The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)


In Francoise Truffaut’s Hitchcock in which the director interviews Alfred Hitchcock at length about his career and films, Truffaut notes that during the Royal Albert Hall scenes in Hitchcock’s second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, there are some eight minutes in which the concert music is performed and no actor is heard speaking. Probably the typical interpretation is that as the movie audience waits for the clashing of the cymbals and the would-be assassin’s gun shot to kill the prime minister of a foreign country, the absence of audible speech adds to the suspense: we viewers already know the assassin’s intention to hide the sound of his shot in a clash of cymbals sounded near the end of Arthur Benjamin’s symphonic piece; and the music itself, as it courses on toward the climactic moment, is the most powerful creator of suspense. Were the anxious Jo McKenna (or anyone else) to be heard speaking, it would spoil the effect.

Certainly this view is true. As far as it goes.

Reading Truffaut’s book, you wonder whether directors should interview one another. It is a long book in which Hitchcock clearly has decided nearly always to answer Truffaut’s questions exactly as they are and not to use them as cues for expanding Hitchcock’s remembrances of things past or for becoming more comprehensive in his explanations. The trouble is that Truffaut does very little but promote shop talk. With Hitchcock, you very much want to learn about his techniques of suspense, but you also want to hear him talk about his philosophy of life, his idea of his art both for his times and for posterity. About the deepest Truffaut goes in this long book is to say at the end that he thinks Hitchcock is a “pessimist.” I didn’t get a clear sense of what this might mean for Truffaut.

Artists like Hitchcock make art on several levels. In some of his movies, most notably The Paradine Case and the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock especially dramatizes two realms. One is our dangerous and disillusioning general experience, the traps, illusions, mistakes, perils. History is not an ascension and even seems often a slow decline. In The Paradine Case, Hitchcock preserves the second realm, a lovely world he loves, even though he knows he is preserving a world fading in a century of dreadful history. Regarding The Paradine Case, I described elsewhere Hitchcock’s act of preservation this way:

“(The Paradine Case) is a loving preservation with no reservation. It’s also wearing a disguise. The Paradine Case was the last film Hitchcock did under contract to David O. Selznick who apparently hated Ben Hecht’s original screenplay and rewrote it himself. The redone script serves well enough for the traditional love-potion drama and Hitchcock more than earned his pay, based no doubt on how well he served his own master, Selznick, a fierce businessman whose priority had to have been, ‘Give ‘em what they want!’ But Hitchcock is so good that he does Selznick’s no-nonsense bidding wonderfully yet then goes on to tell the larger, now wistful, story of the conservation of Past Grandeur. In black-and-white movie atmospheric marvelousness equal to splendid styles among great painters–oh, those shadowy grand cinematic scenes staged by Hitchcock amidst the splendor of Imperial British wealth and privilege!–we see caught unforgettably and forever the world of Savile Row suits, the Savoy, formal dinners, elegant women, brandy-and-cigars, manses decorated in perfect taste, top hats and big black umbrellas, rainy London evening streets viewed through limousine windows, elegantly simple impeccable olden courtrooms where the wigged and robed shrewd and acute professionals/Lords-and-Sirs–gentlemen all–proceed crisply and articulately through the evidence in accordance with timeless protocols. It is the only world we see. There are terrible people there–the Judge Lord Thomas Horfield (Charles Laughton [the perfect casting]) is thoroughly repugnant because he is an Awful, Snobbish, Perverted Person–but that is simply, you think under Hitchcock’s spell, to be expected, indeed even defining. You give it little pause. And then–the centerpiece of Hitchcock’s Real Story of Nostalgia, a nostalgia intensified by the Narrow Escape of World War Two–is a magnificent sequence in the middle of the movie in which young barrister Keane (the protagonist) journeys from London by train (Hitchcock loves train stations and trains and in these scenes he is at his best, as always) and then, beautifully symbolically, travels further by buggy, to Hilldane Hall Out There in Pastoral Cumberland. There, Keane tours the grand old but seemingly timeless English Country Estate, the Great House, again in a black-and-white splendor of shadowy stairs (stairs, but of course!) and huge bedrooms safe and secure on upper floors and magnificent wood-paneled libraries and sitting rooms and infinite gleaming and polished dining rooms…. (The Great) house is being shuttered and prepared to be “let” and there is, therefore, the sense of An End To All That. But Hitchcock, able to bear reading the emblazoned handwriting on the wall, got there just in time with his camera crew together with Gregory Peck, Louis Jordan, and a few bit-part actors to save it for posterity in a beautiful, haunting cinematic homage. A masterpiece, pure and simple.”

In principle the preservative ideal appears as well in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

That movie is one of Hitchcock’s best known thrillers. An Indianapolis physician, Benjamin McKenna  (James Stewart) and his wife Jo McKenna (Doris Day), a one-time pop singing star, while traveling with their son, Hank, in North Africa, find themselves pulled into a plot to assassinate a prominent diplomat and must rescue their kidnapped son who has been taken to London by the plotters as a hostage; in their rescuing of Hank, the McKennas become instrumental in foiling the assassination planned to be carried out during a concert in the Royal Albert Hall. It is a classic Hitchcock suspense movie in which a normal situation is suddenly changed to one of desperation.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956) is especially distinguished because of its special music score played in the Royal Albert Hall scenes. I think of the 1956 version as Hitchcock’s Music Movie. Its chief music is The Storm Clouds Cantata written for the movie (1934/1956) by the accomplished Australian composer, Arthur Benjamin, with lyrics by D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, and modified for the 1956 movie by Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock’s superb Hollywood film scorer for some of his greatest movies. Benjamin’s beautiful eight minute cantata is a modern classic and yet echoes the beauty and structure of the earlier classical tradition. There is a large chorale and a full orchestra, and their dress and arranged grouping on stage for the performance is itself beautiful. I am reminded of some idealized and beautiful idyllic scenes in another great movie of preservation, Russian Ark.

In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the concert is magical, with that magic manifest in the midst of dire circumstances. Truly the sequence in the Royal Albert Hall, a splendid and stately place of transcendent experiences, in which the cantata proceeds with none of the actors–frantic Jo included–audibly speaking, is more than a great device of suspense. It is simultaneously an act of preservation of the beautiful, a stunning refuge in a suspense classic otherwise about the travails of ordinary experience. That we must be of two senses, be pulled two ways, when we listen to the music says much, I think, about Hitchcock’s view of the human experience. Indeed, Hitchcock dramatizes the dilemma doubly: first, in the storyline of the cantata itself–the threatening storm clouds; and second, in the parallel foretold threat within the main storyline–the approaching pistol shot by the assassin timed to be hidden in one tempestuous clash of orchestral cymbals as the cantata plays out. Beware. Assassins are in attendance. There is a serpent in the Edenic garden. The besieging Greek army (and “sodeyn Diomede”) is just beyond the walls of the Troy of the lovers Troilus and Criseyde with its beautiful and romantic gardens. There is always a storm coming.

Here is a link to the music.