On hearing the news that icon Doris Day had died yesterday, my mind immediately went to some of her greatest roles like Calamity Jane (1953) and Pillow Talk (1959); however, I always found myself most affected by her brilliant performance as the mother looking for her kidnapped son in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. A remake of Hitchcock’s 1934 film of the same name, this Hollywood remake stars James Stewart and Doris Day as a husband and wife whose son, Hank, is kidnapped while they are holidaying in Morocco. It is revealed that their son is being used as a pawn while the kidnappers plan to assassinate an important ambassador during his visit to London. It’s a film that shows the importance of family in a time of politically turmoil that feels just as relevant in its post-war 1956 as it did in pre-war 1934.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is my favourite Hitchcock film and much of it is attributed to Doris Day in her role as Jo Conway McKenna. The role is clearly tailored for Day as she plays a professional singer. This may not seem like a stretch as we watch her beautifully sing the Oscar-winning song “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” but this changes the moment Hank is kidnapped. Day effortlessly brings an emotional depth to her character that she hadn’t really displayed earlier in her career, showcasing her talents as a dramatic actress. In particular, her acting in the final act of the film shows an explosion of all these emotions and her distress and longing to see her son are brought to her heart-breaking final performance of “Que Sera, Sera” that seems worlds away from the performance at the beginning of the film.
Made with a large Hollywood budget, Hitchcock makes use of multiple locations across two continents and yet somehow, the murder scene that place in the open market of Marrakesh feels equally as claustrophobic as the climatic orchestral scene in the Royal Albert Hall. Hitchcock never allows the audience to let their mind wander in his films as we are quickly assured not to trust anyone. One of my favourite locations used is a small Taxidermist’s shop and the struggle James Stewart has escaping the workers is tense as he is almost stabbed by a swordfish. Another intense scene that is recreated in the remake is the chapel scene in which the protagonists discover that the kidnappers run a local church. As the mass is under way, they clear stand out in the congregation and it is only a matter of time before they have their confrontation with the criminals. Everything about this scene in both the original and remake is brilliantly done because Hitchcock ensures that everything is directed slowly. There isn’t much physical movement as the mass takes place, the hymns are slow and droll with the speaker calm and paced in his sermon. The suspense is driven up until the moment everyone has left and they are the last visitors in the church.
It would be a true crime not to talk about the music in depth. Aside from its Oscar-winning hit that became synonymous with Day throughout her life, music is also integral to its film because it is used for the climatic moment during the assassination attempt. As in the original, it is the clash of cymbals that signals the shot. The kidnappers play the piece on a record player beforehand so the audience knows the moment. This is a clever move on Hitchcock’s part because we then know the moment when the shot will occur. Opposed to the suspense of the chapel scene, the Albert Hall scene is faster paced as the music quickens and the camera shifts between the gunman, Day, the ambassador and the orchestra. I feel that Hitchcock improved on this scene from the original as he used the same musical piece but it feels that the suspense is really played out and the production feels bigger as a whole which I feel the original lacked.
It’s a shame that this film isn’t discussed as much as some of Hitchcock’s other films because although it’s not a horror in the traditional sense of the word (ie. Psycho and The Birds), it still contains elements of horror from the writing and directing. I think it is a film that shows Hitchcock not only pushing boundaries on filmmaking but also showing how he is willing to improve on his own work.
What is your favourite Hitchcock film? Let me know in the comments below!
Doris Day, 1922-2019