Thursday, 11 June 2015

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

A remake of a film that he first attempted 20 years earlier, the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much has a bigger budget, bigger stars and a much more experienced Alfred Hitchcock behind the camera. It also has some emotional depth to the characters, giving some substance to the style.

Dr Ben McKenna (James Stewart) is holidaying in Marrakesh with his wife Jo (Doris Day) and young son Hank. They have an accidental meeting on a bus with a mysterious Frenchman, Louis Bernard, who is later murdered in front of the family. With his dying words, he reveals details of an assassination attempt on a foreign statesman. This plunges the McKenna family into a nightmare that see Hank kidnapped, and Ben and Jo in a desperate race against time to save two lives.

In many ways, The Man Who Knew Too Much fits in well with much of Hitchcock’s work. The story is an unlikely one, but no more so than many of his other films which share the trope of the ordinary man thrown into an extraordinary situation. It also has Hitchcock regular James Stewart who, as always, brings a real likeability and vulnerability to the character of Ben, as well as the complexity and glimpses of a darker side that Hitchcock was so good at bringing out of him.

Hitchcock also indulges in his love of what call “Pure Cinema”, using techniques and tools unique to the medium, such as editing or juxtaposition of sound and images, to manipulate the viewer and tell the story. This works brilliantly in the climactic scene at the Albert Hall in London, a bravura sequence, nearly 10 minutes long with no dialogue, only the sound of the orchestra (conducted in person by legendary Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Hermann). The tension mounts as the gunman lines up his target in his sights and Ben frantically tries to convince the police that he is telling the truth – and the whole thing is told through images and editing.

However, in some ways this is an atypical Hitchcock film. The ordinary man is often accompanied by a blonde woman, and The Man Who Knew Too Much is no exception in that respect. However, instead of the usual sub-plot that sees them playing cat-and-mouse love games, here the couple are already in love, happily married with a child, which we see in the opening sequences of the McKenna's holiday (including some great physical comedy from Stewart as he tries to get his longs legs into the awkward seating at a Moroccan restaurant). This makes the dynamic different, making them equal partners, with an equal stake in the outcome, and, as things become more desperate, superb acting from Day and Stewart makes the film less arch and knowing and much more heartfelt than the Hitchcock reputation as a master manipulator might lead you to expect.