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?
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?
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.