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Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1956)
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by PaulBryant

"The director in his prime; a study of his technique, humor, and tension."
4 stars

In 1934, Alfred Hitchcock would make the film which would define his ultimate standing in pantheon of film figures. The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 was a coalescing of the sarcastic British humor, the stark visual techniques, the charming villain, and the rapid change in locales which would encapsulate what enthusiasts could later describe as being "Hitchcockian".

The Lodger, made silent in 1926, is often referred to as the first true Hitchcock picture, but TMWKTM in 1934 is his first great realization in the sound era. After his brilliant and experimental Blackmail in 1929, Hitch went through a period where he made few memorable pictures. A couple of light comedies, a filmed version of a stage play, a musical, a ‘whodunit’ (one of Hitch’s only mystery films), and a campy attempt at a spooky thriller left the Hitchcock canon rambling and inconclusive. It wasn’t until he crafted his 1934 version of TMWKTM that Hitch would hit his stride in the British sound era. He would make few missteps between this picture and his great move to Hollywood in 1940, so it is fitting that the only film he ever remade is the one that first celebrated his directorial signature.

The remake's story moves better than the first, starting off in Marrakesh, briskly moving to London after an only-in-a-movie turn of events, and then climaxing in a far more dramatically satisfying sequence which takes place in the stuffy obscurity of a foreign embassy, rather than the bizarre shootout of the original. The fabulously haunting church sequence at Ambrose Chapel (a place, not a man) remains, creepy song and all, just as strong as it was with Leslie Banks in the original.

When looking at the 1956 version, it is amazing to view the evolution of sophistication that the director had undergone. In comparing the famous Albert Hall sequences, it is strikingly apparent just how far twenty years had progressed Hitchcock; a relatively short, somewhat effective sequence in the earlier film had been expanded and fully developed structurally to become possibly the director’s finest achievement in wordless montage. The editing, pacing, and complexity of the sequence move it from being just a great idea, to being a technical and emotional piece of cinema masterwork. If there was ever a sequence that should be showed in every film school around the world, it is this remarkable 12 minute mosaic where dialogue is unnecessary; all emphasis is put on the placement of the camera, the size of the actors in the shots, the changes in focal length, and the duration of each piece of film in context to the music which accompanies it, to tell a beautifully conceived story within a story.

Sandwiched between the lightweight To Catch a Thief, and the atmospheric The Wrong Man (which were then book-ended by probably Hitchcock’s two finest works, Rear Window in ‘54, and Vertigo in ‘58), the inclusion of TMWKTM in 1956 completed a glorious four years for Mr. Hitchcock. It is a movie in his Paramount glamour days that is quite often overlooked as being just one in a string of great films, but which should be recognized for its importance and quality as an individually complex work.

The breezy writing of John Michael Hayes (Rear Window, To Catch a Thief) takes us instantly into the story during opening sequence, which sets up the Louis Bernard character far more ingeniously than the first, and then he relaxes us with the hilarious (if you enjoy Stewart/Hitchcock comedy, and who doesn’t?) sequence in the Morocco restaurant where the lanky Stewart tries valiantly to sit on the floor. Stewart is, as always, perfect at playing the everyman (this time as a doctor), but Hayes doesn’t throw in his character indiscriminately, as we hear in the opening scene explaining how their son Hank “can spell hemoglobin, course he has a little trouble with words like dog and cat”. Not since Shadow of a Doubt has the family unit ever been so true to life in Hitchcock, which makes the menace that creeps into their lives soon after that much more hair-raising.

The Hitchcock touch is present in the dry (sometimes very dry, as with Jo’s hoity-toity friends) humor, as well as in the gentle insertions of an oblique camera angle to underscore a tense situation. The scene where Stewart learns of his son’s kidnapping is textbook Hitchcock: upon hearing a foreign voice over the phone telling Stewart to keep his mouth shut about what the spy has told him, Hitchcock places the camera in a close-up of the earpiece of the phone and then tracks slowly back to the sound of Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking violins, until we get to a medium shot of those most evocative of blue eyes exhibiting their wordless terror. We then get to see Hitchcock’s talent for editing, as he intercuts Stewart’s worried face with a close-up of his thumb flipping the pages of a phonebook.

Equally intriguing is Hitchcock’s choices of a high-angle camera placement to evoke the inner feelings of a character. When Doris Day first hears that her son has been taken away, Hitch places the camera above her, looking down from the ceiling of her hotel room as Stewart tries to subdue her on the bed. Later, when they’ve landed in England to search for young Hank, they receive a call from the kidnappers, and at the precise moment the boy comes on the phone, Hitch puts the camera up above Doris and Jimmy again, as they hear a few emotional words from their captured son. And lastly, at the most crucial point in the story - the aforementioned Albert Hall sequence - Doris Day realizes that she must cry out to save a man from assassination, but knows it may mean death for her own son. Hitch plays her in head-on medium shots or close-ups throughout the twelve minute tour de force, until we reach the climactic final moment when she must make her ultimate decision; here again, he places the camera up above her, looking down in a close-up as she weighs the fate of her son against that of a stranger. This point of stylistic repetition with the Doris Day character lets the viewer unconsciously read and interpret all of the inexpressible emotions that are occurring within her. As impressive as Doris Day’s dramatic performance is, the decisions Hitchcock makes with his camera are always chosen to produce the greatest effect on the audience. And they do.

Overall, the film may go on a touch too long. Though every sequence is exquisitely crafted and laboriously planned out, we want the ending to come ten minutes earlier. But you can't be bored if you love Hitchcock, and you will marvel at his technical proficiency no matter who you are. You can love it for Hitchcock/Herrmann, Hitchcock/Hayes, Hitchcock/Stewart, or just as Hitchcock/Hollywood.

Shame on Hollywood for not making ‘em like this anymore.

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originally posted: 01/24/05 11:30:05
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User Comments

7/25/17 JASON one word--perfect 5 stars
2/09/09 John Boyle Absolutely one of the worst movies ever. Not one aspect of it merits praise. 1 stars
3/02/08 Pamela White Stewart great acting and a wonderful story 5 stars
10/15/07 fools♫gold watchable stuff 4 stars
3/07/07 action movie fan first rate kidnapping thriller politcaly assination and hunt for missing boy 5 stars
9/02/05 Zack this is a good movie but not the origianl 4 stars
8/19/05 Vincent Hakansson A very good film for its time 4 stars
3/26/05 Denise ok 3 stars
2/05/05 emanuel meyerstein a very good suspense&psychological piece-Hitch in his one of his best 5 stars
10/08/04 Ray Superrb 5 stars
5/21/04 Sean Scanlan What a neat movie 5 stars
3/22/04 Cymbalic Good but not great Hitchcock, besieged by gratuitous overlength and annoying Doris Day 4 stars
6/25/02 Charles Tatum Ill conceived remake with that damn song 3 stars
3/02/01 R.W. Welch Good suspense yarn but Doris is bit out of her element here. 4 stars
5/05/00 matt More suspensefull than the first, James Stewart is a great actor!!! 5 stars
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  DVD: 07-Feb-2006

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