PG, for a kid in danger and the promise of death that really is pretty sparse. Yeah, people die. Oh, also, something that should be considered blackface. The guy is a spy and he's trying to "blend in", but it reads as something super uncomfortable for the most part. It's really brief and it's not meant to be insulting, but it doesn't change the instant gut reaction I have to this moment. Still, for a movie about a kid that's going to be killed, it's a pretty tame movie. PG.
DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
I've been itching to crack into my Alfred Hitchcock box set for a while. I've seen a lot of Hitchcock. I have three box sets and I've watched all of those movies. I adore the man as a director, but there's so much out there that I haven't seen from other people. It's always hard to find an excuse, at least for me, to go back and watch something I've already seen before. But revisiting The Man Who Knew Too Much kind of wanted to put my Hitchcock box sets back into circulation. I might do that as a replacement for the BBS box that only has one more movie left in it. We'll see. This is how my super organized brain runs. I need to find excuses to watch the movies I want to.
My first year teaching my film class, during October / Hitchcock month, I assigned that the students watched any Hitchcock film and presented on it. One of my star students did The Man Who Knew Too Much. I was ready to hear rave reviews and discussion on the movie. Instead, she said that she didn't care for it. She loved the other Hitchcock films we watched in class, with the exception of The 39 Steps. But The Man Who Knew Too Much got, at best, a "fine, I guess." For a bit, I wondered if she watched Alfred Hitchcock's first run at this story, the one with Peter Lorre. I mean, I liked that one too, but I acknowledge that it is a little rougher and lacks the charm of the remake. Nope, she meant the 1956 version with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. That boggled my mind. Sure, the only thing I can remember was the "Que Sera, Sera" stuff in the movie (which Wikipedia apparently labels as a "Doris Day Song"). But I also really remember enjoying it. Also, it has Jimmy Stewart and I think I like every Jimmy Stewart movie.
But there is a fundamental flaw with The Man Who Knew Too Much that actually limits the movie. The Man Who Knew Too Much is a movie that continually breaks its promises. Like, it does it throughout the entire movie. It sets up a binary situation where there should be consequences. Benjamin McKenna is told something that, if he repeats this information in any way or tries to prevent the murder from happening, his kid will be killed. Okay, we've seen this trope. What will a parent do to ensure the safety of his child while trying to save his own soul? It's a great dilemma. It's an amazing external conflict coupled with a relatable internal conflict. I love this stuff. Naturally, the way that this formula works is that the parent has to test the boundaries of this. They can't sit on their hands because they know that there's a chance that their kid could die anyway. I'm pulling from a litany of movies in my head where I've seen this scenario and I'm blanking on all of them. Taken? (I actually haven't seen Taken or its sequels.) But the way this normally rolls out is that the parents start making a little bit of headway. They have a series of small victories until the kidnappers discover their meddling. What happens in this moment is that there is a consequence. Now, we're dealing with a PG 1956 movies. We don't need Hank losing fingers. But the kidnappers keep shifting that line back further and further without consequences.
Benjamin and Jo McKenna get off the plane and one of the kidnappers straight up watches them. They have already broken the rules of engagement. They're not supposed to interfere with this assassination plot in any way, but there they are. In London. Not hanging out in Marakesh or back in the United States. They are in the one country that they aren't supposed to be. Shouldn't there be a consequence? But what happens is that they get another warning about not interfering. Do you know what that would do to curious and cornered parents? It causes them to push back harder. That's literally what happens. The McKennas keep making headway. They keep getting warnings about why they shouldn't interfere. The whole thing cycles until the McKennas get what they want. There's a scene, and for people who have seen this movie can probably attest to this, where the McKennas find the Ambrose Chapel where the kidnappers and Hank are. While Jo McKenna goes to phone the police, which is already a violation of the rules, Benjamin tries confronting the kidnappers single-handedly. He fails, miserably. He's old man Dr. Jimmy Stewart and they are a bunch of kidnapping assassins. This is where Ben should die. After all...they're kidnapping assassins. Instead, Benjamin McKenna gets a slapjack to the back of the head and wakes up to find himself locked inside the empty Ambrose Chapel. It's one of those places that apparently locks from the outside and you can't do anything if you are inside. (I get it. It is very dramatic to have Jimmy Stewart climbing up the bell tower rope. Also, "bell tower" and "rope" seem to be Jimmy Stewart / Alfred Hitchcock staples.)
These murdering kidnappers just keep giving the McKennas more and more chances that make no sense. These guys are trying to overthrow a government by murdering a prime minister. They have clearly passed the "casual murder" stage of psychopathy. The entire story makes even less sense. Just murder the McKennas from step one. They murdered a spy in Marakesh: check. That guy must be harder to kill than an aging doctor and his celebrity wife. There was no moral compunction about killing Louis Bernard. It's not a kill-or-be-killed situation. Bernard is clearly on the run from a whole bunch of murderers. They even get Bernard in their hideout moments before the actual assassination. It almost seems like killing him would be the only choice. But there's a lot of moments where the McKennas are spared, not for character reasons, but for storytelling necessity.
This creates something very love / hate about the movie as a whole. Hitchcock tries explaining this change in behavior away through the character of Mrs. Drayton. Mrs. Drayton is the character who has a bit of an arc to her. She is in charge of ensuring that Hank is hidden from his parents. She comes across as a nurturing mother / grandmother throughout the story. It's why Hank is not in a constant state of freaking out. The idea behind this storytelling device is that Drayton is learning to love by being reverse Stockholmed by Hank. It's kind of cool. I get that she cares for the kid. But on the other end of the scale, this is someone who has been in the spy game for a while. The Draytons are the focus of this investigation. Louis Bernard was looking for the Draytons because of their infamy and all of the sudden, she gets a heart? It seems like Drayton might actually be cool with death, just as long as she's not the one pulling the trigger. After all, she doesn't really try to help Hank escape until the absolute end of the movie, and even that is pretty subtle. I really like the idea of making one of the villains sympathetic. But it also seems really odd for her character to be going through all of this, coupled with the idea that the Draytons aren't the only assassins in the story. There's a lot of scary crazy people in on this assassination plot, including, you know, the assassin. Why doesn't the assassin, whose job it is to kill people without emotion, kill Benjamin McKenna and / or the kid? Perhaps the squinting logic is that, if the kid dies, there's nothing stopping the McKennas from confessing what they know. Again, this is where kid fingers do the job pretty well. But again, he's not that good of an assassin considering a distraction caused him to miss his target.
There's one plot point in the story that downright confuses me. It's the idea of the ambassador. Why are the McKennas keeping the search for Hank a secret from the prime minister? That guy really loves Jo McKenna, both as a celeb and for being the lady who saved his life. There's this grand conspiracy happening within the embassy and you know that the prime minister is not involved. After all, he was the target. Why not tell him the truth and have him help you out? There's this whole attitude of "it's technically foreign soil." That's true...if the prime minister didn't give you the okay to begin with. It's a really weird decision for the movie, but it does ramp up the tension pretty well.
But despite all of these flaws, I still really like the movie. There are these shots from the film that absolutely scream Hitchcock. Yeah, the plot is full of holes, but it doesn't stop the tension from being amazing. When Doris Day gets Hank's attention with the song at the end, it's pretty great. Also, Bernard Herrmann is a treasure and having him cameo in the movie is perfect. My student probably has a point: the movie is kind of fine, I guess. But it doesn't stop it from being a joy to watch. I just have to forget about all of this stuff before watching it again.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.