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Film / The Man Who Knew Too Much

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1956 film poster

"A man... A statesman... Is to be killed... Assassinated... In London... Soon... Very soon. Tell them... In London... Ambrose Chappell..."
Louis Bernard

The Man Who Knew Too Much is a 1934 thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who remade it in 1956.

The 1934 film

Leslie Banks and Edna Best star as Bob and Jill Lawrence, an English couple who find themselves having to help stop an assassination. The Lawrences are in Switzerland, where Jill is competing in a clay pigeon shooting contest. Jill is passing the time by flirting outrageously with another hotel guest, the charming Louis. The flirting comes to an end when Louis is shot in the chest while dancing with Jill. Louis has just enough time before he dies to tell Jill to retrieve a message hidden in a brush in his room. It turns out that Louis is a spy, and the message has to do with a plot to assassinate a foreign diplomat about to visit England. The bad guys, led by Abbott (Peter Lorre, in one of his first English-language roles), attempt to keep Bob and Jill silent by kidnapping their teenage daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam).

The 1956 film

Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day star as Ben and Jo McKenna, Americans traveling to Morocco with their son Hank (Christopher Olsen). On a bus, they meet the amiable Bernard, who puts Jo on edge by remaining mysterious while asking them numerous questions about themselves. Soon her suspicions are confirmed when Bernard stumbles out of a crowd, in disguise and mortally wounded, to whisper a secret message to Ben with his dying breath. Unwittingly embroiled in events beyond their understanding, Ben and Jo quickly learn that there are dangerous people out there who very much want to keep the information a secret.

Hitchcock took the title, but nothing else, from the short story collection The Man Who Knew Too Much by G. K. Chesterton. Has nothing to do with The Man Who Knew Too Little beyond the title and a similar theme for the plot.

The 1934 film has examples of the following:

  • Author Appeal: The opening sequence is set in St. Moritz, where Hitchcock had spent his honeymoon and then returned to practically every year for vacations.
  • Butt-Monkey: Clive, who always seems the get the worst of whatever situation he encounters with Bob, including getting a healthy tooth pulled and getting hypnotized.
  • Cacophony Cover Up: The whole point of staging the assassination at a concert.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Many of the elements appearing in the first two scenes become significant later on.
    • Jill's sharpshooting ability comes in handy when rescuing her daughter at the end.
    • Ramon's shooting, demonstrated in the same scene, becomes part of the assassination plot.
    • Abbott's musical watch alerts us to his presence when he reappears.
    • Jill gives Betty a brooch. The brooch is later given back to Jill as a reminder that the bad guys still have Betty prisoner.
  • Concert Climax: The bad guys are plotting an assassination to take place during a concert at the Albert Hall.
  • Corrupt Church: The Tabernacle of the Sun seems like a benign small, urban church (with hints of being a Mystery Cult), but it's harboring Abbott and his men.
  • Depraved Dentist: Justified in that he's actually a foreign spy trying to stop the hero from interfering with the assassination.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Abbott is quite broken up when Nurse Agnes gets shot in the climactic shootout, and she dies in his arms, implying that the two were lovers.
  • Evil Laugh: Abbott constantly yuks it up, making him quite unsettling, even by Peter Lorre standards.
  • Fire Hose Cannon: Alfred Hitchcock reported that the London police, who were cooperating with the production, objected to the police being shown using guns against the criminals holed up in the house behind the temple. When he asked them how they would deal with it, they suggested using fire engines and hoses: a technique that had been employed in the Siege of Sidney Street in 1911. Eventually, the police agreed to the scene showing the police using rifles, so long as they were shown as being specifically issued for the assault.
  • Genki Girl: Betty Lawrence is very impetuous and energetic during the Switzerland scenes.
  • Hand Gagging: How Betty is silenced as she's being taken away.
  • I Have Your Wife: The heroes try to thwart the assassination plot mainly because the assassins kidnap their child, Betty, and threaten to murder her if they give the police the information that Bernard left.
  • He Knows Too Much: The title is Exactly What It Says on the Tin: a man – and his wife – are intimidated by criminals trying to keep them silent on the subject of an upcoming crime through the abduction of their child, all because they 'knew too much' about it.
  • High-Class Glass: If being named "Clive" wasn't enough to mark Clive as ultra-British, he also sports one of these.
  • Hollywood Silencer: Makes the standard "pfft" noise when Louis is killed by a rifle shot.
  • Hypno Pendulum: Variation, as Nurse Agnes uses a shiny gemstone held stationary to initiate Clive into "The First Degree of the Sevenfold Ray" at the Tabernacle of the Sun.
    Nurse Agnes: You are already feeling sleepy. Do you hear me?
    Clive: Yes...
    Nurse Agnes: Your mind is becoming quite blank. You feel that, don't you? Quite, quite blank.
    Clive: Yes. Quite blank. (closes his eyes and quickly falls into a trance).
  • I Have Your Wife: Or child, as the case may be.
  • I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin: Louis, shot in the chest, has just enough time to tell Jill about the secret message hidden in a brush in his room.
  • Impairment Shot: Done to show how Clive was affected after Nurse Agnes hypnotized him.
  • In Name Only: The films to the original book, which is a collection of short stories about a detective who deduces who committed various crimes in the Blue Blooded milieu — and why the criminal will get away with it. Hitchcock had the right to adapt some of its stories but decided all he really wanted was the book's title.
  • Mama Bear: Jill grabs a rifle and plugs Ramón when he goes after her daughter at the end.
  • Monumental Battle: At Royal Albert Hall. Alfred Hitchcock seems fond of this trope.
  • Musical Trigger: The assassin's cue to kill is a specific cymbal clash in a cantata since it marks a loud climax in the music that can mask the gunshot.
  • Papa Wolf: Bob.
  • Police Are Useless: Well, not entirely, but when Clive shows up to rescue Bob with a single bobby, the cop not only refuses to break into the church but turns around and arrests him!
  • Reality Has No Soundtrack: There's a lot of music (the dance orchestra, the hymn at the tabernacle, the cantata), but it's all diegetic.
  • Suspiciously Apropos Music: Some of the lyrics for the Storm Clouds Cantata echo the kidnapping storyline.
    And when they all had fled
    All save the child! All save the child!

The 1956 film has examples of the following:

  • Adaptation Expansion: It's 45 minutes longer than the first film. Most of the 1934 film's plot points were imported, but the first act is much longer here, and the relationship of the married couple gets explored further, plus other little added bits.
  • Adaptational Badass: The father gets captured by the assassins in both versions, but Ben manages to escape earlier than Bob did. Ben also brings two of the criminals to their deaths.
  • Adaptational Wimp: The mother changed from a clever Gunslinger to a clever retired singer.
  • Adapted Out: The mother's brother, who helped search for the assassins' base in the '30s movie.
  • Almost Dead Guy: Bernard is mortally wounded, but he manages to live long enough to give Ben a message about an assassination plan.
  • Artistic Title: An orchestra performs the main title against the opening credits to establish the importance of music in the plot.
  • Assassination Attempt: The bad guys plan to assassinate the prime minister of a fictional country during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
  • At the Opera Tonight: The climax of the film happens during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
  • Becoming the Mask: Mrs. Drayton, who pretended to be nice to Hank, only to try and save him near the film's climax.
  • Bilingual Bonus:
    • Bernard speaks Arabic and French unsubtitled at different moments.
    • The assassin's name is Rien, which means "nothing" in French.
  • Black Comedy: Ben's and Jo's conversation about how as a doctor, people must suffer in order for Ben to make enough money for vacations.
  • Break the Cutie: Jo has a Heroic BSoD after Ben tells her about Hank's kidnapping not only out of fear but also out of anger for Ben tricking her into swallowing a sedative beforehand, as an attempt to keep her nerves calm.
    • Look at her face during the Albert Hall sequence, and you can see a woman who's about to lose it, who knows that something terrible is about to happen and cannot do a thing about it... Until she just snaps and screams. Just at the right time to throw off the killer's aim.
    • Near the climax, she hears Hank whistle to "Qué Será, Será" while she plays on the piano. Because she knows he's nearby, but can't do anything to help him, except play.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Jimmy Stewart hosted the trailer as himself, telling the viewers of different places he visited for Hitchcock's then-upcoming movie. The ad also dubbed over a clip so that one of the characters would refer to Jo as Doris Day.
  • Brick Joke: In the second act, Ben and Jo excuse themselves from some guests, claiming that they have to pick up Hank from his babysitters. In the epilogue, they return to the apartment a full day later to find the guests are still there, asleep, and apologize for taking so long.
  • The Cameo:
  • Chekhov's Skill: Jo's strong singing voice averts the assassination and helps locate their son. Hank's whistling also plays a role in his location.
  • Cloak and Dagger: A lot of that going around.
  • Concert Climax
  • Contrived Coincidence:
    • Bernard just happens to stumble into Ben on a crowded street just before dying. The police point out how unlikely that is.
    • It's also convenient that by the time Jo tries to call the Scotland Yard inspector to help save Ben from the kidnappers, he has left for Albert Hall. When Ben and Jo go there to see him, all three of them end up at the site of the assassination attempt.
  • Disney Villain Death: The assassin falls off a balcony.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: When Jo realizes that Bernard's dying words, "Ambrose Chappell," refer not to a man, but a place: Ambrose Chapel.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Mrs. Drayton has a soft spot for children. She admonishes another woman for being rude to Hank and is against killing him.
  • Foreign Remake: This movie provides an Americanization of one of the movies Hitch made while still in England.
  • Gender Flip: In the earlier film, the protagonists' child whom the villains kidnap is a daughter; in this film, it's a son.
  • Germans Love David Hasselhoff: invoked Jo has an avid fanbase as a singer in England.
  • Gratuitous Spanish: The Title Drop of "Que Será, Será". It's been called non-grammatical, but the proper Spanish form for "Whatever will be, will be" (Lo que será, será) is close enough.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Mrs Drayton.
  • He Knows Too Much: Naturally.
  • I Have Your Child: The heroes try to thwart the assassination plot mainly because the assassins kidnap their child, Hank, and threaten to murder him if they give the police the information that Bernard left. The scene near the end, as they prepare to murder him with a rope that one starts sinisterly wrapping around his hands, is downright nerve-wracking.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: Mr. Drayton's gun misfires to kill him.
  • In Name Only: The films to the original book. Hitchcock had the right to adapt some of its stories but decided all he really wanted was the book's title.
  • Karma Houdini: The ambassador's assistant who hired the Draytons to kill the ambassador in the first place. Though he may have been apprehended off-screen.
  • Long Song, Short Scene: Jo doesn't get to sing "We'll Love Again" in its entirety, and what little viewers do hear from it gets mostly drowned out by the confrontation between Ben and Mr. Drayton.
  • Mama Bear: Jo.
  • Mistaken for Spies: Bernard mistakes Ben and Jo for the spy couple that he's looking for. The Moroccan police also find it very suspicious that Bernard just happened to stumble into Ben and Jo on a crowded street just before dying.
  • Monumental Battle: Once again, at the Royal Albert Hall.
  • Musical Trigger: A cymbal crash, just like the original, which gets specifically foreshadowed in the opening caption.
  • Not My Lucky Day: Bernard.
  • The Noun Who Verbed: The title.
  • Papa Wolf: Ben.
  • Plot-Based Voice Cancellation: The music drowns out Jo as she explains the assassination plot to Ben when he shows up at the concert.
  • Police Are Useless: The Moroccan police are suspicious and unhelpful. When Jo calls the London police saying that they've cornered the kidnappers and her husband is in danger, the head officer is away and his subordinate seems uninterested in helping. He's eventually convinced to send a single squad car, who don't do anything but knock on the door.
  • Product Displacement: As with every Hitchcock movie transferred over from Paramount to Universal after its original theatrical release, the masters used for the 1983 re-release, VHS, and TV replaced the opening and closing Paramount logos with ones for Universal (with the fanfares intact). While the others regained their Paramount logos on DVD and Blu-ray, this one still ended with an '83-era Universal ident on its 2012 Blu-ray, though the 2023 UHD finally switched it back with Paramount's original closing.
  • Professional Killer: The Draytons hire one in Morocco to assassinate the prime minister of a fictional country.
  • Red Herring: Ambrose Chappell the taxidermist has nothing to do with the assassination plan, or the kidnapping.
  • Ruritania: The story centers on a plot to assassinate the prime minister of a fictional, unnamed European country, complete with a flag for the country draping his box at the concert.
  • Sequel Escalation: Considering the two of them share the same director and largely the same plot, many viewers will be surprised how more down-to-Earth the original was compared to the epic scale of the 1956 remake.
  • He's a Girl in England: Bob and Jill had a kidnapped daughter, while Ben and Jo have a kidnapped son.
  • Sinister Minister: Mr. Drayton turns out to be a minister, with his own chapel and congregation, as well as an assassin.
  • Smug Snake: Mr. Drayton's one nasty piece of work.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: "Qué Será, Será" was written for the film. Its upbeat tune and lyrics were intended as an ironic counterpoint to a story about kidnapping.
  • Tap on the Head: Happens to Ben.
  • Taxidermy Is Creepy: Undoubtedly one of the reasons Ben suspects Ambrose Chappell the taxidermist of being the one who's holding his son hostage.
  • That Reminds Me of a Song: Used as a plot device. Doris Day sings "Qué Será, Será" multiple times, ultimately using it in a game of Marco Polo so our heroes can find their kidnapped offspring.
  • Women Are Wiser: Played straight many times. Jo becomes Properly Paranoid of Louis and the Draytons earlier than Ben does, and later throws off the aim of the Prime Minister's assassin. Ben plays a larger role than she does in Hank's rescue, though.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Unlike Mrs. Drayton, Mr. Drayton and the Ambassador have no qualms about murdering Hank to get themselves out of the hot water they have landed themselves in as a result of the botched assassination attempt on the Prime Minister.