Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Man Who Knew Too Much


Alfred Hitchcock liked this story so much he made it twice. The second time was in 1956 with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, in VistaVision and Technicolor. Both versions have their strengths, but this is the better one. And when you add it all up, the reason that one is weak is Doris, and the silly song she sings. Once I hear that goddam “Que Sera, Sera,” I can’t get it out of my head for the rest of the day. It’s running through my head right now! It is not a musical film. When she sings there is no off-screen orchestra accompanying her, and the singing is integrated into the plot, but in an extremely silly way. I can’t believe that Hitch wanted Doris Day, when he was offered his choice of blondes like Lana Turner, Kim Novak (who he worked with later in Vertigo), or Grace Kelly (who he had already directed in Rear Window). He could even have had some good (gasp!) brunettes, such as Ava Gardner or Gene Tierney. But no, he went with Day.

The chief difference in the two films is the end. In the remake there is a tense scene in a foreign embassy where the kidnapped son is being held (in the original it is a girl), and for some reason I forget now Doris is compelled to sing that stinkin’ song as a means of rescuing the kid. For me, it completely spoiled the tension. In this one, the bad guys, the father (Leslie Banks), and the daughter are holed up in a house completely surrounded by police, and there is a climactic shoot-out. Some of the shooting is hard to believe, such as the fact that the bad guys seems able to pick off cops almost at will, while standing exposed in windows, and the cops shatter everything around them without hitting the bad guys … but we’ve seen a lot of that lately, haven’t we? What I like best is that the mother (Edna Best, in a fine performance), who has been established as a sharpshooter, grabs a rifle and knocks off one of the bad guys threatening her child when the police sniper is afraid to take the shot. Screw that Que Sera Sera shit. Eat lead, motherfucker!

The highlight of both films is a concert in the Albert Hall. The London Symphony and a huge chorus perform something called Storm Clouds Cantata, composed for the film by Arthur Benjamin. The device is that, during a passage that features a lot of percussion and a cymbal crash, an assassin will fire his gun, kill an important man, and make his getaway. This is filmed with no dialogue, just cutting between the box with the assassin, the important guy, the orchestra flailing away, and Edna Best slowly putting it all together. It’s a cinematic masterpiece, and once more shows Hitchcock’s love of silent movie storytelling. There are countless sequences like this in his films.

Can’t finish this without mentioning the great Peter Lorre. He is at his sinister, droopy-eyed best here, so good that his twisted face is featured on the movie poster shown on the Wikipedia entry. There have been few actors who can so convincingly portray an evil man, and make him so interesting.