day’s scream is mirrored by De Banzie’s – the two mothers joined in the impulse to stop a murder. The overwhelming irony is that it is Mrs Drayton, not Mrs McKenna, whose scream saves the boy. It’s also fascinating how the moral and, incidentally spiritual, consequences to the Draytons of their actions are so lingered upon.

The themes of motherhood, marriage and loyalty are very typical of Hitchcock and it is a credit to John Michael Hayes that he was able to work them in while still keeping the essential backbone of suspense in the story. This was the last time that Hayes collaborated with the director – he felt that Hitch undervalued him and he was probably right – and it’s a very clever screenplay in the way it plays about with our expectations and cranks up the suspense. The climactic sequence in the Royal Albert Hall is one of the finest set-pieces in Hitchcock’s work and it’s only afterwards that you realise that he has done it with not a single line of dialogue. Everything that’s great about Hitchcock as a suspense filmmaker is present in this sequence and the way it builds towards a finish which we think must be inevitable is so perfectly controlled that it makes you want to laugh with pleasure. Just watch the way the cuts take you from person to person and change to different points of view, then relish the way Hitchcock uses the orchestra – he makes us aware of the percussionist who will deliver the fatal note, keeping him in our minds all the time without seeming to make a point of it. Everything comes together – the gun idly curving round the curtain, Reggie Nalder’s cadaverous grimace, the camera racing ahead along the music score to the trigger point, Day and Stewart trying desperately to stop the tragedy, even Bernard Herrmann (looking very dapper) conducting the music and (by default) the tension.

If I was to be very critical, I could observe that the film is overlong, taking a little too long to get to the central storyline. It’s certainly less streamlined than the 1934 version but the additions (never irrelevant in Hitchcock’s work) are part of the pleasure of this film and make it thematically richer. In some respects, it’s maybe a little too lavish, looking like a star vehicle rather than a Hitchcock movie - To Catch a Thief has the same problem. But regardless of this spurious complaint, it looks like a million dollars. Henry Bumstead’s production design is miraculous, Robert Burks’ cinematography makes seamless transitions from locations to sets and the editing is thing of wonder – especially in the set-piece I discuss above. The Man Who Knew Too Much isn’t a masterpiece like Rear Window or Vertigo - it’s a little too frivolous for that – but it’s a superbly made, hugely enjoyable film which deserves a lot more attention.

The Disc

The Man Who Knew Too Much was one of five Hitchcock films which were involved in a copyright dispute and were withdrawn from distribution for several years. It was re-released in 1968 and, when I first saw it, in 1983.

The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer has been the subject of considerable criticism. Indeed, there is some very blocky artifacting and even pixellation in places. There is also, to use the words of DVD Beaver, from their review of the set, “some kind of a strange thing going on in certain things, almost a pulsing or wavering.” However, I should also report that the picture is bright and suitably colourful and there is some fine detail in places. The overall impact isn’t as bad as some reviews make it sound but it’s clearly a transfer which should have been better and I can only echo calls for a full restoration of the film to be undertaken.
The mono soundtrack is, however, excellent with the music coming across very strongly in the final twenty minutes.

The extra features are very enjoyable. There is a half-hour Laurent Bouzereau documentary which is typically solid without being particularly exceptional. He goes through most of the expected points with much attention inevitably being paid to the Albert Hall sequence. There are some particularly interesting interview nuggets from John Michael Hayes. I was sorry that we don’t get more discussion of the mooted 1940s version which was to have been set in Idaho, South America and New York.

As on the other discs, there are optional subtitles present for both the film and the extra features.
Along with this documentary we get two trailers – one from 1956 which is in very poor condition and another from 1983 which also includes the other films re-released at the time and is narrated by Jimmy Stewart. There are also the usual pleasant production photographs – which also include posters for both the original version of the film and the remake – and brief but diverting production notes.

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out of 10