The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): Movies I’ll Never Forget

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Alfred Hitchcock

In my 2014 article on the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night, I outlined how I was fortunate to have grown up where there were numerous movie theaters within close proximity to each other, and to where my family resided in Inglewood, California, during the 1960s. There were two first-run theaters, the Fox and the United Artists, across from each other on Market Street. There were also two second-run theaters nearby: the Ritz which was down the street on Market, and the Inglewood Theater a block west on La Brea.

In addition there were two theaters a mile or so away from those, in an area known as Morningside Park. Both venues were located on Manchester near Crenshaw: the first-run Academy Theater (allegedly built to host the Academy Awards, though that never happened), and the second-run 5th Avenue Theater. From my neighborhood of Arbor Vitae and Inglewood Avenue those were more of a trek for a youngster on foot or bike, but would intermittently be host to an occasional family outing.

In the early 1960s, I went to see movies practically every weekend as the price of a ticket was pretty cheap, especially for youngsters. Back then theater concessions were still relatively pricey, so a stop at the nearby Sav-On Drug Store was always a must to purchase three nickel candies for a dime. (I was partial to the likes of Big Hunk, Look, and Sugar Babies.) As an adolescent, my movies of choice were comedies and cartoons: the former included any that starred Jerry Lewis, and the latter were almost always from Walt Disney.

One rare drama I recall attending at a young age was a big mistake. My friend Jim and I arrived at the Fox Theater too late on a Sunday to get tickets for Disney’s The Incredible Journey, a popular 1963 film centering on the adventures of two dogs and a cat traveling hundreds of miles to be reunited with their owner. With no chance of getting into that sold out show, I convinced Jim to attend The Carpetbaggers at the UA. Going to a movie — any movie — was better than not going at all, or at least that was my reasoning.

IMDB describes that film’s plot as centering on “a disagreeable rich young tycoon on the corporate make, with some subplots about booze, broads and Hollywood.” In retrospect that makes sense as I couldn’t follow it at all. In fact, I could barely stay awake as I found it so boring: I was too young to be titillated by any sexual content, and overall just wasn’t mature enough for what was an adult-themed film. Jim was disappointed that he couldn’t get into the Disney film and was angry that I pushed him to attend a film that for us was basically a waste of time (and of our precious allowances for admission — probably all of 50 cents).

But there would be another drama that was more accessible to someone my age – one that would knock me off my feet.

Alfred Hitchcock was already well-known to me from his TV anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents and, with the popularity of Psycho, Paramount Pictures capitalized on its success by rereleasing two of his films from the 1950s as a double feature in 1963: the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Trouble with Harry, from 1955.

I can’t recall the exact circumstances behind why I chose to see these rereleases but I’m pretty sure it was playing at the Fox. It wasn’t uncommon at the time to enter the movie at any point and stay after the second feature to see the beginning of the first (and having caught up on the plot to leave at the point you came in). When I entered the theater It was around the midway point of The Man Who Knew Too Much, where Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day enter Ambrose Chapel just outside of London. Their respective characters were Dr. Benjamin MacKenna and his wife Jo, the latter revealed as a big musical star of the stage who had retired prior to their marriage. I soon figured out that they were scoping this chapel to locate their son Hank (Christopher Olsen), who had been kidnapped for some unknown reason – that is, to me, having missed the first part of the movie.

Eventually, the action moved to the Albert Hall, where Jo, separated from Ben, becomes aware of a plot to assassinate a foreign dignitary during a concert. And when that performance of that concert began this segment was one that would expose me to an experience that would create a lasting and profound impression.

A bit of a sidebar for the sake of context. Music had started to be a constant in my life on a number of fronts. The songs on pop radio of the day had sparked my imagination; my favorite artists included the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons — this was before the Beatles and the British Invasion changed the musical landscape forever. In fourth grade, I had started to learn how to play drums, even though the instruments I used consisted of a practice drum pad or a table top. There was always music playing in my household, and not just from my older brother and sister: my parents bought numerous records that included Broadway musicals, crooners including Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, and ethic music of their Greek culture.

A line from a song I would later write best encapsulates how this fits the narrative: “it was nothing conscious, when I was still too young.” There’s no way to definitively determine whether the aforementioned musical events factored into what follows here, but I believe those experiences were impactful for me and in no way trivial.

During the chapel sequence Alfred Hitchcock lets the audience in on the assassination plot. Edward Drayton (Bernard Miles), one of the kidnappers who is at this point posing as a priest at Ambrose Chapel, plays a short portion of the concert’s program on a vinyl record. Drayton does this to instruct his hired assassin (Reggie Nalder) on the exact moment to pull the trigger to kill his victim at a concert at Albert Hall: after a pause in the music, the fatal shot was to occur during a cymbal crash, masking the sound of the gun.

Hitchcock, knowing that the movie audience needs to be able to recognize exactly when this happens, has Drayton play the segment three times; Hitchcock was a master of telegraphing important plot points so the audience, knowing what to watch for, would get caught up in the suspense.

When the concert begins with Bernard Herrmann conducting the London Philharmonic on “Cantata Storm Clouds” all dialog is suspended. (Herrmann wrote the movie’s score, but not the Cantata — that was written by Australian composer Arthur Benjamin for the original 1934 film). In addition to a full orchestra there is a soloist accompanied by an enormous chorus, and it wasn’t until many years into my adulthood I realized that they were singing words in English (e.g., “Finding release, finding release from that which drove them onward like their prey…the storm clouds broke”).

While I started to get swept up in the proceedings, it wasn’t due to the music alone: before the concert began Jo was confronted in the lobby by the assassin, warning her that her son’s safety depends on whether she decides to take any action. (The kidnapping occurred because earlier in the The Man Who Knew Too Much, Ben discovered the assassination plot — but not the victim or the exact location – with the intent of keeping the couple from telling the authorities.)

Between the performances of the orchestra and of Doris Day as the mother facing a horrific decision, my experience was something I’d not previously encountered in a movie theater. I was on the edge of my seat as I got caught up in the suspense and excitement: the hit man positioning himself to prepare for the fatal moment; Jo’s agony at what to do as her son’s fate hangs in the balance; Ben’s arrival at the hall and his race against time to locate the assassin’s box; closeups of the barrel of the pistol peeking out and turning to point to his target, a prime minister of an unspecified European-ish country — and all of this with absolutely no dialog, only the majesty of the orchestra and chorus performing throughout the entire sequence, propelling the visuals to the scene’s conclusion.

Within that sequence what stayed with me were two rapid cuts which occurs towards the end of the concert: following a shot of Herrmann’s flipping the score’s page we see a closeup of the notes on the sheet followed by an extreme closeup of subsequent notes. Trying to articulate the visceral power of movies can be precarious, but that short sequence of the notes flying across the page in tandem with the music and the plot machinations at that point had an effect on me that is still palpable today, even after having seen the The Man Who Knew Too Much numerous times.

For those who haven’t seen the film, I won’t give away what occurs next (and if you haven’t seen it I advise you to skip the accompanying clips here to see the entire movie). But I was so taken with what I had experienced that when my parents planned on seeing The Man Who Knew Too Much at the second-run 5th Avenue Theatre the following week I eagerly went along to experience it again.

That was the moment that cemented my interest in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, which I eagerly pursued afterward. I recall the excitement of watching Rear Window on NBC’s “Saturday Night at the Movies” sometime in the mid-1960s. When I first saw Strangers on a Train on a black and white TV as a young adult, I will never forget jumping up and down, screaming at the screen with my future wife Cindy and a few other friends, during the runaway merry-go-round climax.

Around that time, I learned that there would be a special showing at the Los Angeles County Art Museum of the films Hitchcock had pulled from release (including The Man Who Knew Too Much): I was fortunate to see Rope with a special in-person appearance from Jimmy Stewart, and on another night experienced a vibrant, 35mm IB Technicolor print of Vertigo: Both had been provided to the museum by Alfred Hitchcock himself. (I still possess the handouts given at each of those screenings.) Having been too young (and based on the publicity, too scared) to see Psycho on its first release, I have seen it numerous times as an adult, admiring its artistry while re-experiencing its excitement regardless of having viewed it time and again.

There was one surprising milestone for the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. It was an Alfred Hitchcock film that had won an Oscar for Best Song: “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. That song follows the same cinematic path as previously described for familiarizing the audience with the Cantata cymbal crash: Hitchcock briefly has Day as Jo sing a portion of the song after the start of the movie with son Hank whistling along, and when the song is sung in its entirety during the movie’s actual climax (after the Albert Hall sequence) the proceedings from the earlier sequence is mirrored in the conclusion’s denouement with Hank whistling to save his life. Even though Day initially thought the song was too childish it ironically would become her signature theme, in the same manner that “Thanks for the Memories” from “The Big Broadcast of 1938” became associated with Bob Hope.

It should be noted that the song’s performance is never poised as it might have been in a standard
musical film, where an orchestral backing track might appear out of nowhere. The first time we hear it Day sings it acapella, and the next and final time Day’s character is accompanying herself on a piano.

Alfred Hitchcock would later commission Livingston and Evans to write a song for Vertigo, with a totally different outcome. In his book Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, author Dan Auiler outlined how Paramount was concerned that audiences wouldn’t be familiar with the definition of the movie’s title, so Hitchcock asked the songwriting team to compose a song that would explain the meaning of vertigo. Following that lead, the duo included lyrics to define the word, though the result was more confusing than illuminating. That recording has survived and can be heard in the YouTube video below.

Containing an over-the-top performance sung by Billy Eckstine, the cringe-worthy effort is light years away from the classic 1958 film that is hailed as one of the best ever made: if the song evokes anything it’s giggles, with its schmaltzy, samba lounge-act execution and hokey tempo change. As anyone who’s seen Vertigo knows, the song was not used in that film even though advance advertisements plugged the tune — and, unlike the duo’s previous Oscar winner, it was largely forgotten.

When I later saw the 1934 British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (with Peter Lorre as the kidnapper), I had to agree with something Alfred Hitchcock had said many times: that the original was made by a talented amateur while the remake came from a professional. There are some who prefer the original, citing its plotline as being more compact, and that it was out of character for Hitchcock include any song that figured into the plot. (There is no equivalent for “Que Sera, Sera” in the British version.) The 1934 version does have other different and interesting touches in comparison to the first film: the kidnapped child is a girl, and at that film’s opening the location was Switzerland and not Morocco. Being an early Hitchcock film, it’s worth a look, especially if one has only seen the 1956 remake.

But for me the suspense and execution of the original never held a candle to the remake. I don’t think it’s a stretch to name The Man Who Knew Too Much as the movie that opened up my world beyond innocuous comedies and cartoons, and as I matured I ultimately viewed the art of motion pictures in a markedly different way.

“Que sera, sera…whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see … que sera, sera.” Similar to the lyrics to that song, when I first viewed The Man Who Knew Too Much, I had no idea how this one movie would affect my future of viewing films, and how in time I would write about that medium. Of the countless movies I’ve seen throughout my life, The Man Who Knew Too Much is the one that stands as a huge milestone for me, and therefore one I will truly never, ever, forget.

©2018 Mike Tiano. All Rights Reserved.

Mike Tiano

Mike Tiano

Best known for his work with the Yes-related fan page Notes From the Edge, Tiano launched the official website YesWorld and has written liner notes for several of the group's reissues. The Seattle resident is recording tracks for his upcoming album 'Creetisvan,' and is an expert on movies, TV, prog rock, and the Beatles. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
Mike Tiano
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