Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1956): Hitchocock Unacknowledged Masterpiece, Starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day

t2figp2oth2The original 1934 version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” appealed to Hitchcock so much that, 22 years later, he felt he could remake it as a “new” movie that would stand on its own right.
He also believed that he could improve upon it, and not just technically, which he certainly did. Thus, Hitchcock was the kind of artist who, even when he does a remake, he places new emphases and raises new issues about both characters and relationships.  This is unlike other directors, such as Leo McCarey, who have remade their own films, An Affair to Remember, a retooling of Love Affair.


When initially released, in the summer of 1956, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” was well received by the lay audience, emerging as one of Hitchcock’s most commercial pictures, partly due to the popularity of Doris Day as an actress and singer. However, at the time, the movie received scant attention from critics, even those who liked Hitchcock’s work, who for some reason tended to prefer the simpler 1934 British version.

Our Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Decades later, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” received the elevated stature it has always deserved due to the revisionist work of Robin Wood and Donald Spoto. Indeed, many scholars see the film today as one of Hitchcock’s more serious critiques of 1950s American society, particularly the institutions of the American family, marriage, women’s positions, and motherhood

In the 1934 rendition, a married couple, Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are vacationing in Switzerland with their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam), when Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay), a Frenchman who befriends them, is found murdered. Before dying, however, Louis whispers a secret, that a diplomat will be assassinated at great embarrassment to the British government. To keep Bob’s lips sealed, Betty is kidnapped, to be held until after the assassination by hired killer Abbott (Peter Lorre), scheduled to take place during a concert at London’s Albert Hall. Bob must follow his duty as an Englishman and prevent the assassination, but at the same time, he must do all in his power to insure the safety of his child

In this film, Hitchcock developed a theme he would repeat in the future, that of the innocent victim, who’s suddenly caught up in a terrifying situation with apparently no way out, coupled with breathless chase scenes in popular public places.

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” was Peter Lorre’s first English-speaking part; he had been brought to eng at hitch’s request after he saw him at Lang’s “M.” Hitchcock, who didn’t favor child actors, got along so well with the young Pilbeam that he cast her in her first adult lead role, in “Young and Innocent,” three years later.

Hitchcock altered some major locales–Switzerland became Morocco. And while keeping the original story quite consistent and intact, he enhanced it with skillful production values, all in all adding 45 new minutes to the narrative.

In the new version, Dr. Ben and Jo McKenna (Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day) are innocent, unsuspecting tourists whose vacation in French Morocco turns into a nightmare. Traveling with their son Hank (Christopher Olsen), they are enjoying their holiday when they meet Mr. and Mrs. Drayton (Bernard Miles and Brenda de Banzie), a friendly Brit couple, and Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin), a suspicious but friendly Frenchman.

Later, while Ben and Jo are shopping in the bazaar, an Arab runs frantically up to them, having been stabbed in the back. Ben grabs the man as he falls down, and finds to his horror that it’s Louis Bernard in disguise. Before he dies, Louis whispers something to Ben, thereby tossing him into a tangle of international intrigue that only he can unravel.

The first version, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” was startlingly grim and cruel, while the second is more polished, contains more humor, and offers many more pleasures, thematic and visual. There’s more polish and lavish in this remake. As Donald Spoto observed, the scenes are beautifully framed and tautly directed—especially the double climax of the assassination attempt at the Albert Hall and the Embassy, while searching for the kidnapped Hank.

Hitchcock misses no opportunity to milk his hero’s vulnerability for all it’s worth. After the villains kidnap the couple’s Beaver Cleaver-like son Hank, the irony inherent in the title becomes clear, it’s McKenna who’s the man who doesn’t have a clue.

On one typical excursion, McKenna, thinking he’s on the trail of the kidnappers, mistakenly ends up in the workshop of a London taxidermist, where he’s nearly beheaded by the blade of a stuffed swordfish.

Later on, Ben and Jo meet the British couple, the Draytons, in a restaurant in Marrakech. This is a key scene, most of which centers on the difficulty Ben has sitting and eating in proper Arabic style. As the scholar Cohen has noted, Ben’s awkwardness and discomfort offers perspectives on masculinity that the film struggles to assimilate within its model of marital partnership

The critique in this particular scene involves a more general one, that of the American provincial abroad. Ben’s inability to sit on the floor and eat the chicken with one hand supports his conventional role as a figure of authority. The situation places emphasis on his height, his impatience with presumably trivial aspects of daily life (Arabs as less civilized people) and on his loftier priorities. Ben doesn’t seem to care about such minor matters as manners; he just wants to eat.

His wife supports the conventional doctrine of separate spheres in which women concern themselves with more trivial, that is, domestic matters, while relegating (and delegating) to the men the more “important. “ As a surgeon, Ben is, after all, confronted with matters of life and death on a daily basis.

But Ben’s behavior in the restaurant may yield another meaning: His ineptitude here foreshadows his errors later in the film. It suggests inflexibility and inability to think and act outside of established patterns of dominant culture of what’s a manly and masculine conduct. It also emphasizes the very limited technical skills that his work has focused on to the exclusion of others; you would expect a surgeon to be able to eat chicken with one hand. The scene softens the representation of the character, balancing the conventional attributes of masculinity against a countervailing humanity, suggested by his discomfort and ineptitude.

The next day, driving back from the police station after his son is kidnapped, Ben admits to Jo: “I don’t know what’s the right thing to do.” Though earlier, he had urged his wife to take tranquilizers, against her wish, he now concedes that her instincts (“feminine” and thus inferior) were all along right

Doris Day delivers the famous song, “Que Sera, Sera” (“Whatever Will be, Will Be”), by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, which won an Oscar Award and became a smash hit, independently of the movie and forever associated with Day’s upbeat screen persona.

Hitchcock makes his customary cameo, as does his brilliant and frequent composer Bernard Herrmann, cast as the conductor at Albert Hall.


The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

One of the most successful and critically acclaimed films of Hitchcock’s British era, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” was made in 1934, six years before he left from the U.S.

Hitchcock remade the film with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Dayin 1956, but the two films are very different in tone, setting, characters (the kidnapped in 1934 was a girl, not a boy) and in many plot details.

The film borrows its title from G. K. Chesterton’s 1922 collection of detective stories of the same name. Hitchcock decided to use the title because he owned the rights for some of the stories.

The married couple, Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Banks) are on vacation in the Swiss Alps, with their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). Jill is participating in a clay pigeon shooting contest. They befriend a foreigner, Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay), who is staying in their hotel. One evening, as Jill dances with Louis, she witnesses his assassination as a French spy. Before dying, the spy passes on to her vital information to be delivered to the British consul.

To ensure their silence, the assassins, led by the dangerous Abbott (Peter Lorre), kidnap the daughter.  Fearing to seek help from the police, the couple returns to England. They discover that the group intends to assassinate the head of state of an unidentified European country during a concert at London’s famous Royal Albert Hall. Jill attends the concert, and to distract the gunman, she screams at the crucial moment.

The assassins are tracked to a working-class in London near the docks, where they hide-out in a temple of sun-worshipping cult. Bob enters and is held prisoner but manages to escape. The police surround the building and a gunfight ensues. The assassins hold out until their ammunition runs out. Betty, who has been held there, and one of the criminals are on the roof.

It is Jill’s sharpshooting skills that kill the man, who turns out to be the same man who won the shooting contest in the Alps. Abbott commits suicide rather than be captured, and Betty is returned to her parents.

The project began when Hitchcock and Charles Bennett tried to adapt a Bulldog Drummond story about international conspiracies and a baby kidnapping; its original title was Bulldog Drummond’s Baby. As the deal fell through, the frame of the plot was reused for The Man Who Knew Too Much, the title taken from an unrelated Chetterton’s compilation.

The story is credited to Bennett and D.B. Wyndham Lewis; Bennett claims Lewis had been hired to write dialogue, which was never used.

Having recently fled from Nazi Germany, Peter Lorre was unable to speak English; he learned his lines phonetically.

The shoot-out was based on the Sidney Street Siege, a real-life incident which took place in London’s East End (where Hitchcock grew up) in January 1911.

Music: Storm Clouds Cantata

Hitchcock hired Australian composer Arthur Benjamin to write a piece of music especially for the climax at Royal Albert Hall. The music, a chorale titled “Storm Clouds Cantata,” is used in the 1934 version and in the 1956 remake in a more elaborate way.

The Royal Albert Hall, the scene of the “Storm Clouds Cantata.”

In the 1934 version, the London Symphony Orchestra was directed by H. Wynn Reeves. In the 1956 version, the London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by the composer of new music, Bernard Herrmann, and the chorus is the Covent Garden Opera Chorus with soloist Barbara Howitt.

The Cantata is about 9 minutes long, starting with a Lento in three-quarter time in C major. The first half of the chorale is Lento, at 108 beats per minute. Then begins the Allegro agitato, characterized by rhythmic strokes of the timpani. The conclusion is very fast both in the chorus and in the orchestra.

Hitchcock Cameo:

Hitchcock himself appears about 33 minutes into the film, seen crossing the street from right to left in a black trench coat before the couple enter the Chapel.



Directed by Hitchcock

Written by Charles Bennett and D. B. Wyndham-Lewis

Associate Producer: Ivor Montagu

Camera: Curt Courant

Editor: H. St. C. J. Stewart

Music: Arthur Benjamin



Leslie Banks as Bob

Edna Best as Jill

Peter Lorre as Abbott

Frank Vosper as Ramon

Hugh Wakefield as Clive

Nova Pilbeam as Betty Lawrence

Pierre Fresnay as Louis

Cicely Oates as Nurse Agnes

B. A. Clarke Smith as Binstead

George Curzon as Gibson



Running time: 75 Minutes