Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Symphony of Suspense--Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956)--Albert Hall


PhotobucketOf the two versions of this film Alfred Hitchcock made, I rate the earlier one, a British-made movie from 1934, as the over-all best.

Although the color is stunning in this 1956 remake, and the lead actors very engaging, this version lacks a great villain like Peter Lorre in the cast and , also, the convention of having the lead female character as a singer leads to a rather flat finale, at least for those of us who aren't all that crazy about Doris Day's big hit featured in this film, the saccharine 'Que Sara Sara".
(In the earlier version, the mother of the kidnapped child is a champion rifle marks-person.To give more away would be telling too much, but suffice to say the finale in the earlier film is a real grabber! )

Still, this version with James Stewart and Doris Day has its high points, and this amazing nine-minute sequence has to be one of them.

Using "The Cantata for Clouds", Hitchcock creates an suspenseful sequence without using words--a masterful return to the silent film that the great director began with in the 1920's.

The movie follows a certain Doctor McKenna (Stewart) his wife (Doris Day, playing a former professional singer) and their son Hank as they go on holiday in Morocco. They meet a nice French fellow who turns out to be a secret agent trying to ferret out a murderous international spy ring. When the Frenchman is stabbed in a bizarre in Marrakesh, he whispers the details of an assassination plot to the American doctor. To prevent the couple from revealing what the agent told McKenna, they kidnap his son and tell the couple to not alert the police.

The McKennas remain silent, flying to London to try and ferret out the spy ring on their own. They discover that the murder of an important diplomat is to take place in the Albert Hall during a concert.

Which leads us to this point near the end of the film. Jo McKenna has gone to The Albert Hall. Her husband is close behind her, She knows that there is an assassin there, and she also knows her son is in danger. Stewarts character has already had a narrow escape from the desperate antagonists. It's up to them to catch the killer and hope he'll lead them to their son.

I'll let the film-maker take it from there.

PS--The composer on the podium in this scene is the great Bernard Hermann, who also wrote the original score for this and several other Hitchcock classics like "Vertigo", "Psycho" and "The Birds".

The full nine-minute version of "Cantata for Clouds" was composed by Australian composer Arthur Benjamin for the 1934 film. Hermann declined to write a new score for this scene, feeling that Benjamin's original couldn't be topped.


  1. Very nice Doug for the life of me where you and the like find these really does amaze me.

  2. It's all to the credit of those who post great scenes like this on YouTube, Jack. It's really the one scene in the film that stands out as a truly great effort by Hitchcock.

  3. Thanks Doug not usually on at this time but I shall have to take a look. The arts are something that are so relevant to our cultures I I have always found Doug. I have to come back and listen too again.
    Which I shall.

  4. A brief key scene from the 1934 film, featuring Peter Lorre as the head of the assassination squad, giving a little "music lesson" to the hired killer he's sending off to the concert.

  5. Doug, again, another great find!!!!

    The 1934 version was a truly great film - the later version was a vehicle for Doris Day, and worked to that extent - but it didn't have nearly the suspense of the earlier film.

  6. Thank you, Astra.

    I admit to being somewhat disappointed with the later version when it was re-released in the mid-80's. Trouble was for me, although Doris Day is credible in a dramatic role despite her string of fluff comedies later on in her career, that song she sings at the end in the Embassy Scene kind of grates on me.

    That and the fact that Hitchcock really already did this story perfectly (and a half-hour shorter) the first time off. This Albert Hall scene is one that I can go always back to, however.

  7. Spies aren't what they used to be Doug, Anna Chapman's death count is to date an absolutely paltry nil, or so I hear.

    Great suspense in the film though, the bad guy got his come uppance, pity about the pensioner in the stalls though.

    I remember from my long lost childhood listening to Bernard Hermann and the NDO on the radio, he seems to have been on almost constantly as I recall.... until the BBC went trendy and introduced Radio One in 1967.

    Dramatic stuff Doug, took me back to Sunday afternoon movies on the TV in black and white.....great, thanks for posting the clip :-)

  8. Too right Doug, Johnny Foreigner, a nasty piece of work that Lorre chap, Russian or perhaps German I don't know....but Peter sounds pretty Russian to me....not sure who they're assassinating or why, but there is a part of me that rather hopes they get away with it.

  9. Ironic in a way for Lorre to be playing this part--a dedicated murderer--because he was a German-Jewish refugee who left his country shortly after Hitler's rise to power.

    Hitchcock and other fine story-tellers know that "the better the villain is, the better the drama", as he himself once put it. There's always a part of our human psyches that identifies with a good villain, a real human specimen and not a stick figure who smirks and cackles. Sometimes this is repressed and sometimes its recognizable to us right off.

    A hero can be a bit dull and a suspense story can still work. But never a dull villain!

  10. Yes, Anna is no femme fatale.

    Yes, too bad about the poor music lover under the balcony. A pensioner too--hope he didn't suffer. ;-)

    This unpleasant night at the show illustrates my Uncle Mortimer's maxim that it always pays to pay a little extra to sit up toward the orchestra at swank cultural outings, or anywhere there's a balcony above. Assassins are notoriously clumsy chaps when they have to improvise a Plan B escape scheme.

    How great to be able to hear Hermann conducting live on the radio, AA He was truly a genius.

    I enjoy reseeing these old-school weekend afternoon cliffhangers myself, be they urban suspense melodramas or the older Westerns which were favored on the local stations in my day.

    The best nine minutes of this film and not a word is said in dialouge!

  11. That is really amazing Doug, Hitchcock's silent movie history coming out perhaps. On that subject you may be interested in this Doug? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9BJRihv4yc&playnext_from=TL&videos=IWml7MSu6MM&feature=sub

  12. Interesting indeed, AA. I understand a couple years ago the BFI did a restoration of Hitchcock's last silent film, "Blackmail"(1929). He also had scenes reshot for a sound version, the first full feature of its kind in Britain.

    Not enough has been done in cinema preservation, that's for sure. I've only seen three of Hitch's silents, I think "The Lodger" was best of that lot, but you can already see how imaginative Hitchcock was, and how he used the camera to tell a story in a way that only Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and the German masters like F.W. Murnau could rival,

    A young Hitchcock--working in Germany for many months with an English company using German studios-- watched Murnau directing his great silent "The Last Laugh" (1925), a film without a single title card conveying speech. The German expresionist also did the vampire film "Nosfuratu" and a great Hollywood film, "Sunrise" (1928). Murnau was lost to movies all too soon from a fatal car accident out in California in 1931.

    Hitchcock's time in Germany and exposure to their talents at story-telling and lighting were carried back to England from the pre-Nazi UFA studios in Berlin. It's safe to say he was an apt pupil.