The Man Who Knew Too Much was the movie Alfred Hitchcock liked so much he made it twice. Well, not quite. Hitchcock had never been happy with the 1934 version, so it was the only one among his films that he had any desire to remake. Twenty years later, with one more project left on a contract with Paramount Pictures, it seemed like as good a time as any.
The 1956 version is probably the most famous example of the classic Hitchcock theme of an ordinary man caught in circumstances that seem beyond his control, in this case an assassination plot that starts in the streets of Marrakesh and climaxes at a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The film features Hitchcock’s favorite ordinary man, James Stewart, as Dr. Ben McKenna, an Indianapolis physician on vacation in Morocco with his wife, Jo (Doris Day), a former Broadway star, and their son Hank (Christopher Olsen). On the bus to Marrakesh, they are aided in a minor dispute by a helpful but enigmatic Frenchman, Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin). They make a dinner arrangement with Bernard that he suddenly breaks at the last moment. At the restaurant, however, they are befriend by an English couple, the Draytons (Brenda De Banzie and Bernard Miles), who recognized Jo from her time on the London stage.
They meet the Draytons for a day in the marketplace when suddenly Bernard staggers toward Ben, disguised as an Arab with a knife in his back. He dies at Ben’s feet, but not before he whispers a warning about an imminent assassination. Mrs. Drayton takes Hank back to the hotel while the rest of them deal with the police. At the police station, Ben receives a phone call telling him to keep silent about what Bernard said or harm will come to Hank. He sends Mr. Drayton home to check on his wife and Hank. When they return to the hotel, however, they find that the Draytons have checked out and Hank is nowhere to be found. Knowing only the name that Bernard gave him and that the Draytons came from London, Ben decides to start his search for his son there.
This is the film where Hitchcock’s expertise at ratcheting up suspense one notch at a time was used to its fullest. The scene at Albert Hall, where we know the assassin (Reggie Nalder) is to time his shot with the crash of the cymbals, is one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces.
Jimmy Stewart’s portrait of a man used to taking charge but out of his depth is probably the best he gave for Hitchcock, equal to his work in Vertigo. Some were skeptical of Hitchcock’s choice of Doris Day, thinking of her mainly as singer and doubting her ability to handle the more suspenseful scenes. Her reaction to the news that his son is missing, however, more than validates Hitchcock’s faith in her.
For a movie whose plot hinges so much on a musical scene, the score of The Man Who Knew Too Much is very sparse. Most of the movie has no music at all. Hitchcock makes up for it by casting his composer, Bernard Herrmann, as the conductor at Albert Hall, allowing a normally faceless member of the production to take center stage. It’s a nicely executed tribute from Hitchcock to one of his favorite collaborators.
Sharp-eye baby boomers might recognize the future Morticia Addams (Carolyn Jones) as the assassin’s “date” to the concert. Trivia buffs will probably be interested to know that Christopher Olsen, who played Hank, was the older brother of Susan Olsen, aka Cindy Brady.