Universal // 1955 // 120 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // November 14th, 2001
A single crash of cymbals and how it rocked the lives of an American family.
I'll admit right off the bat that for a film critic, my familiarity with Alfred Hitchcock is sorely wanting. I've of course seen The Birds on late night television; hasn't everyone? I've watched his masterful Psycho and been stunned. I've seen To Catch a Thief and been impressed, but I'll admit I was mostly distracted by the beauty of Grace Kelly.
Still, as the saying goes, "I know what I like." The Man Who Knew Too Much is, as I understand it, generally not regarded as one of Hitch's best, but I found it tense and fascinating. I guess all the wonderful things they say about Hitchcock are true after all.
Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart -- Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, The Philadelphia Story, Harvey) is traveling in Morocco with his lovely wife Jo (Doris Day -- Storm Warning, Lullaby of Broadway, Calamity Jane) and their son, Hank (Christopher Olsen). Ben is a doctor in Indianapolis; Jo had a successful career on the stage as a singer before settling down and marrying him, and while their marriage is solid she still has some mixed feelings about her decision. On the bus to Marrakech they meet a mysterious Frenchman, Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin -- Testament of Orpheus), who seems strangely, almost suspiciously, friendly. While in Marrakech they also meet a nice English couple, the Draytons, whom they join for dinner and even allow to watch Hank.
However, this idyllic vacation is broken up when Louis Bernard reappears, staggering into the marketplace right in front of the McKennas and the Draytons. He has been stabbed in the back, and he dies as Ben tries to help him -- but not before whispering a few ominous final words. Ben is horrified as he realizes the import of what Bernard has told him; a statesman is to be murdered in London. Bernard also includes a reference to a mysterious name: Ambrose Chappell.
Naturally, the police ask the McKennas to come to headquarters to make a statement, and they send Hank back to the hotel with the Draytons. While at the police station Ben receives an ominous phone call; Hank is in danger, and if Ben wants to see him alive again he had best not tell the police anything about Louis Bernard's dying words. Ben tells the police nothing, and he and Jo head back to the hotel, where Hank is nowhere to be found. Ben explains to Jo the nature of the phone call, and that Hank has been captured. With no other recourse available to them, Ben and Jo set out for London to find Hank. In their effort they still have only one clue: the strange name Ambrose Chappell.
In London the McKennas meet up with some of Jo's old theater acquaintances, as well as Scotland Yard operatives. Again, concern for Hank keeps them from telling the Scotland Yard men much of anything.
As events unfold, they bring Ben and Jo deeper and deeper into a swirl of international intrigue that eventually culminates in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall and one of the most amazing musical sequences ever captured on film.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is generally not regarded as one of Hitch's best, but all the same, it is a very good film. It has all the tension, twisted plotting and whimsical humorous touches that mark most of Hitchcock's work. The story of an average man caught up in large events is very skillfully presented. Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes even made a good effort to incorporate Doris Day's singing abilities into the plot of the film, after Paramount insisted that a song be included. In the hands of lesser filmmakers these scenes might have seemed like cumbersome, show-stopping detours, but Hitch and Hayes make Day's musical ability a believable part of Jo McKenna's backstory, and crucial to the ultimate resolution of the plot.
The skillful use of music in this film also extends to the fantastic climactic scene set in the Royal Albert Hall. This scene runs for over ten minutes without a word of dialogue from anyone, becoming essentially a silent film set to Arthur Benjamin's "Storm Clouds Cantata." The music in this scene, conducted by none other than Hitch's legendary collaborator Bernard Herrmann, is powerful and builds an amazing amount of tension. So powerful, in fact, is this music that it almost overshadows Hitchcock's brilliant visual skill in this sequence. Hitchcock builds a visual tempo and energy to match the swelling music, featuring ever-quicker cutting and ever-tighter close-ups and POV shots, showing the frenetic details of the orchestral performance to reinforce the crucial moments in the plot of the film. This sequence alone is so masterful that it is worth the price of purchasing or renting this DVD.
Much has been made of the effect of World War II on Jimmy Stewart's career. In his prewar films he often played characters that were unswervingly honest and sincere, and more than a bit naïve. After returning from years of service with the US Army Air Corps in the war, Stewart's on-screen persona changed in subtle ways. He was still the earnest, affable everyman, but with a sense that perhaps there was something darker underneath it all. The new, "edgier" Stewart went on to some great post-war successes, including his many collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. In this film, as Ben McKenna, Stewart is still the embodiment of small-town USA, but when his son is kidnapped, we catch glimpses of his harsher, more aggressive side. We also see him as nervous and distracted, with subtle physical signs and expressions that convey his inner anguish. Hitchcock, for his part, knows exactly where to place the camera and when to take close-ups of seemingly unimportant details to let Stewart's characterization shine through to maximum effect.
Doris Day was an unusual choice for this film, but Hitchcock was adamant that she be cast. Day was better known as a singer, and had starred in a number of musical comedies and light fare throughout the '40s and early '50s. The Man Who Knew Too Much was a rare dramatic role for her; the results are impressive. She plays very well opposite Stewart, with just the right sort of chemistry to suggest a loving if somewhat flawed marriage. Day has a great presence on the screen, such natural ease and confidence that one gets the sense she is really holding back, lest she overpower even the great James Stewart. Day makes a very good heroine, with toughness and brains, and it seems only natural that her character finds the most important piece of the puzzle, which leads to the story's ultimate conclusion. She manages to project a very distinct personality, even through the standard "Hitch blonde" costume she has been issued: sober gray suit, hair tightly pulled back, smart pillbox hat. Hitch himself admitted that this look was something of a fetish for him, and of the many actresses he saddled with it Day does an excellent job of breaking out and making the character her own anyway.
Universal has released The Man Who Knew Too Much as part of their "Alfred Hitchcock Collection." They have put a good amount of effort into extra content, making this DVD a complete experience for anyone, whether Hitchcock enthusiast or neophyte. The main piece of extra content is a 34-minute documentary entitled "The Making of The Man Who Knew Too Much. This is a new documentary prepared specifically for this DVD release, featuring Hitch's daughter Pat Hitchcock O'Connell screenwriter John Michael Hayes, and other surviving contributors. It is a well-done and insightful look into the making of the picture, including some very interesting comparisons with Hitchcock's 1934 version of the film. There is also a well-deserved focus on composer/conductor Bernard Herrmann and his musical contributions to the film, as well as an explanation of how the song "Que Sera, Sera" came to be.
Other additional features include a production photo gallery, trailers, a short section of production notes, cast and filmmaker info, recommendations, and a weblink to Universal's DVD newsletter. I am not a big fan of static photo galleries on DVD, but this one is surprisingly effective. It features around 80 pictures, an assortment of posters, lobby cards, publicity stills, and behind-the-scenes candid shots. These pictures play automatically in sequence, each one remaining visible for about three seconds. The whole thing is set to the climactic music Benjamin's "Storm Clouds Cantata," which makes the whole affair seem a lot more exciting than is probably the case.
I am also not a big fan of "recommendations" sections that provide thumbnails of DVD cases but no trailers or anything else of note. In this case, however, I'll make an exception since I found the listing of 13 other titles in Universal's Hitchcock Collection to be useful as a sort of checklist.
Both the production notes and cast information are disappointingly short, but they do give some nuggets of interesting information. Two trailers are provided -- one is the original release trailer, and features a folksy plug by Stewart who appears on camera and explains what his new movie is all about. The other trailer is for a later theatrical re-release of five Hitchcock films, and features a voiceover narration by (a much older) Stewart who explains a bit about each one. The five films in this re-release trailer are Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rope, The Trouble With Harry, and Rear Window.
I suppose there are some material criticisms to make of this film, mostly that it goes on for what feels like forever after the film reaches what should have been the end. After the scene at Royal Albert Hall we get the sense that the credits should roll and the movie should be over, but there is still a considerable amount of time to sit through; Day needs her big musical number, after all, and the McKennas still need to retrieve their son. These two elements are combined in a clever way, but coming after the excitement at the Royal Albert Hall it is a fairly dull anticlimax.
Worse than anything in the film itself is the video presentation on this DVD. It suffers from a number of problems, most of which are the fault of the source material. Colors are unexpectedly strong and vibrant, with the ever-important reds and blacks coming through quite strong. On the other hand, as is typical with Technicolor films, the palette tends to favor bright primary colors and slights a lot of the rest of the spectrum. Flesh tones come across as a bit too reddish; Stewart in particular looks like someone applied his pancake makeup with a paint sprayer. I am assuming this is the fault of the film and/or DVD, rather than the makeup department. There are lots of blips and specks in the print, which is to be expected based on its age. The picture is quite grainy, and fine textures are very soft. There is also some very pronounced edge enhancement and haloing throughout the film. Perhaps most unforgivable is the constant flickering of the image and jumps in light levels. Overall much of the movie is too dark. It is nice that Universal took the time to bring this film to DVD, but it would have been better had they bothered to expend some effort and clean things up a bit for a decent transfer.
The audio on this DVD is fairly unremarkable; one gets the sense that this is probably the best that could be done with the original mono soundtrack. There is some sign of hiss under the track through much of the movie, except in some of the final scenes where it is quite pronounced and distracting. On the other hand, it is surprisingly clear in places, and faithfully reproduces the all-important music in the film, from the concert scenes to Doris Day's wonderfully pleasant singing voice.
I enjoyed The Man Who Knew Too Much immensely. Again, it may not be Hitch's finest work, but it is a fun ride and will keep you interested from beginning until end. Well, almost the end, but you get the idea.
Alfred Hitchcock and his film are free to go. Universal is acquitted on most of the charges, but is guilty of giving us an indifferent video transfer.
We stand adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2001 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* "The Making of The Man Who Knew Too Much"
* Production Photographs
* Theatrical Trailers
* Production Notes
* Cast and Filmmaker Information
* "Alfred Hitchcock Collection" Recommendations
* CNN: Alfred Hitchcock at 100