The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Doris Day, James Stewart
Extras: “Making Of” Featurette, Photo Gallery, Production Notes, Trailers

Hitchcock had already achieved extensively in a wide range of capacities during the silent era of the movies. The British film industry’s silent era produced no talents remembered principally for this medium, so Hitchcock pretty much had the field to himself. His silent films are full of fascination for us as harbingers of a future we can recognize in hindsight. None of these works, however, approach in overall strength the aggressive power achieved by his contemporaries in either America or Germany.
UFA in Germany was the largest single studio in the world and it inspired the likes of director Fritz Lang (Metropolis) to seize the reins of productions that beggared the imagination in scope and majesty. Hitchcock was able to observe first-hand the ground-breaking German film industry as he participated principally in a handful of films for UFA. Lessons in innovation he learned put him in good stead to introduce the British film industry to the ‘talkie’ era with his most accomplished work to date, "Blackmail" (1930), gauged ingeniously to use sound in unexpected ways.

Hitchcock by now enjoyed travel and seized any opportunity to use continental European locations for his films. One such film was about a proper young English family abroad in Switzerland and a bizarre chain of events that puts them to soul-searching test. It was called "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934), and it proved to be one of Hitchcock’s first classics.
By the mid-50s, Alfred Hitchcock was one of a rare breed of celebrity, the star producer. In this capacity, his only peers were Walt Disney and Cecil B. DeMille. Just as they had found, ‘talkies’ gave Hitchcock added control over audience response and by the same token liberated his fullest expression. As with them as well, maturity was a long gestation. Hitchcock himself tended to demarcate 1940’s "Rebecca," his first film in Hollywood, as the first fruit born of his maturity.

The decade of the 50s was a technological high water mark for the film industry, particularly in Hollywood. Hitchcock was quick to adapt, if in somewhat conservative manner. This made his association with Paramount a felicitous one for a time of radical change. The eldest of all major studios, Paramount was likewise moderate.
Television was a primitive conveyance of what passed for image and sound, but the public was mesmerized by this new miracle technology. Studios scrambled to invent movies you couldn’t watch on TV. Paramount countered more extreme forms of the day’s big screen presentation media like CinemaScope and Todd-AO with a proprietary brand of its own called VistaVision. VistaVision suited the populist Hitchcock admirably.

In a compromise medium designed ostensibly for the wide screen, the VistaVision camera exposed more image area top and bottom than would be used in theatrical presentation. When presented on TV, that extra bit of top and bottom meant that only a modest amount needed trimming from the picture’s sides to accommodate a pleasantly composed image retaining most of the action. Unlike other wide screen media, close-ups were not a problem. At the same time, the added picture definition that the process offered could only warm the cockles of a ‘detail man’ like Hitchcock.

Hitchcock’s association with Paramount from 1954 through 1960 produced many of the most accomplished films of his career. The perpetrator of cathartic thrills was now exploring the added dimensions that only color and big screen grandeur could deliver to a public not exactly clamoring for an excuse to take time out from the Tube to spend a night out at the movies. Hitchcock had already given VistaVision a heavy workout with his two immediately prior films. The first, "To Catch a Thief" (1954) enjoyed a much-deserved honour for its cinematography, always a cut above in his films.

For his third VistaVision feature, Hitchcock reflected upon which of his early British films might most benefit from a remake. "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934) seemed to fill the bill best but he put the question anyway to trusted colleague Herbert Coleman. Coleman dealt the Master of Suspense quite a blow to his ego when he had to confess he was unfamiliar with this particular work, much less aware of its reputation as a career milestone. Coleman agreed to screen the film, but in all candour could only report back to Hitchcock, "You and films have progressed together." For a man at the zenith of his powers, this home truth was no doubt sobering.

Sometimes it doesn’t much matter how brilliant are the individual aspects of expression. Any demonstrated deficiencies can, and usually will, bring the whole crashing down to its lowest level. But twenty-two years after Hitchcock first stab at the story, he had learned how to play his audiences consistently enough to keep them pleasurably on edge at all times. That authority was long since legend.

His piquant wit was so natural a resource for production companies and distributors of his films that Hitchcock easily ingratiated himself with the public. He took an active role in both print and trailer promotions to his films. By the mid-50s, a whole industry was growing up around Alfred Hitchcock. Cameo appearances in his own movies were an added-value feature that gave audiences the wink. Surreal host of his own weekly half-hour TV show and even starring in his own monthly magazine, he was a star in his own right.

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" as refit casts an oblique askance at Americans observed in circumstances that perpetually confront them with challenges of life-or-death consequence. The portrait of the Ugly American that emerges is mitigated by wit and a strong identification we cannot help but make with a family so compellingly middle-American.
Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin) has a knife in his back He swamps our sensibility as he draws Ben MacKenna (James Stewart) into close embrace. It is an intimacy that borders on the erotic. One added-value aspect of Hitchcock’s remake of his earlier success is the resonance in both John Michael Hayes’ script and Hitchcock’s handling of it. The narrative’s various causes and effects could scarcely seem more improbable, but the Hayes/Hitchcock skew on what we’re witnessing is tall tale telling at its best. Often vast are the leaps of logic we must make. For instance, we’re on our own to rationalize what on earth could motivate American parents of a kidnapped child to act with such unanimity in quitting the country where they’ve lost their child and return to London, another nation not their own. Audiences didn’t even mind that Doris Day (as Ben’s wife, Jo) was called upon to sing one or two more refrains of ‘Que Sera Sera’ than was absolutely necessary. (Hitchcock knew he could rely upon Day, not just to apply herself to such situation as she was required perform. Day inhabited the role.)
"The Man Who Knew Too Much" on DVD retains its original VistaVision musical theme, but Universal has pasted its own logo over the VistaVision AND Paramount both. This is the first clue to suggest that this 1956 version of the comedy/thriller has undergone minimal restoration, if any at all. Recent re-releases of "Vertigo" and even "Psycho" have adopted the admirable practice of restoring the original releasing studio logo to a film’s start and end. This was not the trend when "The Man Who Knew Too Much" was last released theatrically in the early Eighties, and it would appear that no advance has been made on release prints of this film since that time.

The breadth of VistaVision as last seen in the film’s 1980s theatrical re-release is welcomed for the first time on video in this 2001 DVD release. We’re spoiled with restorations on DVD that often actively improve on the look of films as they were originally seen. It is a temptation to balk at less than the best in presentation, when actually the picture and sound are an authentic representation of a print at the time of release that had done the rounds before turning up at your local Bijou. This reproduction is on the dark side and it appears to be an amalgam of several sources. I suspect that the exaggerated black level hides a multitude of sins where image detail is concerned, but in general its range is still plenty pleasing.

Hitchcock favored the controlled conditions of a studio. What with exotic locations in Marrakech and character ones in London, the film relied heavily upon actors performing ‘live’ against these second unit shots filmed previously for backgrounds. The technique was an acceptable convention for audiences, but ‘process shots’ in so high-definition a medium as VistaVision gave away their artifice even if the viewer couldn’t quite put his finger on it. The crisp detail and the color, with impressively little grain, are all there in this DVD, and these qualities on balance make viewing it a winning experience.

While composer Bernard Hermann has often been depicted as neurotic and vain, it is a touching tribute to his genius and the mutual respect between himself and Hitchcock that he opted to retain the ‘Storm Clouds’ cantata composed by Arthur Benjamin for the original film rather than develop a new sequence of his own. Hitchcock’s staging, moreover, is a virtual shot-for-shot recreation of the original.

Somehow the second filming benefits and the sequence proves one of the most sustained thrills to be found in all Hitchcock’s films. Perhaps this is because, apart from delivering on exciting continuity, it is grandiose. The soundtrack here is certainly authentic, right down to splices in the master. It is no more harsh than was typical of an optical soundtrack that’s seen duty. The trouble for us today is that the ‘Storm Clouds’ performance alone is a stirring spectacle. How heartbreaking to believe that this is the best we will ever hear it.

The DVD documentary is, as usual, well worth watching, though it does not particularly distinguish itself from amongst others in the Hitchcock series produced by Laurent Bouzereau. Doris Day’s participation might have elevated it.