Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Man Who Knew Too Much



Alfred Hitchcock’s remake of his own 1934 film of the same name is not one which will remain in my memory for long. Lacking the tension and intrigue of his best work, The Man Who Knew Too Much is nonetheless a solid thriller, albeit one with flaws. A family are vacationing in Morocco when they briefly meet a mysterious Frenchman who is inquisitive as to their past, present and future. Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart) talks freely with the man while his ex-actress wife Jo (Doris Day) begins to wonder why the man is taking such an interest in the couple and their young son Hank (Christopher Olsen). The McKenna’s meet a friendly English couple (Brenda De Banzie and Bernard Miles) who take Hank with them on a tour of the market. When Hank doesn’t return and the Frenchman Bernard turns up dead, the couple embark on a dangerous mission of counter subterfuge amidst an assassination plot to bring their son home.

The plot of this thriller is a bit like Taken for adults. If you removed all the xenophobia and hitting people in the face from the Liam Neeson film and added some middle class sensibilities and brains then you’ve pretty much got the same film. Sort of. Much like Taken I was disappointed with The Man Who Knew Too Much although I didn’t want to end my own life when I saw Hitchcock’s movie.

Annoying rear projection and Director cameo
I have one major issue with this film and its one which partially spoiled it for me. That issue is with the rear projection. I’d never really had a problem with Hitchcock’s overuse of the technique until someone drew it to my attention recently and I wish they never had because now I can’t stop noticing it. This film is one of the worst examples of the directors ever reliance on the method that I’ve seen so far. I personally don’t understand why he used it so much. Here it is used mostly in the scenes set in Morocco and I can understand its use when in vehicles but it is used far too frequently for my liking when characters are out on the streets. In some scenes the actors will be on location with extras and then all of a sudden the angle is reversed and there is rear projection with the background from the location they were just in. It makes no sense to me. If it’s a stylistic decision, it doesn’t work and if it was used because they didn’t get all the shots while on location then it shows bad planning.

Luckily the rear projection issue subsided once the plot was transported to London but it didn’t disappear entirely. Another problem I had with the film is that the plot wasn’t really ever that exciting or tense. Because it’s a young boy that’s kidnapped you are well aware that no real hard would come to him so there is no peril and the journey to saving him was rarely intriguing. I wasn’t particularly fond of the characters and many of the situations they found themselves in felt unrealistic or forced. A scene I did enjoy was the set piece inside the Royal Albert Hall. This is classic Hitchcock territory and is a scene in which the tension is slowly cranked up while some great music (which is integral to the scene) is played in the background. There are also some beautiful visuals in this scene too with the gun appearing from behind the curtain being a particularly well crafted example. Its climax is also reminiscent of John Wilkes Booth’s famous leap. The scene lasts for a total of twelve minutes and consists of 124 shots without a single word of dialogue. It's fantastic.

The scenes set in London feature some nice period London exteriors. I always enjoy seeing cities I love in other time periods and it was pleasant to get a glimpse of 1950s London. It was also interesting to see 1950s Marrakesh although a couple of the scenes there unfortunately verged upon the typical “Let’s laugh at the funny foreigners” type of stuff which thankfully is now reserved for crude and poorly made comedy. Hitchcock’s direction isn’t as noticeably excellent as in some of his better known films or even in his lesser known but better films. He still impressed me with some clever camera angles and zooming techniques as well as the intelligent use of mirrors a couple of times. The actors are both highly accomplished but here stand out most for their voices. James Stewart has just about the coolest speaking voice ever and Doris Day has a tremendous singing voice. Day won the film its only Oscar for singing Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) in the Best Song category. Aside from her voice I thought she was solid but unspectacular. Jimmy Stewart is fast joining Chaplin and De Niro as one of my favourite actors but didn’t really impress me much here. He was fine but didn’t make a huge impact. Christopher Olsen was annoying as Hank but Reggie Nalder was good as the assassin.

Overall I thought that The Man Who Knew Too Much was a rare lull in Hitchcock’s fine cannon. The plot never grabbed my attention and I was only excited by one scene. There are a couple of misplaced comic moments and the acting is average. It isn’t a bad film but I expected something more from a Hitchcock-Stewart paring.

5/10 

Titbits

  • The song 'Que Sera, Sera' was commissioned especially for the movie. Initially Doris Day refused to record it for radio play because she deemed it a childish song but it eventually became the biggest hit of her career.
  • When on location in Marrakesh the schedule had to be altered so it didn't clash with Ramadan.
  • Doris Day was so popular with Londoners when filming that her Hotel eventually gor fed up with the hordes of fans camping outside and asked her to leave.
  • Hitchcock's cameo comes 24 minutes in with his back to camera in the Moroccan market.            

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