johnlink ranks THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956)

There aren’t a ton of the Hitchcock movies from the 50s or 60s which are new to me. I haven’t delved much into the 40s, and I’ve seen very few of the 30s stuff. But I know most of the films from the time when he was churning out classic after classic. I’ve been sitting on THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH for awhile. There are only so many Jimmy Stewart led Hitchcock pictures you ever get to adsorb for the very first time.


I watched THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) on 8.15.13. It was my first viewing of the film.

It is natural to compare this movie to the classic which would be made three years later, NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Both contain an erroneous identification of the heroes as someone else, which leads to the life of the hero never being the same. Both contain a MacGuffin involving espionage and murder.

What is inherently different about these two films, and they are very different indeed, starts with the protgaonist. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST Cary Grant’s Vandamm is a curious man happy, at first, to get caught up in all of this adventure. He is someone who enjoys playing the game, even if it all does get much more dangerous than he anticipates. In THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, Jimmy Stewart’s Dr. McKenna is a seemingly simple man. His idea of adventure is taking a vacation to Africa with his wife and son and being tourists in a fancy hotel. For Dr. McKenna, nothing about what unfolds is fun or interesting. He has no desire to get caught up in the fray. He wants only to protect his family no matter the cost to anyone else.

What further separates these movies is the scope of the film. NORTH BY NORTHWEST is an epic adventure movie, sprawling throughout the United States. On the other hand, despite being a movie about international intrigue and assassination, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is a surprisingly small and tight movie. While it’s locales may be exotic, the film moves swiftly and with purpose between its destination. If Vandamm’s adventurous spirit leads to a wonderfully whimsical movie, then McKenna’s procedural mindset has his plot playing out with very few diversions.

What makes McKenna so endearing is how flawed he is. The plot has he and his wife (the wonderful Doris Day as a famous and newly retired actress) mistakenly taken for some other folks who are plotting an assassination. McKenna learns about the plot, but his son is kidnapped before he has a chance to disclose this information to the police. He and his wife must go it alone, heading to London in an attempt to find the kidnappers.

McKenna doesn’t care much about the assassination plot. It’s one of the few Hitchockian MacGuffins which the lead almost cares as little about as Hitchcock himself. McKenna will let another man die to save his son if need be. We see him sedate his wife so it will make it easier to break bad news. His son espouses tales about his father having liberated Africa, only he was serving so far behind the lines as a doctor that he doesn’t even know the most basic Muslim customs. He is quick to anger and frustration. He can be dismissive, he can be rude, he can be obtuse. When he is successful in foiling something, he is ther is due to coincidence rather than a dogged determination to make the world right.

Despite the character’s shortcomings, he is so fun to watch. The curmudgeon act doesn’t wear thin. We like McKenna, mostly because he responds in a most human way to stress. He isn’t infallible, he doesn’t always have the right answer. It’s refreshing to see, actually. Perhaps the greatest bit of irony, in fact, is that despite being the titular man who knew too much, it is Stewart’s gregarious naivete which gets them into the mess in the first place. It doesn’t hurt that he has a wonderfully comedic scene involving the customs of sitting at a couch for dinner and the way one eats food. He is a fish out of water, even if the fish is rich and the water is of the finest spring.

He is helped by having Doris Day play his wife in a way which makes us love them as a couple. She is strong, honest, and endearing. This is certainly a post-noir film, there is no sense of a femme fatale and the movie has no need for sexual intrigue.  Day really does nail this part, playing vulnerable when need be, but also displaying incredible strength in the face of danger. Without her there would be no balance, because of her we are focused on a normal family under extreme duress.

Well, normal, perhaps, for upper class 1950s. These rich white folks get a glossy view of Africa. They have a gorgeous hotel suite and a hotel babysitter for their son. They squabble about how he is giving up money by practicing in Indianapolis rather than New York while getting VIP treatment everywhere they go. The grass is always greener, I suppose, but this isn’t exactly a struggling working class family here. Fortunately, we easily see past these blemishes because Stewart and day are so immensely likable.

The first climax, the assassination plot, is pure directorial genius. Over ten minutes of no dialogue with dozens of individual shots. Regular Hitchcock film score composer Bernard Herrmann plays himself. He leads in orchestra and chors in the symphony hall, as the music heads for a crescendo which we know, as an audience, is the moment the assassination is to happen. The building of tension is undeniably strong without the use of any words, as first Day and then Stewart try and piece together what is happening. An interesting side note is the role of the music itself. It is diegetic, since the folks in the movie are hearing it as well as us. But the music holds an entirely different meaning for the people in the film then it does for us as an audience. For most in the movie it is entertainment, for a precious few it means death, for us an audience it is a powerful delivery device for tension. And, truly, has there ever been another film bold enough to have the composer of the film playing himself, leading an orchestra in the very music meant to rouse a reaction from its audience? In a career filled with brilliant moments, this scene is top all time Hitchcock.

I really love this movie. While I appreciate the technical awesomeness of VERTIGO, this is a superior movie for me. I’m glad I waited to see it, but I am even more glad to have finally done so.



The dialogue-free climax is worthy of a bonus point all its own. All time great cinema.



~ by johnlink00 on August 16, 2013.

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