Sunday, January 16, 2011

CMBA Hitchcock Blogathon: The Man Who Knew Too Much

I am honored to be taking part in the Classic Movie Blog Association's Hitchcock Blogathon - its largest blogathon yet. I'm not alone. In all there are 20 classic movie blogs covering a wide variety of Hitchcock masterpieces, staples, and lesser-known jewels; look to the bottom of this post for a full listing of all of the reviews and where they can be found. I look forward to reading each of them myself. I'm bound to learn a lot!

When I opened the invitation to participate in the blogathon, I didn't even have to think about which movie I would review. If you've been with this blog from the beginning, or know me personally, then you know that I adore Doris Day. Jimmy Stewart doesn't hurt either. So The Man Who Knew Too Much it is. Now, I've seen this film a number of times over the years, and it is one of my favorites to show friends who know nothing about Day and little about Hitchcock. But I knew that for a review of this kind I needed to watch it again and pay more attention to the details I had never focused on before. While I was at it, I figured I might as well start by viewing the original Man Who Knew Too Much made in Britain by Hitchcock in 1934. By Turner Classic Movies' account, this was the film that launched Hitchcock into the uninterrupted string of successes that made him world renowned. 

It was a fascinating experience, mostly. The audio quality of my copy is not exactly stellar, so I'm not sure I caught more than 80% of what was said, but that could also be due to the plethora of distractions that were assailing me as I watched. Incidentally, distractions do not affect me while I am watching the 1956 version with Doris Day, but more on that later. 

The 1934 version is notable, not so much for its story line or action, but for the performance delivered by Peter Lorre and the way in which Hitchcock framed the tension and suspense with dry and ironic humor interspersed throughout. As per Hitchcock's style, this humor is subtle, mostly visual, and it is entirely up to the viewer to take it or leave it. Peter Lorre, who is legendary in his creepiness and strangeness, doesn't disappoint in his role as the spy ringmaster. As always, I found him intriguing. But much of the rest of the film fell flat for me. 

The plot is this: 
A family vacationing in Switzerland is drawn into a spy caper when the wife becomes privy to the dying breaths of an operative who has uncovered an assassination plot against an important official. When their daughter is kidnapped to keep them quiet, her father and family friend go into the spy business themselves to recover her. Unfortunately, the child is a brat with whom it's hard to sympathize, and the film ends in a long shootout that lost my interest. 

In my opinion, Leonard Maltin had it backwards when he said that this version was the most exciting. Apparently, Hitchcock agreed with me. As he stated in an interview:

"Let's say that the first version was the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional."

In 1956, the famed director was ready to begin the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much he had been planning since 1941. It was the only time he ever remade one of his own films. Having recently visited Morocco himself, the wheels of Hitchcock's unmatched morbid imagination began revolved around the idea of placing the plot in precisely that part of the world. The result was a American couple sucked into the dangers and excitement of espionage  in Marrakech, rather than a British couple drawn into similar adventure in Switzerland. The new plot involved a woman of musical talent as the wife and mother, and because of this Hitch had his mind set on Doris Day from the beginning. 

The project, originally retitled Into Thin Air, took shape under the supervision of both Hitch and Jimmy Stewart from the production end, with John Hayes and Bernard Herrmann on the scripting and musical ends. Hermann may be seen conducting the orchestra himself in the famous Royal Albert Music Hall scene at the end.

It was Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, however who were responsible for the Oscar-winning song that is to this day an integral part of Doris Day's image: "Que Sera, Sera" (though in those days it was officially, "Whatever Will Be, Will Be"). The tune, sung with such heartfelt emotion and capability by Doris Day, remains for me one of the highlights of the film.

According to Paramount production files, the project ended late and over-budget, but has grossed substantially more than it cost and gave Stewart and Day the never repeated opportunity of working together under the direction of one of the most brilliant and famous movie masterminds in history. The result is splendid.

Hitch's 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much, is, in a word, deft. It accomplishes the blend of adventure, intrigue, suspense, and humor that the earlier version hinted at but did not expertly combine. Sold by the excellent performances from all the actors involved, but particularly by Doris Day, the film not only distinguishes itself as a class act thriller, but also comes in as a fairly good musical in some respects. 

Here's the plot if you're unfamiliar:

Dr. and Mrs. Ben McKenna (Stewart and Day) are touring Morocco with their little boy Hank when they become acquainted with a mysterious Frenchman by the name of Louis Bernard. Their acquaintance is short but perplexing, with Bernard's odd and inquisitive behavior troubling Mrs. McKenna, formerly Jo Conway, the celebrated stage artist. The next day, while they are exploring the market place with a British couple they've befriended, the McKenna's are witness to Bernard's public murder, and Ben is the sole hearer of Bernard's last words. It isn't long before Hank is kidnapped and used to keep Ben silent about what Bernard told him. Ben tracks the kidnappers to London and the McKennas pursue them there. Once arrived, they decline to cooperate with Scotland Yard in fear of Hank's safety, and set off on their own to save Hank and stop an assassination attempt at the same time. The climax is a supreme combination of good music, high suspense, and dramatic accomplishment.

The film as a whole is also a telling demonstration of Hitchcock's genius and the extent to which he developed his own talents in the time between the two versions of the film (besides the general improvement in technology and methods). We see his mellow, dry humor lightly sprinkled throughout the film, deftly weaved in among the threads of tension and suspense. Particularly in the final moments Hitch seamless transitions from the emotional high of the conclusion to a very funny and similarly short moment that immediately precedes the credits.

Cultural depictions and foreign language are also used to much better effect than in the first film, with the foreign setting elevated the expectation and dread of the viewer. Priceless cinematic moments in which little movements and subtle staging say much more than lines being uttered are also highlights. Watch for the scene where Ben is called away from his interrogation with the French police to take the call from the kidnappers. Pay special attention to the small movements of his fingers and those of Drayton as they make a follow-up phone call. The import of those movements and the way in which they are framed by the camera is outstanding. 

In the end I always come back to the performance by Doris Day, however. The scene in which Ben gives her the news of their son's kidnapping is of Oscar calibre, in my opinion. Also impressive is the way in which she can intone such meaning and foreboding into the simplest of lines. Listen carefully when she has the following exchange with Ben early in the film:

Ben: "What does that mean?"
Jo: "It means that Mr. Bernard is a very mysterious man."

Ben: "I have nothing to hide."
Jo: "I have a feeling that Mr. Bernard has."

Such simple words packed with such foreshadowing. 

I hope you'll find time to fit this movie into your schedule soon. It's worth your while. As always your comments and feedback are welcome her at Reel Revival. Enjoy those films!

Check out these other Hitchcock Blogathon reviews at the blogs of other Classic Movie Blog Association members:
 The BirdsClassic Film & TV Café 
Dial M for MurderTrue Classics: The ABCs of Film
The Lady Vanishes – MacGuffin Movies 
LifeboatClassicfilmboy’s Movie Paradise 
MarnieMy Love of Old Hollywood 
Mr. and Mrs. SmithCarole & Co.
North By NorthwestBette’s Classic Movie Blog 
NotoriousTwenty Four Frames
The Pleasure GardenThrilling Days of Yesteryear 
Rear WindowJava’s Journey 
Rebecca­ ClassicBecky’s Film and Literary Review 
RopeKevin’s Movie Corner
Shadow of a Doubt - Great Entertainers Media Archive
The 39 StepsGarbo Laughs
Three Classic Hitchcock Killers The Lady Eve’s Reel Life
Torn Curtain - Via Margutta 51
The Trouble with HarryBit Part Actors
VertigoNoir and Chick Flicks
The Wrong ManThe Movie Projector
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Page said...

It's been a while since I've seen this one so I'm glad I got to read your great take on it! I love Jimmy Stewart to so when he jumped on the Hitchcock bandwagon I was thrilled.

The one thing this Blogathon has done other than celebrate the genius of Hitchcock is encourage me to stop by all of these wonderful blogs. I will definitely be back. Oh and the little boy annoyed me to!

Anonymous said...

This blogathon is reminding me just how many Hitchcock films I have yet to see! The setting of this one sounds very intriguing; I don't much like Doris Day but maybe that's because I've yet to see her in a part she can really sink her teeth into, like this one. Great review!


Bette said...

Great review! I've only seen the 1956 version but absolutely love it. Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart are fantastic. And what can I say about Hitchcock? Amazing.


Kevin Deany said...

Wonderful write-up. The Albert Hall assassination sequence is one of Hitchcock's best. I like this one a lot too, though I wish Doris singing "Que Sera Sera" had ended about a refrain or two earlier.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I'll throw in with you that the 1956 version of Man is the better of the two versions and that Leonard Maltin's review is just one of the many missteps in his movie guide (even though I consider myself a fan of his work).

The 1934 version isn't without its good points but the whole production has a kind of coldness about it that can't compare to the remake. The Stewart-Day version is also a good deal more suspenseful to my thinking and many of the set pieces (the taxidermy shop, the Albert Hall climax) far more memorable.

Thumbs-up on a well-written review.

ClassicBecky said...

I've seen both versions of this movie as well, and your take on them is spot on, although no one can top Peter Lorre for creepy and sinister! I agree that Doris Day did a wonderful job, particularly in that brilliant concert hall scene. And James Stewart has always been such a favorite of mine.

The concert hall scene is one of the most thrilling ever filmed. I was tickled to get to see the great Bernard Herrmann conducting. That man never wrote one bad note!

Loved your article -- very well done!

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, when I first saw the 50s version, I wasn't expecting to like Doris Day in the part of Stewart's wife. I love her comedies--she has such a great humor that shines through those roles!--but I've never been overly fond of her in suspenseful or dramatic films. But I was pleasantly surprised--her performance is one of the strongest things about the newer version of the movie.

Great post--I really enjoyed reading your comparisons between the two versions of this film!

Classicfilmboy said...

Great post comparing the two. The original is of interest within Hitchcock's '30s work, but the remake is during that remarkable '50s period when he was hitting home runs right and left. They may have the same plot but are so different it's surprising they were made by the same man. I am very fond of Doris Day. Hitchcock liked his blonds and I'm glad he picked her. Her connection to this film goes beyond that great song -- she's well cast and does an excellent job.

Rick29 said...

Agree, agree, and agree. That is: this is a highly-entertaining comparison of the two films, the 1956 version is the better of the two, and--as several folks pointed out--the Albert Hall sequence is masterful. Personally, I'm not overly fond of Doris in her role and I think the film goes on a tad too long. That said, it holds my interest and includes some fine supporting performances (especially the under-utilized Brenda De Banzie, who was also superb in HOBSON'S CHOICE). This is was perfect pick for the Hitchcock Blogathon.

The Lady Eve said...

A really smart and entertaining take on "The Man Who Knew Too Much." I'm not sure if I've seen the first version (if so, long ago) but have a soft spot for the 1956 film. To begin with, it's one of Hitchcock's five glorious VistaVision/Technicolor collaborations with Robert Burks as DP/cinematographer. The color is unforgettable. Stewart and Doris Day really do sell the movie, though. The role is a perfect fit for Stewart...Doris Day is more unexpected. Her romantic comedies of the late '50s/early '60s are what she's most remembered for today, but she was a versatile actress.
The ending of this film is delicious - Hitchcockian humor - a line about being late because they had to pick up their son ("To Catch a Thief" had a one-liner ending, too: "Oh, Mother will love it here!").
Really enjoyed your post...

Clara said...

I agree with you, the second version is much better. I really liked this film, Doris Day was surprisingly good, and of course my favorite part is when she sings "Que será, será" while James looks for their kid. Nice review, congrats!

R. D. Finch said...

A very nicely written post that succinctly gets to the heart of both versions. I fully understand your difficulties with the sound quality of the British version, since I've experienced this myself. I certainly agree that Peter Lorre and Hitchcock's macabre sense of humor (especially in the sequence with the uncle and the dentist and the cult-like church) are the two things that make this version memorable. I used to be in the Maltin camp, preferring this version. But after rewatching both versions a few years ago, I've switched my allegiance to the remake. The difference between having the main characters witty, target-shooting jet-setters and an all-American dentist and his wife from Indiana (and who could project such apple-pie qualities better than Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day?) just raises the stakes tremendously. And the switch from Switzerland to Morocco is also an improvement. My favorite scene is when the "Arab" collapses in Stewart's arms and his greasepaint rubs off on Stewart's hands. The expression on Stewart's face when he raises his palms to his face and looks at them is priceless.

Edward said...

It is impossible to overpraise Doris Day for her performance; she is just extraordinary. It's not just her raw talent, which she showed in spades here, it's her natural warmth as a person as well. That adds a wonderful dimension to the character, something which could not have been communicated by Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak or other "cool blondes" whom Hitchcock featured.
TRIVIA: 1) In 1951, at a party following the release of STORM WARNING, a film about the KKK in which Day did not sing at all, Hitchcock "accused" her of being able to act, and told her then that he "hoped to use (her) in one of (his) pictures".
2) Hitchcock chose the Albert Hall sequence to be the capstone of the series of film excerpts shown on the occasion of his being made a knight.
3) There are people who have objected that Day's performance of the song in the embassy ballroom was too loud and shrill and lacked the control that a first-rate singer would have given it. They simply forget that Day's character was performing under extraordinary duress, and not really for an embassy audience, but to ferret her kidnapped son out of his hiding place somewhere in the embassy. That really DID take control on Day's part; in fact she is a masterful singer, completely on a par with Fitzgerald and Sinatra.
Thanks for such a thoughtful review!

John said...

I agree that that the 1956 version is superior to his earlier work (though I have a fondness for Peter Lorre). James Stewart is always classic and Doris Day is fine. The Albert Hall scene is classic! Great review.

Dawn said...

I've also seen both versions of this movie. Doris Day did a wonderful job. And James Stewart also gave a wonderful performance..

Awesome job on your article!

Priscilla - Reel Revival said...

Thanks to all for the comments. I appreciate your input and it was interesting to get your various perspectives. :)

Armand Pizzicarola said...

Ahhh Yess. I remeber this one. So long ago but your summerization helped. I remember the begining bus scene vividly now. I'll definately have to take another look at "The Man Who...". Another new classic film blogger has written some interesting things on some other Hitchcock films. check out if you get the time!

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