Film Diary: The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)
Sunday, 23 November 2008
Never work with children and animals, runs the old show-business saw. Film-makers might be wise to add to this advice: never make a feature of a catchy song , for it will grow greedy and swallow the film. The history of popular music is littered with songs from long-forgotten films – perhaps the classic example is the song from Hall Bartlett’s Unchained, a pleasant but unexciting flick about a California prison with an enlightened governor, now notable only for the unwitting film debut of Dexter Gordon who just happened to be on hand, and its Melody which became one of the most-recorded songs of all time.
Unchained was made in 1955, the same year that Hitchcock made this remake of his own 1934 film. Presumably he wasn’t completely satisfied with the early version, so you’d expect him to make sure he got it right this time. But The Man Who Knew Too Much doesn’t come easily to mind when you think of the Hitchcock greats. I bet you’d all recognise the song though. It’s as much part of Doris Day as the yellow basket was part of Ella.
This is all rather unfair to a fine film. If it sits in the shadow of North by North West or Rear Window it’s probably because James Stewart doesn’t sparkle like Cary Grant, and Doris Day can’t counter his hapless Ordinary Joe with the same touch of glamour that Grace Kelly could give him. Still, the pair of them carry off their portrayal of an unlikely couple wandering blindly into a net of international intrigue, espionage and assassination with their son – the sort of winsome brat so beloved of 50s American cinema – as the McGuffin. You do have to wonder how an international singing star manages to settle down to a life as mother and wife to a gauche Indiana quack. There’s a story here, hinted at but never explicitly told, which would make more sense if Jimmy were Doris’s shrink, but anybody who thought Doris Day was there just for her voice and were unaware that she could act too would be seriously impressed by the scene in which her husband has her all but begging for her medication.
This is good Hitchcock. The crucial scene in the Albert Hall is breathtaking, real edge-of-the-seat stuff. Will The Man Who Knew Too Much eventually be elevated to its rightful place in the pantheon? Who knows – whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see…