Sunday 14 March 2021

Mainly about Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, the 1956 version - Ken Mogg writes on another of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpieces

BOTH THE ENGLISH (1934) and the American (1956) versions of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much concern the kidnapping of a child by terrorists in order to silence the child’s father who has learned of a planned political assassination in London.  When the kidnapping occurs, the victim’s family are holidaying abroad - in St Moritz and Marrakech respectively.  The contrast of bright, sunny Marrakech with the dingy back streets of London is particularly striking, and was intentional on Hitchcock’s part.  He might almost have taken the idea from one of his favourite novelists, Charles Dickens (1), whose Little Dorritt (1857) opens in a sweltering Marseilles then switches locale to ‘a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale’.  In both films we get to know the kidnapped child quite well, before and after the kidnapping.  However, in neither version do we see the kidnapping itself. Possibly Hitchcock thought that it might be too disturbing.  In the 1934 version, we do briefly see young Betty being spirited from St Moritz on a horse-drawn sleigh; she seems sedated.(2) Whereas, in the 1956 version, our first knowledge of young Hank’s kidnapping comes when his father, Ben McKenna (James Stewart), takes a phone call, and a male voice with a foreign accent warns him not to tell the authorities what he knows, ‘or your little boy will be in serious danger’.  Later, in London, Ben’s wife Jo (Doris Day) will receive a similar call from a woman. Such ‘reinforcement’ is doubtless aimed both at the McKennas (by the kidnappers) and the film’s audience (by Hitchcock). 


As melodramas go, the 1956 TMWKTM shows the non-profound side of Hitchcock at its best.  Instead of profundity we are rewarded with a screenplay that is a model of construction, designed to appeal to all ages and be consistently entertaining.  I remember that I first saw TMWKTM as a young teenager at a local scout hall, and – like everyone else that night – could hardly wait for each successive 16mm spool to be changed on the only projector, and for the excitement to resume.  I could follow each turn of events without confusion or difficulty, especially as storyteller Hitchcock had made every effort not to go over anyone’s head. As the titles-sequence concludes, after featuring a condensed performance of the crucial-to-the-plot ‘Storm Cloud Cantata’, the camera slowly moves in to isolate a hitherto unnoticed member of the orchestra standing impassively at the back.  Now he turns and picks up from two chairs a pair of brass cymbals which he holds out in front of him, then on cue clashes them together vigorously.  A title-card immediately announces: ‘A single crash of Cymbals and how it rocked the lives of an American family.’ Hitchcock knew that some of his audience would not be familiar with those brass objects, and might be distracted by speculating about them (if not the spelling of their name, thanks to that title-card).  Likewise, in TMWKTM there are several moments during the story when the situation is reprised or spelt out.  I counted four such moments.

As the film’s story effectively hinges on the reuniting of a family after a major disruption, Hitchcock spends time in early scenes indicating several aspects of how Ben and Jo have become less than perfectly bonded.  In the opening scene (above), on a bus to Marrakesh, the McKennas sit at the back.  (Sitting in the corner beside Ben, but unnoticed at this stage, is the secret agent Louis Bernard whose death-by-stabbing will serve as a fulcrum for events to follow.)  Within moments we notice from the dialogue that Ben seems to want to be the major influence on Hank.  Jo tells her son that they’re not really in ‘Africa’ but in French Morocco, and Ben, who has been in this part of the world before, during the War, seeks to correct her and adds, ‘Well, it’s Northern Africa’.  Both are right, but Ben has hardly noticed the added nuance in Jo’s comment.  Soon afterwards, as they all ride in a fiacre (what Hank calls a ‘wagon’) to the Hotel Mamounia, Jo is detectably irritated by how Ben has revealed so much about himself to Louis Bernard (below) in a one-sided conversation where Louis has asked the questions and Ben has willingly answered them.  Of course, Jo doesn’t yet know that Louis is working for the Deuxième Bureau (3), and presumably wants to ward off scrutiny of himself while he follows orders to locate ‘a suspicious married couple’. 


That ‘suspicious married couple’ will prove to be the Draytons – Lucy (Brenda de Banzie) and Edward (Bernard Miles) – whom we see briefly as they come out of the hotel and who, over dinner that evening in an Arab restaurant, introduce themselves to Jo and Ben.  (The sensitive Jo has already told Ben that she thinks the Draytons are staring at them! Ben is inclined to scoff.) Misleadingly, Lucy says that her husband is ‘such a stick-in-the-mud’, when he will prove to be anything but that - though with a servile side that eventually alienates him from his wife. In fact, Hitchcock plays with us about just how far Edward is what he says he is.  He tells the McKennas that he is a farmer from ‘down in Buckinghamshire’, and is worried by soil erosion, hinting that he may also be a trained agronomist, or similar.  The concierge at the hotel says that Drayton had told him that he was a college professor. Indeed, Drayton’s boss, secretly a terrorist but also the Ambassador at an unidentified foreign embassy in London, complains to Drayton’s face, ‘You English intellectuals will be the death of us.’ Nonetheless, Drayton proves himself a capable actor.  In one of the film’s most chilling yet also most humorous scenes, we find him playing a pastor at the sinister Ambrose Chapel in backstreet Bayswater. Upstairs, at this unlikely address, the terrorists have their London headquarters.  The terrorists’ marksman, a creepy individual if ever there was one, even when he wears a dinner suit, comes here for Drayton to give him his instructions and to ask for payment in advance.  ‘Have you got the moneee?’


The screenplay of TMWKTM was officially written by the highly-capable John Michael Hayes, whom I once had the pleasure of interviewing. (Unofficial contributions were made by Hitchcock’s friend Angus MacPhail, who had worked with the director in England.  But a professionally self-regarding Hayes would not allow MacPhail co-credit, to Hitchcock’s chagrin.)  One of the points Hayes made to me about Hitchcock’s American films up to Rear Window(1954), his first film for Hitchcock, was that many of them lacked warmth.  He had worked in radio and he especially valued dialogue and repartee.  When Ben and Jo joke in the Marrakesh marketplace about what is paying for their trip, they mention such things as  ‘Bill Edwards’ tonsils’ and ‘Johnny Matthews’ appendix’.  Such homely lines are quintessential Hayes.  Moreover, he was also an able constructionist, and thus highly suited to Hitchcock.

"...the famous Marrakesh Souks..." 


Hitchcock’s special eye

Of course, Hitchcock had a special eye for how he might use purely cinematic means to keep things moving while including everything important.  TMWKTM is notable for some striking high-shots, each functional and frequently over-determined.  When Louis Bernard, disguised as an Arab, is chased by both another ‘Arab’ (or possibly a real one) and by the police through the famous Marrakesh Souks (markets), and is stabbed in the back, Hitchcock cuts to a dramatic high-shot that is also a piece of sleight-of-hand on his part.  We see the police still chasing after the running figure, clearly unaware that he is now not the man they want, i.e., Louis Bernard, who has collapsed in a shadowed corner.  The chase disappears from our view, and Hitchcock cuts back to ground level.  A mortally wounded Louis gets up and staggers around the corner towards the marketplace which somehow he reaches just as the McKennas and the Draytons are going by!  Ben notices him and cries out, ‘Hey, look there!’  Louis staggers up to Ben, then collapses.  Ben’s hands reach out as he is falling, to grasp his face, but the disguised Louis is wearing greasepaint, and Ben’s hands can’t get a purchase.  As Louis slumps to the ground, leaving tell-tale streak-marks on his face (and greasepaint on Ben’s hands), he looks up at Ben pleadingly and tells him to bend down so that Louis can whisper some final words.  An extreme close-up of Louis whispering in Ben’s ear (following hard on the extreme high-shot of just moments before) is all part of the apt style of this particular film.  That style is enthralling in its own way.  Equally, those whispered words (which Ben writes down immediately) are crucial to what follows – and Ben’s possession of them now marks him, in the terrorists’ view, as ‘the man who knows too much’.


Another clever high-shot is that which Hitchcock uses to both reveal the situation of the Ambrose Chapel and to show two things happening at once.  At the rear of the chapel, we see the marksman leaving in a car for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall (which will include the Storm Cloud Cantata).  Simultaneously, we see Jo waiting in the street at the front for a police car to arrive. She will report that the chapel is now mysteriously locked up although a service had been in progress there only minutes previously, with Jo and Ben among the congregation, before she slipped out to telephone.  (Incidentally, TMWKTM is decidedly Hitchcock’s ‘telephone film’: telephone calls feature in it repeatedly, all part of the streamlined suspense that Hitchcock builds up for us.)  Later, at the Albert Hall, a remarkable establishing-shot of the auditorium from above makes it appear like a huge bowl containing both the performers and the audience.  That high-shot economically establishes the circular shape of the auditorium, which will have a plot-function later when Ben arrives and goes looking for the marksman’s box which is situated with a good view of the foreign Prime Minister’s box, on which the marksman will take a bead …


It is probably unnecessary for me to attempt to describe the drawn-out Albert Hall scene at length.  The essential situation has been made crystal-clear to the viewer, and Hitchcock is able to build the tension with practically only one thing not yet exactly known by us: just when the clash of cymbals will occur.  He does, however, do everything he can to keep us focused as the tension mounts.  Even as Jo is hurrying inside, still dressed in a grey suit rather than concert attire (Jo has come by taxi straight to the Albert Hall from Ambrose Chapel), Hitchcock puts our minds at rest about this: we see another woman going inside who is wearing a similar suit!  (Also, the concert appears to be a matinee rather than a more formal evening concert.)  In the foyer, Jo asks to see the manager, and is told, unhelpfully, that he is ‘over there, somewhere’.  As she looks around, bewildered, the marksman enters and immediately spots her, an instant before she sees him.  He makes a quick decision to approach her with a warning.  In his distinctively creepy voice, he tells her: ‘You have a very n-i-c-e little boy, madame.  His safety will depend on you tonight’ – then turns and heads upstairs to his box.  A slightly improbable moment follows.  Jo goes straight inside, but stays at ground-floor level where she stands at the back of the hall.  (In the 1934 version, Jill Lawrence buys a ticket.)  An elderly doorman does ask to see her ticket, but she tells him, ‘I’m looking for someone’, and he turns away to assist other patrons who are entering.  He doesn’t trouble Jo thereafter.  She is able to stand there until the climactic moment when she utters an involuntary scream, thereby defying the marksman’s warning to her earlier.  Meanwhile, Hitchcock effectively gives us a lesson in musical appreciation as the concert gets under way.  The various instruments of the orchestra are singled out for emphasis as they come into play, with special attention to the percussion section featuring a busy drummer (thunder-rolls are an important part of the Cantata).  This time, quite early, Hitchcock gives us a close-up of the fateful cymbals waiting on two chairs.  He knows that we’ll also wait, but anxiously!


Another reason that Jo must stay at ground-level is that Hitchcock needs her precisely there, able to both survey the interior of the auditorium yet somehow be seen by Ben when he arrives after the concert has started.  In fact, he manages to instantly spot her from  the foyer.  It is now almost empty of people, who would otherwise have blocked his view.  In its sheer cleverness, TMWKTM reminds me of a master chess player who somehow keeps coming up with a better move than his opponent, and eventually wins!  To appreciative onlookers, it can seem almost uncanny!                             


Composing for Hitchcock

Less prominent than in some other Hitchcock films, the work of film composer Bernard Herrmann is nonetheless fully functional in TMWKTM.  (Herrmann himself is shown conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Albert Hall.) That’s partly because, for the Marrakesh scenes – notably the restaurant and marketplace scenes – he has submerged his usual distinctive style in ‘Arabian-sounding’ music that adds to the film’s evocation of something being afoot which isn’t anyone’s customary business. Call it a certain exotic quality and what Herrmann invariably brings to his films - a ‘something more’. (Hitchcock once graciously said that 33% of the effectiveness of his best work was Herrmann’s contribution.) Similarly, in London, Herrmann more than once provides a creepy underlining, as when Ben approaches the taxidermist’s via a narrow side alleyway, and when Jo alights from a taxi near the Ambrose Chapel and must then wait in the street for Ben to come. Possibly, though, something doesn’t quite work during the melee that breaks out between Ben and the taxidermist’s staff: here, the musical overlay seems both redundant and to unnecessarily emphasise that the scene isn’t particularly funny!


On the other hand, the musical content of the Albert Hall scene is highly functional.  I’m grateful to Peter Conrad’s book ‘The Hitchcock Murders’ (2000) for the information that both the original composer of the Cantata, Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960) (4) , and Herrmann himself made additions to the music this time around:


For the remake, Benjamin added more than a minute’s extra music to the cantata, and before the exclamation that cues the cymbals and the gunshot Herrmann braked the tempo by bringing in the Albert Hall’s solemnly stately organ.  The male and female choirs separately declaim the crucial words ‘Finding release’ at least fourteen times before they join in the final outburst. This longed-for release is music’s promise to us: the art works by exacerbating tensions and chromatic contradictions that, as if quelling and gratifying the friction of sexual desire, it finally allays.  (pp. 309-10)


Sexual Tension

Conrad has noticed what isn’t always remarked: how Hitchcockian suspense is analogous, up to a point, with sexual tension.  Of course, the principal score of TMWKTM, and the Cantata at the Albert Hall, effectively play off, and contrast with, the simple tune and lyrics (by Livingston & Evans) of Jo’s song to Hank,  'Que sera sera/What will be, will be' There are several other contrasts incorporated in the Albert Hall scene.  For example, the rousing massed voices, and the power-play of international politics (Hitchcock reportedly based the underlying idea for his 1956 film on recent tension between the Soviet Union and Hungary) (5), contrast with the simple call to prayer of the lone muezzin we heard in Marrakesh.  Likewise, the relatively well-heeled audience at the concert contrast with signs of poverty that we glimpsed both in North Africa and in the congregation at the Ambrose Chapel.  I once pointed out (6) that, besides building suspense, the concert demonstrates a famous claim by the philosopher Schopenhauer, who said that music ‘parallels the world’ – providing a further reason why the Cantata effectively sums up the peripatetic film to this point.(7)

"Que sera sera"


In such a context, TMWKTM’s title has an extra nuance, and perhaps implies that we each need to acceptwho we are, and not aspire above ourselves (seek to know too much for our own good!).  When Mrs Drayton (who all along has had her doubts about Hank’s kidnapping) tells her husband, ‘I wish it were tomorrow’, he replies in his role of clergyman, ‘That’s not a very orthodox sentiment.’  Drayton’s words inadvertently echo the acceptance implied by Jo’s song, ‘What will be, will be.’  But the film pivots on the conundrum here, a reminder that Hitchcock was seldom content to leave conservative orthodoxy unchallenged.  The best drama is never passively dogmatic, but rather the opposite.  Accordingly, Jo’s involuntary scream in the Albert Hall – hardly a sign of her acceptance of the status quo! – defies passivity yet wordlessly acknowledges that sometimes it’s all too hard to know what to do.  (She has had to ask herself: should she intervene to save a statesman’s life when doing so must jeopardise the life of her kidnapped son?)  It’s the stuff of the best drama, and here arguably produces one of the finest single moments in Hitchcock.


As Peter Conrad implies, art may free us to better grasp what has been elusive.  Nonetheless, Hitchcock once told an interviewer: ‘Reality is something that none of us can stand, at any time.’  A related matter now.  Hitchcock’s use of Vague Symbolism works a treat in TMWKTM.  For example, what do we make of the scene where Ben escapes from the Ambrose Chapel by climbing its bell-rope, which sets the bell ringing and drawing a crowd of locals into the street below?  Obviously, the plot requires Ben to escape, and Hitchcock’s rule of thumb dictated that scenes should draw on distinctive elements in the setting itself. (Ski-runs at St Moritz, windmills in Holland, and all that.  There’s a comparable moment involving a church in Secret Agent, where its organ provides the dramatic point of the scene.)  In keeping with what I’ve said above about drama that isn’t simply dogmatic, Ben puts into practice the idea that God helps those who help themselves!  Further, it’s his personal moment of taking the one route available (short of doing nothing), just as Jo will have her matching moment when she screams in the Albert Hall.  (Peter Conrad sees Ben’s moment like this: ‘This [tolling bell] is not a summons to devotion; like [Jo’s] scream, it sounds an alarm – p. 310.)  At any rate, in another phrase of Hitchcock’s, it’s not a ‘no-scene scene’.  It has a shape and, we feel, a right to be there. 

"...this 'telephone film'..."



Naturally, this essentially ‘Hitchcockian’ thriller exhibits its director being audacious, as only he could be.  Several times he ‘cheats’, and we neither notice nor care! In this ‘telephone film’, the placement and timing of several of the calls is crucial, often producing a striking effect.  For example, in London, when Jo gets the call from  Mrs Drayton warning her and Ben to keep silent, it reveals that the terrorists know exactly what the McKennas are doing at that moment – talking to Inspector Buchanan of the Special Branch, Scotland Yard, in their flat.  (Are the terrorists shadowing the McKennas?  If so, we never learn how, or why.)  The uncanny effect is all!  Another example of Hitchcock’s audacity …  In the Ambrose Chapel, when Mrs Drayton, carrying the collection plate, suddenly spots Ben and Jo, she scuttles back to signal her husband, who is delivering the sermon; accordingly, half of the congregation don’t have to donate that Sunday!  (Drayton quickly dismisses them, and they all file out without a murmur!  It’s a fun scene on Hitchcock’s part!)  And one more instance …  At the Embassy, when Ben goes in search of Hank, he eventually reaches a room upstairs whose door handle he surreptitiously tries, to no effect. Instantly, he throws himself at the solid-looking door and – lo! – it immediately bursts open.  For added effect, as we watch from inside, Hitchcock adds the sound of splintering wood and a length of wood does fall to the ground.  It’s very convincing!


Hitchcock had been unsure whether Doris Day could give him the performance and the range he needed, especially at moments of high emotion. His doubts were unfounded.  In fact, Day is at her best at such times. Watch her portrayal of Jo’s consternation and near-panic (though her doctor-husband has first sedated her) when told that Hank was taken away by the Draytons.  Just as convincing is her desperation when she tries to reach Buchanan on the phone, and is stalled by his deputy.  All the cast of TMWKTM are superb, including the actor, Ralph Truman, who plays the understanding Buchanan (‘I’ve got a child of my own’).  There were no fewer than 95 cast members.  It’s illuminating, and at times amusing, to read the full cast-list on the IMDb.  Note that one of the attendees at the Albert Hall is supposed to be the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, in fact portrayed by actor Clifford Buckton.  When Hitchcock once referred to the importance of attending to ‘all the little details’, he was pointing to one of his many secrets that were always there in plain sight.  He never failed to attend to even the smallest bit-parts.



1.  Hitchcock studied several Dickens novels at school, and his library contained a complete set of that author’s work.


2.  I recently read ‘Kidnapped’ (2015) by Mark Tedeschi QC about the first child-kidnapping in Australia, in 1960.  Eight-year-old Graham Thorne was abducted while walking to school, and chloroformed. By the time the kidnapper rang Graham’s parents, demanding ransom, the boy was dead.  Sordid stuff.


3.  That’s what Ben and Jo will be told by the Police Inspector in his Marrakesh office. Although the original Deuxième Bureau, a military intelligence agency before the War, was dissolved by the armistice with Germany in 1945, the name was retained as a general label for the French intelligence service.  (See Wikipedia.)


4. Australian-born composer Benjamin, who in 1934 was a professor at the Royal College of Music in London, was commissioned by Hitchcock to write a suitable piece of music for his film, which Herrmann retained in the 1956 version of TMWKTM.


5.  James Chapman, ‘Hitchcock and the Spy Film’ (2018), elaborates on this in his book.  He concludes: ‘[T]he second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was originally rooted much more directly in contemporary politics than the first film had been’ (p. 199) – but, despite Angus MacPhail’s preference, stayed non-specific.  The Prime Minister and the Ambassador come from an unnamed country.


6.  Ken Mogg, The Alfred Hitchcock Story (Titan, 2008), p. 143               


7.  ‘In particular, [Schopenhauer] … said that the world is sometimes stormy and sometimes relatively calm …  [Fittingly, in Hitchcock’s Albert Hall scene] Jo wrestles with her terrible dilemma [whose crux feels like]: what is the will of an individual against that of the world itself?’  (Ibid, p. 143)  Of course, words are inadequate to convey the real weight of this scene.  


Editor's Note: This is the sixth essay by Hitchcock scholar Ken Mogg to have been published on Film Alert 101.

The other essays can be found if you click on these links.

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