Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Man Who Knew Too Much


It’s a good story, but I’ve never quite figured out why Hitchcock wanted to make it twice. Did he think the title was The Man Who Knew Two Much? Anyway, he retained only the basic story of a man who was given a secret from a dying spy, then was unable to tell anyone about it because his daughter (in the remake, a pain-in-the-ass son) was kidnapped to threaten him. From there, he and his wife had to track down the would-be assassins and kidnappers on their own. The first one began on the ski slopes of Switzerland, where this one goes to exotic Morocco. In the first one the couple is British; here they are the very American Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart.

The big, climactic scene in both films is in the Albert Hall, during a performance of “Storm Clouds Cantata” (this time actually directed by Bernard Herrmann). Both scenes are stunners, and one advantage the new one has is the brilliance of wide screen VistaVision and Technicolor. The whole 11-minute piece is performed by a symphony orchestra and a huge chorus. But here’s the problem: It is the climax of both films, but it’s not the end. Hitchcock solved that problem the first time through by having it end in an exciting shoot-out with the bad guys. In the second version … he has Doris Day sing that annoying song, “Que Sera Sera.” Sorry, it just doesn’t work. In fact, it’s embarrassingly bad. Her voice is too loud for the hall, and the only part that worked for me was the faintly puzzled expressions on the faces of her audience of European bluebloods, as if they are only listening to be polite.

The other reason the first far outshines the second is the American vs. Brit comparison. The parents of the little girl are carefully contained, yet have a steely determination. They never panic, they go about what needs to be done as a team. And at the end, the mother actually kills one of the bad guys. Doris Day, as the mother of the little boy, freaks out the second she hears her son is gone. Jimmy has to medicate her, and she is fairly useless from then on. Stewart himself is everything you don’t like about Americans abroad, trying to bull his way through these furriners with their foreign customs, demanding the impossible. He’s apparently never heard of the extraterritoriality of foreign embassies … but maybe most Americans hadn’t, in 1956. But the hell with it, he figures the British should be able to storm in anyway. I didn’t like him much.

In fact, about the only things to really like here are the photography and some of the classic Hitchcock moves with camera angles and close-ups, and with telling large parts of the story without dialogue. Oh, and one other thing. Most of the villains in this picture look like villains, at least in unguarded moments. But there’s one who outdoes them all, and that is the man playing the assassin in the theater. That would be Reggie Nalder, who made a good living playing monsters because his already rather ugly face was disfigured by burns. I’m sure you’ve seen him here and there. Menacing? His smile could send John Wayne screaming into the night. Peter Lorre looks like Mister Rogers compared to him.