The Man Who Knew Too Much
Drama, Mystery | 120 Mins | Released: 1956
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: James Stewart, Doris Day, Brenda de Banzie, Bernard Miles, Ralph Truman, Daniel Gélin, Mogens Wieth
Our Rating: 8
In The Man Who Knew Too Much, an American family–Dr. Benjamin “Ben” McKenna (James Stewart), his wife, popular singer Josephine Conway “Jo” McKenna (Doris Day), and their son Henry “Hank” McKenna (Christopher Olsen)–are vacationing in Morocco. Traveling from Casablanca to Marrakesh, they meet Frenchman Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin), who seems friendly, but Jo is suspicious of his many questions and evasive answers and thinks that he is hiding something. Louis offers to take the McKennas out to dinner but cancels when a sinister-looking man knocks at the McKennas’ hotel-room door claiming to be looking for another guest’s room. Later, at a local restaurant, the McKennas meet English couple Lucy (Brenda De Banzie) and Edward Drayton (Bernard Miles), who strike up a conversation with the McKennas, who are surprised to see Bernard arrive and sit at another table apparently ignoring them.
The next day, exploring a busy outdoor market in Marrakesh with the Draytons, the McKennas see a man in Arab clothing being chased by police. After being stabbed in the back, the man approaches Ben, who discovers it is actually Louis in disguise. The dying Bernard whispers that a foreign statesman will be assassinated in London very soon and that Ben must tell the authorities there about “Ambrose Chappell”. Lucy offers to return Hank to the hotel while the police question Ben and Jo. An officer explains that Louis was a French Intelligence agent on assignment in Morocco. While at the police station, Ben receives a phone call from a mysterious man who informs him that Hank has been kidnapped but will not be harmed if the McKennas say nothing to the police about Bernard’s last words.
After arriving in London, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Buchanan (Ralph Truman) tells the McKennas that Louis was trying to uncover an assassination plot and that they should contact him if they hear from the kidnappers. Leaving friends in their hotel suite, the McKennas attempt to question a man named “Ambrose Chappell” but finally track the kidnappers to a church named “Ambrose Chapel”, where Drayton, posing as a minister, is leading a service. While Jo calls police, Drayton ends the service early. Ben confronts him and is knocked out and locked in the chapel. The Draytons take Hank to a foreign embassy just before Jo arrives with the police at the now seemingly deserted chapel. Jo learns that Buchanan has gone to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall and goes there to get his help. There, she sees the sinister man who mistakenly came to her door in Morocco. When he threatens to harm Hank if she interferes, she realizes that he is the assassin sent to kill the foreign Prime Minister (Alexis Bobrinskoy) who is now also at the concert hall.
Ben escapes the locked chapel and follows Jo to the hall, where she points out the assassin. Ben frantically searches the balcony boxes for the killer, who is waiting for a cymbal crash to mask his gunshot. Jo sees the barrel of the assassin’s gun and screams right before the cymbals crash. The assassin misses his mark and merely wounds his target. Ben finds and struggles with the would-be killer, who then falls to his death from the balcony. The grateful Prime Minister invites the McKennas to the embassy.
The McKennas learn that the Draytons are in the Prime Minister’s embassy, where Hank is being held, and where the ambassador (Mogens Wieth) has led the plot to kill his own Prime Minister. Hatching a plan to find their son, Ben and Jo are welcomed as heroes, and the Prime Minister asks Jo to sing. Jo loudly sings “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)“, which Hank is familiar with so that he will hear her voice and respond. Lucy, who is guarding Hank but is unwilling to harm him, tells Hank to whistle along with the song, which draws Ben to the room where he is being held. Drayton catches them and tries escaping with them as hostages, but when Ben strikes him, he falls and kills himself accidentally when his gun fires.
The McKennas return to their now-sleeping friends in their hotel room, where Ben says, “I’m sorry we were gone so long, but we had to go over and pick up Hank.”
Alfred Hitchcock first considered an American remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1941, but only brought back the idea in 1956, to make a film that would fulfill a contractual demand from Paramount Pictures. The studio agreed it was a picture that could be well-adapted to the new decade. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes was hired on the condition that he would not watch the early version or read its script, with all the plot details coming from a briefing with Hitchcock. Only the opening scenes of the script were ready when filming begun, and Hayes had to send by airmail the subsequent script pages as he finished them.
Hitchcock again brought James Stewart to be his protagonist as he was considering the actor a creative partner, and Paramount wanted a sense of continuity between his works. The director requested blonde Doris Day for the main female role as he liked her performance in Storm Warning though associate producer Herbert Coleman was reluctant on Day, whom he only knew as a singer. Coleman strongly suggested that the more serious blonde actresses like Lana Turner, Grace Kelly, or Kim Novak be cast in the role, or a suitable brunette, like Jane Russell, Gene Tierney, or Ava Gardner. However, Day was eventually cast in the female lead.
The film started its principal photography on location in Marrakesh, where the schedule had to be changed so the Marrakesh shoot did not coincide with Ramadan. Day was shocked by the health of the local animals, prompting her to only accept filming once the studio set up an animal-feeding station in Marrakesh. Afterwards, production moved to London, with external shots, and the interiors of both the taxidermist shop and the Royal Albert Hall. Once the external shoots were finished, the other interiors – which included a replica of most of the Albert Hall – were shot in the Paramount soundstages in Los Angeles. The Albert Hall sequence drew some inspiration from H. M. Bateman’s comic “The One-Note Man”, which followed the daily life of a musician who only plays one note in a symphony, similar to the cymbal player in the film.