The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

I knew something connected to Doris Day long before I had even heard of her. When I was about six years old, my mother used to sing Que sera sera to me, and that song became such a favourite of mine that I ended up writing down the lyrics (misspelt, I admit: Kay sera sera is what I recall having written) and belting  them out, night and day.

It was only many years later that I finally watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and got to see Doris Day sing that song onscreen, in a tense, nail-biting climax that both highlighted Doris Day’s singing ability as well as her acting prowess. By the time I watched this film, I had already seen Doris in other, more light-hearted roles, the sort of films (mostly musicals or screwball comedies, including the delightful ones which she did with good friend Rock Hudson) where she lit up the screen with the sheer joy of her presence. I had heard Wham! sing “… You make the sun shine brighter than Doris Day…” I had listened to plenty of songs Doris Day had sung, and I had fallen in love with the vivacity and good humour Doris seemed to radiate.

Today is the birth centenary of Doris Day: she was born on April 3, 1922. A date worth commemorating, I thought. And, because of that childhood connect with Doris Day’s work, I decided I had to watch The Man Who Knew Too Much again.

The story begins aboard a bus in Morocco, heading for Marrakech. Sitting in the back seat are an American family: parents Benjamin ‘Ben’ McKenna (James Stewart) and Josephine ‘Jo’ McKenna (Doris Day) and their son Hank (Christopher Olsen). A brief chat between the parents and the child reveals that they’re from Indianapolis.

A lot more about the McKennas is revealed shortly after, thanks to a minor mishap: while his father dozes and Jo reads a magazine, Hank wanders about the bus. When the driver suddenly brakes, Hank flails, his hand reaching for purchase—and inadvertently whipping off the veil of a woman seated nearby. The woman screams and quickly covers her face, and her husband, sitting beside her, flies into a rage.

Fortunately, a Frenchman seated nearby gets up, pacifies the man, retrieves the veil from a flustered Hank’s hand, and gives it back. Having restored order, the man turns to the McKennas, who are quick to thank him for coming to their rescue. This man (Daniel Gélin) introduces himself as Louis Bernard, and sitting down next to the McKennas, begins a conversation.

Through this conversation, Bernard (and the audience) learns that McKenna is a doctor, and that he had gone to Paris for a medical convention, taking Jo and Hank along with him. From Paris, via Lisbon, Rome and Casablanca, the McKennas have come to Morocco. Ben adds that he served in this area during the war.

They reach Marrakech, and say goodbye to Louis Bernard (who invites them to dinner, and says he’ll come and pick them up from their hotel). The McKennas agree, and climb into a fiacre to drive them to the hotel. As they’re setting off, Jo notices Bernard talking very happily with the Arab whom he had placated in the bus. As if they were old friends, Jo mentions to Ben. She goes on to point out to her husband that Bernard is obviously hiding something; he found out a lot about the McKennas in the course of their conversation, but he didn’t tell them anything about himself: they only know his name, nothing more.

Ben laughs it all off; he thinks Jo is being unduly suspicious.   

That evening, having tucked Hank into bed and made sure a babysitter will be coming in to look after him, Jo is ready to go out to dinner. Bernard arrives, happens to overhear Jo singing along with Hank, and asks if Jo had been on stage. Yes, as it happens; and she seems to have been pretty famous too, singing not just on Broadway, but on tour in London, Paris, and elsewhere.

Bernard is still evasive when Jo tries to probe; when she asks what he does, he only says he buys, and he sells. No more.

Their somewhat stilted conversation comes to an abrupt halt when a strange visitor arrives, wanting to speak to Bernard.

Bernard has a hurried conversation in French with this man, and, following a quick phone call, excuses himself; he must leave immediately. So sorry, and of course he will take the McKennas out to dinner some other time…

The McKennas decide to dine out on their own, and go to a restaurant recommended by their hotel: it’s a popular place with Westerners. The McKennas settle down, and Jo soon realizes that the woman (Brenda de Banzie) sitting at the next table is someone she’s seen before: this woman was outside the hotel when they arrived, and was staring quite pointedly at Jo.

The woman turns again to look at Jo, and this time begins a conversation: she introduces herself as Lucy Drayton. She had been staring at Jo because she recognized her from the stage. It turns out that Lucy is a big fan of Jo’s, and has been itching to talk to Jo ever since she saw her here in Marrakech. Now Lucy and her husband Edward (Bernard Miles) join Jo and Ben, teaching them the ropes about how to eat the tagine that’s placed before them, chatting about Morocco, and more.

The McKennas are making friends with the Draytons, when they see a familiar face enter the restaurant: Louis Bernard comes in, with a woman. He notices the McKennas but ignores them, and Jo is upset by his effrontery. Ben, more laid-back, pacifies her, saying that Bernard’s lady companion puts the two of them, he and Jo, in the shade.

Anyhow, the McKennas and the Draytons get pally enough to team up the next day for a visit to the local bazaar. They see performers of different sorts, wander through the lanes and bylanes, all with Hank mostly alongside Lucy Drayton, who seems happy to be with him rather than with the other adults. As they’re moving along, soaking up the atmosphere, there is a sudden disturbance: the local police chase someone through the streets. The man, wearing a long robe, his head covered, goes running in and out of the narrow bylanes… and is stabbed in the back by someone. The attacker flees, and the dying man stumbles out into the square.

… where he comes up in front of a surprised Ben, who (doctor that he is) realizes something is wrong. The dying man collapses in front of Ben, in Ben’s arms, and the dark brown of his complexion comes off on Ben’s hands. It is Louis Bernard, in blackface. He survives only long enough to whisper a strained message into Ben’s ear before he dies.

People crowd around, among them Jo and the Draytons. Ben, so as not to forget what Bernard told him, quickly pulls out a notepad and pen from his breast pocket and scribbles down the message.

Jo wants to know what this is all about, but before Ben can tell her, the police turn up. Given that Ben was the one whom Bernard last spoke to, the cops want Ben to come to the police station. Jo insists on going along, and so does Edward Drayton. Lucy Drayton offers to take Hank back to the hotel, and this she does.

At the police station, the officer in charge is suspicious of Ben’s claim that he barely knew Louis Bernard. Why, he wants to know, did Bernard pick him, Ben, out of thousands of people to say those last words to? And what were those last words, anyway? Ben, already frustrated at this man’s suspicious nature, is about to explain what Bernard said—when another officer comes in, saying there’s a phone call for Ben.

Ben goes to the next room, where he picks up the telephone receiver, to hear a stranger tell him to keep mum about what Bernard said. If Ben opens his mouth, his son will be in trouble.

At Ben’s urging, Edward Drayton, who’s followed him out of the room where Jo (still oblivious) is sitting, phones the hotel to check with Lucy Drayton if Hank is safe and well. But Lucy doesn’t answer the phone. Drayton, looking worried, says he’d better go to the hotel and check up on her, and Ben—now even more worried—agrees. Drayton leaves, Ben returns to Jo, but without telling her anything, gets her back to the hotel…

… and when he reaches the hotel, is told (when he enquires about Drayton) that Mr Drayton checked out and has left. Mrs Drayton is gone too. They haven’t seen Hank.

Ben now has no option but to tell Jo, who goes all to pieces.

When he has managed to get her somewhat calmed down, Ben says there’s only one thing they can do: use those last words of Louis Bernard as a clue. He shows Jo the paper on which he’d written down what Bernard said. Ambrose Chappell, in London. They should go to London and meet Ambrose Chappell, whoever he may be.

Who is Ambrose Chappell? What is the truth behind the Draytons? Where is Hank?

What I liked about this film:

The fairly uncomplicated story, using the time-honoured trope (which Hitchcock was so fond of, and used in so many films) of someone innocent and ‘ordinary’, finding themselves in the thick of a spy plot, and in deep danger. The Man Who Knew Too Much doesn’t have as many twists and turns and edge-of-the-seat moments as does (say) The Thirty-Nine Steps or North by North-West, but it’s pretty solid suspense.

Talking of which, the way the suspense builds up, in conjunction with a piece of music, at two points in the narrative. The London Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Storm Clouds, and Jo’s/Doris Day’s performance of Que sera sera: both reach a point where the music and the suspense builds, until you can’t really focus on the music itself—the other bit of action commands your full attention.

Plus, of course, there’s Doris. Her singing plays a vital role in the story, and how beautifully she sings.

What I didn’t like:

The plot hole, or is it something I missed? Or is it a MacGuffin of some sort?

(Spoiler follows)

Louis Bernard’s killing. What lies behind it? Who really is Louis Bernard? Ben later conjectures about this, but it’s never really confirmed; and the fact that the assassin calls on Bernard, seems to mean that Bernard is in the thick of the assassination plot. But is that so? What really happened, that Bernard ended up stabbed in the back? If Bernard was one of the baddies, what made him a target? If he was not a baddie, how come he was pally with the assassin? Why were the police chasing a disguised Bernard and his killer through the bylanes of Marrakech?

(Spoiler ends)

But, all said and done, a relatively minor niggle in a film that’s otherwise pretty enjoyable.  

Happy birthday, Doris Day. There will never be another like you.

32 thoughts on “The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

  1. Hitchcock is a favorite of mine – I own every film that he has made – and this film is up there for me along with “Dial M for Murder” – though depending on when you ask me, my top picks keep changing.
    I am a huge fan of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” – mainly because of the association with “Que Sera Sera” that I was taught as a child, but later on, when I watched the film, just for the use of music in the film. The climactic scene of the assassination is superbly done. The gaps in the plotline are quite apparent, but one gets caught up in the thrill of the whole thing and ignores it. The scene in the church for some reason always stood out for me – well there are so many nice scenes like that in the film.
    Doris Day did not quite stand out for me though – she is a bit too over-the-top – and that annoyed me. She is perfect in the rom-coms – especially the ones with Rock Hudson; and in this one, I remember her for her singing, but not as an actress. Maybe it is that I prefer Hitchcock’s usual heroine trope – quieter (colder??) and more aloof. Jimmy Stewart is fantastic in this film.

    • Hitchcock is a favourite of mine, too; I don’t think there are too many movies of his I haven’t seen. And you’re right about this film having ‘so many nice scenes’ – true. For me, the sequence in the Albert Hall is the standout: the building tension as the clash of the cymbals nears… superb.

      “Maybe it is that I prefer Hitchcock’s usual heroine trope – quieter (colder??)

      I think one reason why Doris Day comes across as different from the usual Bergman/Hedren type of Hitchcock heroine is because she’s not the ‘usual’ heroine. Not young, not especially glamorous. A wife and mother (rather than a woman who must be particularly attractive in order to let the hero fall for her) – and of course, her love for her child is what makes her all nerves, too. She may not be the usual heroine, but I still like her. Though I will admit I like her more in the romcoms!

  2. Madhu,
    Hitchcock is my special favourite. I have seen all his famous films. ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ is a complete film, about the best Hitchcock. How many films move across two continents, high treason, assassination plot of a visiting PM? In this tense situation, James Stewart manages some humour. In their London hotel room, Doris Day’s fans/friends troop in. The couple has to maintain pleasantries. Stewart has to also go out in search of Ambrose Chappell. After spending the whole night, as he rushes into the hotel room, he finds the fans still waiting for him to join in the refreshments He instantly comes up with, “Right in time for breakfast”.

    After reading your review too, I don’t see Bernard’s killing as a weakness in the plot. He was a spy to uncover the plot of the assassination of a visiting PM from a European country to London. He knew an American couple visiting Marrakesh were into it. He was on the lookout for the couple. Once he realised that McKennas are clean, he started looking for the real one. The conspirators caught on to Bernard, who while dying whispered the essential details to Ben.

    Since spies do not let on the local cops (even Ben hid it from them), they become suspicious.

    AK

    • I do like that sequence with the London friends – it has that delightfully British brand of subtle humour that Hitchcock did so well!

      Your explanation of Louis Bernard’s actions is what I would have interpreted it as, if it hadn’t been for the assassin calling for him at the McKennas’ hotel room. What is that about? Is the assassin being (stupidly) cheeky? Is he daring Bernard – “Look, here I am, come and get me”? Why does he come (and Bernard obviously knows him – which was what led me to assume that Bernard was one of the bad guys in the first place).

  3. I had reviewed this film a few years ago. It’s one of the films in which I actually liked Doris Day. (https://tinyurl.com/the-man-who-knew-too-much)
    As to your question about Bernard, the police do tell Ben that Bernard is an officer with the French Intelligence Service. He had been undercover trying to trace the assassination plot. Which is why he’s killed – the baddies find out who he is.

    • “the police do tell Ben that Bernard is an officer with the French Intelligence Service

      How did I miss this? (actually, I can guess: the LO was still at home – she’s gone back to offline school now – when I watched this. And she has a habit of coming bouncing in every now and then with questions, comments, distractions, etc). But even if Bernard was an intelligence officer, why does the assassin come to meet him? That’s what muddies the waters for me.

      • Because he was undercover in the gang. So the assassin comes to meet him. And the cops chase Bernard because they don’t initially know he’s on the good side. (Think of Don. :) ) It is because the bad guys uncover Bernard’s real identity that he is killed.

        • Hmm. Okay. I’m still not too convinced – because if he was in the gang, how come he wasn’t already aware of who the Draytons were (and not the McKennas, whom he mistook for them)? But thank you for taking the trouble to explain to me. :-)

          • Now you have me feeling a bit puzzled as well. :) My conjecture is that he had infiltrated the gang and knew that an American couple were co-conspirators, he just didn’t know which ones. So when he tumbles upon the McKennas, he first assumes it is them and so he pumps Ben for information.

            But this is all conjecture since I’m so stuck with work to go checking. :)

            • There is, of course, still the niggling point that the Draytons are British, not American. ;-) But let’s let it be, because even I don’t have the time to go check!

  4. This is among a few Hitchcock movies I don’t remember seeing. I had assumed I had … may be something to do with que sera sera being so well known ..but your review doesn’t ring a bell. so this is one movie I will watch pretty soon.
    While on the subject of que sera sera here is a Tamil version / plagiarism/ adaptation you decide!

    • Ooh, thank you for Chinna pennana pothile. I loved this. What are the lyrics about? Are they the same theme as the original, or is this completely different?

      • The theme is along the lines of the original. Will I have the life I dream of, will I get the man of my dreams, finally, where is my man hiding – all directed at the moon.

      • On a related but side note, Hindi has a few adaptations of this song – don’t think any of them have lyrics along the same lines. They are adaptations and not direct copies of the original.

        Anil Biswas adapted it for the film Jasoos” in Talat Mehmood’s voice “Jeevan hai madhuban”

        And then N Datta adapted it in “Dilli ka Daada” with the lovely Asha/Mahendra Kapoor duet “DhooNDhe nazar nazar” – there are many links to this song on youtube – I picked this just for the picture of an incredibly young Mahendra Kapoor :-)

        I vaguely remember another adaptation, but details elude me now.

        But here is a nice surprise. This is from a Telugu film, sung by Bhanumathi Ramakrishna. But the surprise is that she did not sing a copy or an adaptation but the actual original song

        • Thank you! I hadn’t heard Jeevan hai Madhuban before, though I must admit I can’t see much similarity to Que sera sera in this. I have heard Dhoonde nazar-nazar and like it a lot, but had never noticed that it’s an adaptation. Yes, in this one I can tell that it’s inspired from the song, but it’s been done so skilfully that it escaped me. Not a blatant copy, either of these.

          The Bhanumathi rendition is a revelation! Thank you, especially, for that. I have seen the very occasional English song in Hindi films, but that’s usually not more than a verse – if that – and often not with music.

          • You are absolutely right about how both tunes are only vaguely based on Que Sera Sera. When a friend first pointed out “Jeevan hai madhuban” as an adaptation of “Que Sera Sera”, I rejected the idea – and then I listened to it a few more times and I realized how skillfully Anil Biswas had adapted the basic tune pattern into the song. Especially during the mukhDa, if you sing Que Sera Sera along with it, you will see the synergies in the tunes. And then I tried it in the antara and again, and there was that pattern.
            Jeevan hai madhuban Que sera sera
            tu is me phool khila whatever will be will be
            kaaNToN se na bhar daaman the future’s not ours to see
            ab maan bhi jaa que sera sera

            Dekh zara dil me When I was just a little girl
            tu hai kaun si manzil me (I asked my mother) what will I be
            uTh jaane de har parda will I be pretty, will I be rich
            ab aur na khud ko chhupa here’s what she said to me

            Okay, now that I read the above, I realize just how pedantic I sound, but since I have finished writing the above, I am going to post it anyway and bob and weave around all virtual brickbats :-)

              • No worries.

                I tried singing Que sera sera along with this, and got all muddled up! Though yes, it does give me more of a glimpse of how Biswas has adapted it – so well, you can’t tell unless you listen very closely.

  5. I must have seen this film at least 10 times in the last few years. It is brilliant. I think Doris Day was the perfect choice for this role as compared to Hitch’s usual glamorous blondes. She needs to be and actually is very relatable.
    Que sera sera is an absolute classic. I did not know that it was from this film until we saw it the first time. It was copied in one of Madhuri’s films in the late 90s called “Pukar”.

    • Yes, I remember that song from Pukaar – the words were copied, but the tune, if I recall correctly, was different.

      “She needs to be and actually is very relatable.

      Totally agree. Jo McKenna is a very different character from the usual Hitchcock heroine, and I think Doris Day plays the role very well.

  6. Its an enjoyable film as you said. Very surprised that no one mentioned the fact that this film is a remake of Hitchcock’s own “The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)” and I think in that one the family has a daughter, not a son.

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