Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Tuesday Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

    Another classic from the man who gave us nothing but classics!

     Many have tried to take the throne in his wake, but no other actor before or since quite had the everyman nature that Jimmy Stewart popularized. He seemed about the complete opposite of what was expected of movie stars at the time: not unattractive, but certainly not possessed of the movie-star good looks of a Clark Gable or Errol Flynn, and with a calm, easygoing charm that stood in contrast to the brash leading men of the day. It was those qualities that made him the perfect everyman - and the perfect star for Alfred Hitchcock. Stewart could hit all the beats required of a Hitchcock film: serious when necessary, but also playfully sarcastic enough to properly convey the darkly comic undertones prevalent in the director’s work. Other leading men could only be one or the other, but Stewart had it all. And while The Man Who Knew Too Much never reaches the highs of Vertigo or Rear Window, it’s another instantly classic outing for the director and star.

    A remake of one Hitch’s earlier films, The Man Who Knew Too Much tells the story of Ben McKenna, a doctor vacationing with his wife Jo and their son through Morocco. Upon arriving in Marrakesh, the family runs into an odd French fellow, and upon witnessing his death are drawn into a conspiracy of assassination and intrigue. Their son is kidnapped, and the kidnappers warn Ben and Jo away from alerting the police or they’ll do the unthinkable to their child. So the couple travels from Morocco to London, trying to get their son back without any help from the authorities.

    Hitchcock was always extremely fearful of the police, thanks to an incident from his childhood which saw his father asking the local constable to lock his son in a cell one night for misbehaving. Hitchcock was mistrustful of authority figures ever since, and it shows through in just about all of his works - where the police are either malevolent or incompetent. Ben and Jo McKenna are literally on their own, and although just a simple American family they must rely on only themselves to save their son. That isolation and paranoia was key to Hitch’s greatest works - and honestly what made him the master of suspense in the first place. His heroes and heroines had no one to call for help, no one to catch them if they fell. If there was any success to be had, it came at their own hands (something that had to have been important to Hitchcock, who worked his way up from the bottom of the British film industry to become the most popular director in Hollywood in his day).

    As stated above, Stewart is the ultimate Hitchcock hero. He’s funny, vulnerable and just empathetic enough to get us on his side - even when playing a peeping tom or a dangerously obsessive lover. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Stewart brings a humor and a pathos to the role of Ben McKenna that would be lost on a lesser actor. There’s nothing terribly remarkable about the character as he’s written on the page, but Stewart is so genuinely likable he could be playing the role of a piece of toast and still ensure our sympathies.

    Doris Day was definitely an odd choice for a Hitchcock leading lady, and the fact that she has her typical song number might be enough to set off the warning alarms. But to the director and his star’s credit, they not only find a way to make the song work, but transplant it in the climax in such a way as to make it one of the most gripping scenes in the entire film. There is no question that Day was every bit as talented an actress as she was a singer, and she fills the role of Jo quite nicely in counterpoint to Stewart. She can even sing and act in the same scene, as evidenced by the looks on her face while she sings the song at the end, fearful and nervous as her husband carries out a plot to save their son.

    As good as Stewart and Day are in the lead roles, it’s the side characters of Bernard Miles and Brenda De Banzie who truly steal the show in the roles of the Draytons, a seemingly kind English couple who the McKennas befriend while in Marrakesh. At first a sort of bumbling, adorable old couple, the Draytons soon enough show their true, more sinister colors, and both actors are equally adept at portraying both tones. 

    The film is filled with the type of classic scenes that made Hitchcock famous, such as the aforementioned Doris Day song number, a tense standoff in a church and the film’s most famous scene, the opera house assassination. At this point in his career, Hitchcock had the art of the set-piece down to a science, playing the fears and emotions of an audience much like a violinist in the orchestra pit. Watching the opera house scene unfold is a master-class in suspense and tension, and it’s simply a joy to watch Hitchcock pluck the strings in the way he does.

    Not as deep or far-reaching as some of the director’s best works, Alfred Hitchcock’s remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much is still sublime entertainment.

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