Thursday, 24 May 2012

Movie Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Alfred Hitchcock remakes his 1934 thriller into a lush, widescreen adventure. The Man Who Knew Too Much makes excellent use of exotic settings, playful chemistry between Doris Day and James Stewart, and the brisk story of an average man sucked into an international assassination plot.

Dr. Ben McKenna (Stewart), his wife Jo (Day) and their young son Hank are Americans on vacation in Marrakesh when they encounter the mysterious businessman Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin). Louis asks a lot of questions and answers few, but nevertheless suspiciously cozies up to the McKennas. Also on vacation and staying at the same hotel are fellow tourists Lucy and Edward Drayton (Brenda De Banzie and Bernard Miles).

While touring a market, the McKennas witness Bernard being chased and assassinated with a knife to the back. With his dying breath, Bernard whispers to Ben clues to an assassination plot about to unfold in London. To make a bad day worse, while Ben and Jo attempt to explain themselves to the local police, Hank is inexplicably kidnapped. The McKennas need to travel to London, uncover the true identity of the Draytons, disrupt the assassination, and rescue their son.

It is irrelevant that the plot details of The Man Who Knew Too Much do not stand up to too much scrutiny. Hitchcock's focus is on planting an average couple already in a strange land into an extraordinary situation, and watching them try to wriggle their way out of trouble. Central to the movie is the relationship between Ben and Jo, and James Stewart and Doris Day excel in portraying a loving, sometimes bickering, and realistically resourceful couple. Neither Ben nor Jo turn into superheroes, and they make plenty of mistakes. Their support and trust for each other are the only weapons that they can rely on, and their ordinariness is what makes the movie special.

Stewart delivers his typical laid-back but thoughtful everyman persona, while Day is radiant in perhaps her most nuanced screen role. Loyal to her husband to the point of abandoning a glamorous stage career to raise a family in Indianapolis, there is nevertheless a steely no nonsense core of determination to Jo, and a sharp instinct that allows her to smell the trouble surrounding Louis Bernard long before Ben recognizes the danger. The rest of the cast is made up of character actors who do not detract from the stars, and neither do they get in the way of the film as a spectacle.

The film is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for ears. In addition to vivid colours delivered by cinematographer Robert Burks, The Man Who Knew Too Much may be the closest that Hitchcock came to a musical thriller. Day's character is a semi-retired musical stage performer, and the song Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be), winner of the Best Song Academy Award, is performed twice and plays an integral part in bringing to life Jo's deep connection with Hank. The film's tense climax includes a long scene at the Royal Albert Hall, with 12 minutes of no dialogue as the assassination plot unfolds and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Herrman, plays Arthur Benjamin's cantata Storm Clouds, an apt metaphor for the turmoil being endured by the McKennas.

Before the camera tricks, the moments of outright terror and the screeching musical effects, The Man Who Knew Too Much demonstrated that Hitchcock was also the master of the thoroughly polished suspense thriller.

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