The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

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Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

I think I’ve learned how to digest Hitchcock’s films.  The first one I ever saw was 1954’s Rear Window.  It was a good film, sure, and I could understand why it was good, but for the most part I was bored during the film.  That’s really just because I’m used to modern cinema, with more true to life visuals and what feels like more drama because of tricks propagated through the industry (jump scares).  In other words, modern movies have desensitized me to Hitchcock’s skill because modern movies learned so much from the famous director.  In this movie there is a climactic opera scene in which a gunman plans on shooting a Prime Minister at a precise moment in the music, when the cymbals clash.  This scene was borrowed in the most recent Mission Impossible movie, but in that movie the scene was moved up so it occurs early in the film.

Here’s another example of what I’m trying to say.  In college I took a class on music in film.  We watched the famous Psycho shower scene with Bernard Herrmann’s jarring score, and one student in the class said the music felt cliche.  The professor pointed out that this scene created that cliche which has been copied countless times since.  So there’s a lot of that going on in Hitchcock’s films, and it’s hard to know what things should be impressive in his films.

With that out of the way I can say that I enjoyed The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Maybe at first I was cognizant of the way Hitchcock sets up the story, a nowadays familiar thriller with some mistaken identity involved, but pretty soon I found myself enjoying the characters while trying to unlock the mystery at the heart of the film.

We follow a family on vacation in Morocco.  You’ve got Dr. Benjamin McKenna (James Stewart), his wife Jo (Doris Day) and their kid, Hank.  They meet a suspicious Frenchman named Louis who is quickly killed.  Before his dying breath, Louis whispers a secret in Benjamin’s ear.  There’s a politician who will be assassinated in London.  After this, Hank is kidnapped by an English couple that befriended them the night before.  Ben is told not to divulge what Louis told him or else Hank would be harmed.

So Ben and Jo then fly to London to get their son back.  They prevent the assassination (opera house scene), and then they get their son back.

The story has a few complex things going on, but it feels pretty simple.  Ben and Jo have one clue from what Louis tells him, and they follow that clue right to their son.  Of course the English couple gets away, heading to an embassy.  Ben and Jo then prevent the assassination before concocting a plan to get into the embassy and get their son back.  There is time to fill (2 hour runtime) between these big plot movements, and that time is spent on a few mishaps as well as some more comical moments.

The first act is a little long, with us spending ample time with the family before the inciting incident (Louis’ death).  In most films that moment occurs at around the 15 minute mark, and here it occurred about 30 minutes into the film.  This longer first act helps us learn about Ben and Jo’s relationship.  Hitchcock takes time to introduce them, showing their shared affections for each other and Hank, but then also hunting at what’s going on under the surface.  The family lives in Indianapolis, where Ben is a doctor, but Jo is a formerly famous singer who would prefer a move to New York City where she could reignite their career.  These subtle conflicts are never given any weight beyond a brief mention, but they make the two characters more complex.  I mean, in real life if you and your spouse had an argument about where to live, I’m sure it would be put on the back burner when your son is kidnapped.  Everything is set aside for this very urgent crisis.  As the story presses on, both Ben and Jo work together to reunite their family.  Jo leans on her singing talents (“Que Sera, Sera” has been stuck in my head all day), but this follows a time of deep depression to make sure you know these aren’t flat characters who would be unaffected by the loss of a child.  There are a lot of films about abduction, and if the story moves too quickly it may be easy to lose sight of the people involved in the film.  You might only notice the plot movements that go from loss to gain, but Hitchcock makes sure you understand that these are real people in over their heads.

I like Jimmy Stewart.  He’s basically the embodiment of a 50s man, from my vantage point.  That’s all I have to say about him, but I enjoy watching him onscreen.  He’s a really good actor which is something I hadn’t paid much attention to before.  There are a couple moments where his eyes seem to flutter as he considers the loss of his son.  The camera pushes in on his expression, and he conveys all the fear, anger and desperation a man in that situation might feel.

I also enjoy how evil the bad guys are in this movie.  Whether it’s the English couple or the assassin or the guy who ordered the assassination, they’re all just so easy to hate.  It’s not even so much that they seem evil as they just seem a little too full of themselves.  In my last post I covered Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), and I discussed how the danger comes from within the community.  In this film, the danger is very much foreign.  The entire film is abroad (Morocco then England), and the entire time it feels like our heroes are fish out of water.  The feeling of danger isn’t one that sits with you after this film ends because you can think “well I’m in America where this stuff doesn’t happen,” at least at the time of the film’s release.  In other words, the foreign lands of this story are presented as full of mystery and danger that Ben’s family merely stumbles into.  After watching this film I begin to wonder how many mysteries there are right under our noses.  Maybe every single day I leave the house I have a 1 in 5 chance of getting pulled into an international assassination plot.

Lastly, this film is surprisingly funny.  Whether it’s simply Ben struggling with local customs or Jo’s friends waiting on her and Ben in the hotel room while they risk death trying to find their son, this film never takes itself too seriously.  The last joke, with the family returning to the hotel to find their friends asleep, felt like a rush of air, reminding us that this is all pretend.  Hitchcock sets up a world with real character with real, human problems (until the heightened drama of the kidnapping comes in), and then he reminds us that it’s all just fun and games.

In the film, some character (I forget who) remarks how adversity helps build character, and maybe that’s the point of the story.  Ben, Jo and Hank were happy before, but they seem much happier at the end now that they’re back together after such horrible circumstances.

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