We continue our survey of the twenty greatest movies of the 1950s.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.
For a listing of the greatest movies of the 20s and 30s click here.
16. The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956
In François Truffaut’s 1967 ground-breaking interview with Alfred Hitchcock, on Hitch’s remake of his own 1934 production of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock stated: “Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.”
The original version races along at 75 minutes, a breathless pace. The film is completely dominated by Peter Lorre’s performance as the charming but creepy antagonist. In spite of the deadly serious plot, the 1934 version is leavened with lighter, almost comical moments, which, for some viewers, seem at odds with the general tone of the film. The British film stars Leslie Banks and Edna Best, and though they are competent performers, they fail to register onscreen as protagonists with whom an audience can easily identify.
An older and wiser Hitchcock understood the importance of star power, and for his updated version Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, two huge movie stars, were cast in the lead roles.
Dr. Ben McKenna and his wife Jo, are American tourists who become embroiled with a nest of international spies. Unable to go to the police because their son has been kidnapped to insure their silence about an impending assassination, Bill and Jo are forced to try and rescue their son all by themselves.
Rivers of ink have been spilled about Hitchcock’s cool blondes: Madeleine Carroll, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedrin, Eva Marie Saint and Janet Leigh.
Doris Day gets little notice. And no wonder. Day is an uncharacteristic Hitchcock leading lady. Was she forced on Hitchcock by the studio? Actually, no. Hitch saw her in Storm Warning (1951) and was impressed by her solid performance as a woman confronting the KKK. Hitchcock understood that a cool blonde would be all wrong for The Man Who Knew Too Much, for Jo McKenna is a dedicated wife and a loving mother. The role demands a warm personality, a maternal blonde, if you will, and Doris Day’s performance as an anguished mother is pitch perfect.
Both Stewart and Day powerfully convey the helpless desperation of parents racing against the clock to rescue their child.
The script by John Michael Hayes and Angus McPhail is beautifully constructed with all the machinery of plot clearly laid out so there is never a moment where the audience questions the plausibility of the situation. And though this version is 45 minutes longer than the original, the film moves along with a wonderful, stately velocity.
Okay, let’s all admit that the film falters—actually, it comes to a dead halt—when Doris Day sings Que Sera, Sera, but every great film has at least one fault, and in the 1950s most major movies were saddled with a sappy theme song.
It seems obvious that Hitchcock remade his own film primarily to re-shoot the famous Albert Hall sequence. This is ten minutes without dialogue, pure cinema. It’s Hitchcock at his very best, using the language of film to build a suspenseful sequence that is nearly unbearable.
Here is the entire sequence in all its glory. By the way, that’s the film’s great composer, Bernard Herrmann, playing the role of the orchestra conductor.