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

Jimmy Stewart is a successful Indianapolis surgeon happily married to Doris Day. They and their young son have been in Paris for a medical conference and are playing tourist in Morocco when a murdered man whispers an urgent message warning of an assassination. Before they can relay the message to the authorities (or figure out just which authorities they can trust), they learn the son has been kidnapped to ensure their silence. Their efforts to find the boy lead them to London.

A more polished remake of Hitchcock’s 1934 original, this is a very entertaining suspense film with Hitchcock’s usual flashes of humor and an excellent scene that takes place during a concert at the Albert Hall in London. Bernard Hermann, who scored the film, appears on screen conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and the Covent Garden Opera Chorus. Interestingly, he chose to retain (with some minor modifications) the “Storm Clouds Cantata” composed by Arthur Benjamin for the corresponding scene in the 1934 film, though Hitchcock had invited Hermann to write a new piece.

There are some seeming plot holes, but it’s possible to infer explanations for them based on clues in the film. (They’re in a sense the opposite of what Hitchcock called “icebox scenes,” those provoking plot questions that occur to viewers only hours after they’ve seen the movie and are standing in front of the refrigerator looking for a midnight snack.)

Hitchcock enjoyed working with Stewart and wanted Doris Day for the female lead based on her performance in the 1951 film Storm Warning. She was at the time still mainly known as a singer, however, and at least one of the producers was strongly opposed to using her in a serious suspense film.

Hitchcock said so little to her during shooting that she finally asked him what she was doing wrong. He responded, in his usual deadpan way, “My dear Miss Day, if you weren’t giving me what I wanted, then I would have to direct you.” In fact, she’s excellent in the film, probably the best actor in it. If you remember her mainly from lightweight romantic comedies it might surprise you how convincing she could be as a dramatic actress.

(Recalling her sweetly innocent romantic roles reminds me of what Oscar Levant once told Jack Paar: “I’ve been in Hollywood so long I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”)

Paramount, which produced the film (though it was later re-released by Universal, hence the Universal logo seen in the DVD and Blu-ray versions), insisted that if Doris Day was going to be in the picture, audiences would expect her to sing, so Hitchcock asked the songwriting team of Jay Livingston (composer) and Ray Evans (lyricist) to create a song for her, telling them he had no idea what sort of song he wanted except that it be suited for a mother to sing to her son and might have some sort of foreign element. Two weeks later they came back with “Qué Será Será.” Hitchcock sat expressionless as he listened to it, then declared that while he had told them he didn’t know what sort of song he wanted, he now did know exactly what sort of song he wanted, and that was it.

Incidentally, Livingston and Evans later confessed that the song was one they just happened to have written not long before Hitchcock came to see them. (It had been inspired by a family motto seen in the 1954 film The Barefood Contessa.) They thought it would be better not to mention that, so they waited a couple of weeks to present it.

Unlike Hitchcock, Doris Day reportedly didn’t like “Qué Será Será” at all, dismissing it as a forgettable children’s song, She didn’t even want to record it as a single, though of course in the end she was persuaded to, and it went on to become a hugely popular Oscar-winning hit and later her theme song, one she sang in at least two other movies.

Another interesting bit of trivia: When the murder victim collapses in front of Stewart, Stewart tries to hold him up and as the man slides out of his grip to the ground, the dark makeup on the man’s face comes off on Stewart’s hands, revealing the victim to be wearing a disguise. But the makeup department was unable to find a makeup that could be wiped off so completely and cleanly. Fortunately the actor playing the victim, Daniel Gélin, came up with the solution: Stewart’s hands had light-colored makeup on them that would come off on Gélin’s face, looking just as if it was his makeup being wiped away.

Incidentally, one of Doris Day’s friends in London is played by the lovely Carolyn Jones, later best known as Morticia Addams on The Addams Family television series.


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