The Directors’ Chair: The Man Who Knew Too Much


Jimmy Stewart The Man Who Knew Too Much, Why would he pick me out to tell?
“Why would he pick me out to tell?”

Why? Because you’re the affable, all-American James Stewart, that’s why. I’ve no real clue why Stewart’s picked, other than he’s a great foil to get pushed around by Hitchcock and international forces beyond his control.

“The Muslim religion allows for few mistakes.” 

How prescient of Hitch to give us a glimpse of North Africa and its Muslim culture as a preamble to the intrigue that follows. Could this film even be made today? (Current Middle East tensions and all…) Hitchcock also gives us a glimpse into the marriage of Stewart and Doris Day. I really like Day in this, one of the better roles of her career. My motto: It doesn’t hurt playing a Hitchcock Blonde.

doris day, james stewart, brenda de banzie the man who knew too much
Doris Day, James Stewart and the wonderful Brenda de Banzie 

And any leading man is better off being “married” to Doris Day in the movies (i.e. Rock Hudson, James Garner, David Niven and now Jimmy Stewart, to name a few.) She’s a smart gal here, picks up social cues her husband misses, as wives do. She tamps down her sophistication, but she’s no rube. Day plays an ex-singing star who has given up her career for marriage to a doctor and a nice home, little boy and life in the Mid-west. There might be just the slightest bit of tension in that trade-off. But whaddya want, it’s 1956; a girl’s gotta get married. I like Hitch giving Day’s character a moment in the spotlight as the couple’s plane lands in London and fans call out for her. Don’t worry…it’s just a plot device and not a commentary on women having had ‘ka-rears’.

The Plot: They have to stop a political assassination and find their kidnapped son…in that order. Nothing like a little blackmail to spur one’s civic duty. Their silence bought, Stewart’s and Day’s teamwork has them decipher clues, leaving law enforcement pretty much out of this so they won’t muck up finding their couple.

doris day the man who knew too much

Usually when we hear the great film scores of the Hitchcock-Bernard Hermann collaboration (Psycho, Vertigo, North By Northwest, etc.) the music serves as a beautiful observer of events. In “The Man Who Knew Too Much” Hitchcock puts Music and Hermann front and center. What a neat touch as the movie starts, we see Hermann and his orchestra PLAY the movie’s actual score under the movie’s opening credits. Has any director done THAT before? (We’re usually not supposed to know the music’s there.) Later on in the film, Hitch intersperses Hermann and his orchestra… instruments, music sheets, close-ups of musical notes with Day and Stewart trying to figure out the last piece of the puzzle. Music is a character in this movie. Tension and suspense are as taut as a violin string as Hitch shows Day’s tear-stained face looking up at the muzzle of an assassin’s gun.

doris day the man who knew too much

No one expresses hysteria, full-blown or repressed, like Doris Day. In fact, my favorite scene in the movie is, perhaps, the most disturbing, where Stewart gives Day sleeping pills just before he tells her their son has been kidnapped. She simultaneously plays out several emotions: anger, despair and helplessness as the pills take effect in a scene worthy of Ingrid Bergman’s talents.

The behind-the-scene story is Hitchcock said very little to Ms. Day during filming, having no notes of direction for her. It wasn’t that he didn’t like her. He was pleased with her natural and “pitch perfect” performance.

Very very few directors had the chance to remake their own movie. I can only think of Wyler. This is Hitchcock’s second time doing “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” I think he improved on his own work. But you be the judge…see ‘em both.


–Theresa Brown for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Theresa’s Directors’ Chair articles here.

Theresa Brown is a native New Yorker, a Capricorn and a biker chick (rider as well as passenger). When she’s not on her motorcycle, you can find her on her couch blogging about classic films for CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Classic films are her passion. You can find her on Twitter at @CineMava.

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One Response to The Directors’ Chair: The Man Who Knew Too Much

  1. Amy Condit says:

    Thanks for sharing Theresa Brown’s terrific post on the 1956 “The Man Who Knew Too Much”. I enjoyed the points she made about how music is central to the film, and the strength of Doris Day’s performance. I’ve always enjoyed the 1934 version of this film because I have a penchant for Peter Lorre; however, I plan to rewatch the 1956 version tonight with Theresa’s comments in mind.

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