Written by Jeremy Quist

US, 1956. 120 min. Cast: James Stewart, Doris Day, Brenda de Banzie, Bernard Miles, Ralph Truman; Music: Bernard Herrmann, Ray Evans, Jay Livingston; Cinematography: Robert Burks; Written by John Michael Hayes; Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

One of the most curious aspects of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much is that the man the title refers to spends most of the film not knowing much at all. What he does know is that a statesman is soon to be assassinated in London. But the reasons for this are not important; this is merely the MacGuffin – Hitchcock’s famously irrelevant plot device that serves simply to get the story going. All that really matters is getting the boy back.

Everything begins innocently enough as Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart) and his family pleasantly converse with Louis Bernard, a stranger they meet on a bus headed for Marrakech. Because of Louis’s charm and the son’s humor, nothing seems suspicious until Ben’s wife, Jo (Doris Day), notes Louis’s inquisitive manner and Ben’s willingness to answer. These suspicions rise at their hotel when Jo insists they are being watched, while Ben scoffs at her paranoia. After all, who would want to spy on this typical American family?

We do, and Hitchcock allows us to with this 1956 remake of his film of the same name from 22 years earlier. Although we are offered detailed glimpses, we are far from all-knowing. Like Ben, the man who knows just enough to get into trouble, we are consistently kept in the dark as Hitchcock takes his time revealing plot points and crucial information. In fact, it is nearly 45 minutes into the film before the couple realizes they have an actual problem (their son, Hank, has been kidnapped), another hour until we learn who wants the statesman assassinated, and at the end there are still unanswered questions. The entire time spent in Marrakech, our depth of knowledge is kept low, not only to build suspense, but to add to the shock when knowledge is finally given.

Here, characters are not who they seem, motivations are obscured, intentions are unknown. These bits of information are revealed to us as the McKennas discover them – we learn when they do, as if we were living the thriller as well. Even when we think answers are close to arriving, Hitchcock leads us on a “wild goose chase” with a scene that could seem pointless if not for his desire to keep us guessing, to exploit the fact that he knows something we do not.

How fitting, then, that the film’s featured song should be “Que Sera, Sera,” a song that is all about not knowing-Doris Day sings in the chorus, “the future’s not ours to see; what will be, will be.” Ironically, Hitchcock did not want a song for the film, but the powers-that-be at Paramount Pictures insisted. Furthermore, when the songwriting team returned with “Que Sera, Sera,” Day did not care for it and resented having to record the song. Not only did the song become a hit for Day, it won the film an Academy Award for Best Music, Original Score. Clearly, the future had not been for Hitchcock or Day to see.

Yet the inclusion of “Que Sera, Sera” in The Man Who Knew Too Much points toward part of Hitchcock’s genius – that he could take this unwanted song and use it to brilliant effect. As Ben dresses for dinner, Jo gets Hank ready for bed and prompts him to sing the now-famous tune. Hank whistles the chorus with her, and in an intimate portrayal of this mother/son bond, the two waltz in the middle of the room, the song literally joining them. In this fine example of foreshadowing, the performance (and waltz-driven physical bond) is interrupted by a knock at the door, just as Hank will soon be taken from his parents. It only makes sense, then, that this song eventually reunites them – mother singing to save her son as he whistles in hopes of being found. Here, the camera shows staircases and hallways, from the ballroom where Jo sings to the room in which Hank is held captive, creating a spatial (and aural) connection between mother and son – and this time the once-interrupted tune is finished.

The piece of music that is not as lucky, however, is Arthur Benjamin’s “Storm Cloud Cantata,” performed by the London Symphony Orchestra in the climactic, tour-de-force Albert Hall scene. As the title card at the beginning of the film suggests, we are waiting for the all-important crash of cymbals, and Hitchcock makes us wait through a ten-minute sequence of well over 100 shots – from Jo to the assassin, from the statesman to the orchestra, from the percussionist back to Jo. But what really makes the scene so tense and heart pounding is the cantata.

So much focus is placed on the music here that the piece almost becomes a character itself. Appropriately, not only is the part of the conductor played by score composer (and longtime Hitchcock collaborator), Bernard Herrmann, but Herrmann plays himself (note his name on the billboard outside the Albert Hall). A trusting Hitchcock gave Herrmann the opportunity to write a new piece for this scene, Benjamin’s cantata having provided the score for the same sequence in the original version. But Herrmann refused the offer, believing the “Storm Cloud Cantata” to serve the purposes of the climax perfectly.

And it truly does. After the initial fanfare, the piece begins slowly and sets a sinister mood as Hitchcock simply alternates camera shots, letting us (along with Jo) contemplate the full scope of the situation – either a statesman is assassinated or Hank faces further peril. As the cantata gradually increases in volume, speed, and intensity, the shots become shorter, the editing more rapid, and the action more suspenseful. At this point the music overtakes the dialogue, rendering it nonessential. When Ben finds Jo in the mezzanine, mid-performance, we do not need to hear what they are saying to one another. All we are concerned with is the cantata leading us to that inevitable crash of cymbals, that looming moment that has been the source of all our stress and worry. This is the one bit of information we have that the McKennas do not. So when the percussionist finally stands to prepare his cymbals, we can barely handle the anxiety, for here Hitchcock has made us the audience that knows too much.

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