The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
★★★ / ★★★★
After attending a medical convention in Paris, Dr. Benjamin McKenna (James Stewart) decides to vacation in Marrakech, Morocco with Jo (Doris Day), his wife, and Hank (Christopher Olsen), his young son, before they return to Indianapolis. While on their way to the hotel, a Frenchman named Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin) befriends the tourists and offers to take them around the city and recommend must-see places. All appears to be fine, with the exception of Jo’s nagging suspicion that they are being followed, until Mr. Bernard is stabbed in the back. Before he dies, he manages to whisper important information about a possible assassination in Dr. McKenna’s ears.
Based on the story by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, before “The Man Who Knew Too Much” immerses us with its suspense and thrills, it works like a travelogue. The decision to allow the first part of the story to take place in Marrakech is not wasted because it gives the McKenna family, as well as the audience, a chance to interact with their foreign surroundings.
The camera consistently pulls itself back and features places like the marketplace: the amount of crowd that shops on a typical day, the scent of vegetables and spices emanating from their respective containers, down to the sweat and grime of the vendors whose bodies are sprawled on the floor despite the blistering heat. I was surprised that I even had the opportunity to learn how to eat properly in a Moroccan restaurant.
Since the mood is somewhat lighthearted for such an extended period of time, when the shift in mood and atmosphere occurs, it feels sudden even if elements that hint that something is going to go wrong eventually never step out of the shadow. The direction by Alfred Hitchcock is felt in scenes where uncertain paranoia evolve into a real fear.
For instance, as characters panic, the camera remains motionless as if it dares us to absorb every tiny emotion that radiates from the tragedy. When Jo and Benjamin’s son is taken, it is natural that we feel sympathy for them. But, with the aid of Stewart and Day’s sublime acting, I caught myself feeling angry for them–angry because they are helpless, confused, and, perhaps most importantly, anybody could have made the same mistakes they did.
Furthermore, I admired that the screenplay by John Michael Hayes places emphasis on the partnership between husband and wife. It might have easily been about a hellbent father who is willing to hurt anybody if it meant getting back his only son. Instead, there is more depth in what is unfolding. Since both husband and wife are given equal things to do, it almost feels like their quest to get their son back is an act of attempting to conceive another child. This is neatly tied to a scene in the beginning about Jo wanting to get pregnant again. In a way, the trial they attempt to overcome is an opportunity for a rebirth as a couple and as parents.
“The Man Who Knew Too Much” is a title dipped in irony. It is not a cerebral experience. It is about the emotions that we and the characters go through rather than an evil plot.