Tom from Digital Shortbread wrote the next review for our Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon. Here are his thoughts on Hitchcock’s remake of his own 1934 movie with the same title – The Man Who Knew Too Much
Thanks Tom for this review!
The Man Who Knew Too Much
First I’d like to give a big shout-out to Miss Zoe of the absolutely fantastic Sporadic Chronicles. . . blog and MovieRob for hosting me during their impressive and ambitious Hitchcock blogathon. Seeing as I wanted to take part in something that would force me to learn something new about cinema, man, did I find the perfect event! I will be hesitant to admit this, but I might as well here: this is only the second Hitchcock film I’ve seen. I guess I should also ask, do I really hafta turn my movie critic card (that I just had laminated!!) back in. . .?
Release: June 1, 1956
Watching an Alfred Hitchcock film tends to be hard on the ole ticker, putting almost unwanted stress on the heart as scene after scene of impossible tense. . .ness. . .continues to build, all the way through to a powerful conclusion. Granted, his 1950’s remake of his own 1930’s classic, The Man Who Knew Too Much is only the second time I have sat down to experience his brand of filmmaking; suffice it to say the guy’s good enough to get you hooked on the second (if not first) go-around.
In all my (pre-movie blog) ignorance, I always wanted to make the argument that older movies are just “unpopular” today because they are, supposedly, too hard to get into. Be it inability or desire to reconnect with the culture of the past, a lack of technological prowess to truly stimulate the modern brain that’s more akin to the brain of a child suffering AD-HD, or simply the “oh god, it’s in black-and-white” excuse — there have been reasons. . . e-hem. . .”reasons”. . . to sort of dismiss this bygone era as “not really my thing.”
Or so I thought. *scratches neck awkwardly*
Hitchcock, to me, was merely the guy who made a bunch of birds really funny-looking when they got possessed. He’s the guy whose film I watched that one time back in freshman year in high school, or at least tried to in between trips I took out the back door to drop my friend’s backpack in the rain for no good reason.
I’m a good friend.
And an attentive viewer.
And a good student. Apparently. It didn’t really mean much to me that he was responsible for Psycho. Vertigo. Rear Window. I still haven’t laid eyes on any of these, though I do know who Norman Bates is. . . that handsome devil.
Now that I’ve watched him re-adapt an old script of his, I’ve watched Hitchcock create a generous amount of suspense and fear without going to the lengths most contemporary horror/mystery/suspense directors go to now to conjure up the feelings they want their audiences to have. I have bore witness to a filmmaker operating within a realm of practicality, and operating incredibly successfully within it. (Edit: it’s only occurred to me now that that might also be a statement made by someone who just doesn’t know enough about such a name as Alfred Hitchcock. . .which in this case, that’s absolutely true!)
The Man Who Knew Too Much tells a simple story, one that finds unending success in light of its lack of distracting subplots, extra characters and narrative drift. This is the story of a family vacationing in Marrakesh, Morocco who happen to witness a man murdered in public. The murder victim, a pretty creepy man by the name of Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), happens to get close enough to Dr. Benjamin McKenna (James Stewart) to be able to inform the doc in his dying moments about a grave situation developing nearby. . .a reveal that effectively ropes the innocent Dr. McKenna and his lovely wife Josephine (Doris Day) into an assassination plot. The plot thickens when the McKenna’s learn that their son Hank (Christopher Olsen) has been taken hostage just shortly after the incident, by a family they had only recently met the night before. The kidnapping is part of a deal made behind the McKenna’s back by the perps to ensure they don’t run off and tell the appropriate authorities.
Excusing some dated special effects and action set-pieces (a blow to the back of Stewart’s head certainly coaxed a little chuckle out of me), The Man Who Knew Too Much effortlessly achieves its goal of making viewers as uncomfortable as possible without them ever viewing gore, much violence or even hearing many verbalized threats. The film maintains a PG-rating that’s pretty tame by today’s standards, yet this is no fucking Rugrats: The Movie. Instead, Hitchcock relies on the power of suggestion. Time and time again terrible happenings are foreshadowed and otherwise hinted at throughout the frantic search the McKenna’s undergo for their lost boy. Time and time again the hysteria clings to us like a fever temperature. Hitchcock knows that there’s no way we cannot watch, for this family is much too much like our every-day family — were we still in the 50s, that is.
To watch a flustered Dr. McKenna force his wife, who’s recently gone into hysterics over the disappearance of Hank, take some pills to calm down is to experience legitimate time travel in the movies. What self-respecting husband now would actually force-feed his wife medication for the mental stress he knows she’s enduring, and for very good reason no less? Today we see that husband as a bully and a psychopath. At the time, McKenna’s kind of mind-control game was considered anything but taboo or deemed unnecessary. In these moments we know the characters to be on their last legs, so what else is an excellent performance by Stewart supposed to do to exemplify how high the stakes have become for them? In an era lacking in all kinds of ‘known’ personality disorders and other kinds of mental health issues that cloud everyday existence but are eased with a simple pill, this one act of pill-forcing symbolized a long-time married couple’s true desperation.
Not that this moment precisely is when the narrative hits its dramatic crescendo. That still comes later. But to give anything away would be to ultimately spoil the journey. Hitchcock, even with this entry — this is widely regarded as not quite up to par with his masterpieces. . .whatever that kind of phrasing means — proves his genius. It’s one of the best examples of show (but not a whole lot) but also don’t tell. Simple, subtle but scary as hell, The Man Who Knew Too Much mimics a police procedural as an excellent James Stewart performance, alongside one from Doris Day, steers the audience through a nerve-wracking two hours that can be looked back to time and time again.
Recommendation: The Man Who Knew Too Much serves as an excellent, if less iconic, example of why Hitchcock is grandfathered in to the annals of film history. To be working with such limited special effects — at the very least unaided by the technology of today — and operating within presumably lesser budgets, Hitchcock’s worthy of all the praise he gets when he can affect a tense thriller such as this. Do I sound like I’m jumping on the bandwagon after only seeing two of his films? Good, I’m glad. 😀 See this film if you haven’t already. It’s terrific.
Running Time: 120 mins.
Quoted: “If you ever get hungry, our garden back home is full of snails. We tried everything to get rid of them. We never thought of a Frenchman!”
Nine Hitched Cocks* out of Ten
* this merely refers to the typical rooster with a wife and two kids, of course. It is in no way intended to be construed as innuendo