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The Times (20/Jun/1956) - The Arts: The Man Who Knew Too Much

(c) The Times (20/Jun/1956)

The Arts



In spite of colour, wide screen devices, and ever louder sound the Hitchcock technique has not changed greatly since the days of 1934 when the first The Man Who Knew Too Much was a high-water mark of British production. This is to say, of course, that Mr. Hitchcock is so much a master of film-making that he has been able to tame even the most intractable of the cinema's new devices and harness them to the telling of his story in ways that many other directors have yet to learn.

Take away the sound track of the first The Man Who Knew Too Much and the visuals, with the late Mr. Leslie Banks, Miss Edna Best, and Miss Nova Pilbeam, still tell their tense story of credible coincidence. Take away the track from Mr. Hitchcock's new version of the story, which opens at the Plaza Cinema to-day, and the result is still the same. The changes are comparatively small. The Englishman and his wife, who were involved in the plottings of an international gang of political conspirators in 1934, have become in 1956 an American doctor and his wife, played by Mr. James Stewart and Miss Doris Day. The young daughter who was kidnapped, and round whose rescue the story of the film evolves, has become a seven-year-old son, Hank. Switzerland has become French Morocco.

Mr. Hitchcock moves through the backyards of international politics with the assurance of long practice. From time to time he stops to lift the lid from a garbage can now made less appealing for being in colour on a large screen. He dwells, for example, on a knife stuck in the back of M. Daniel Gelin as the agent, Louis Bernard. He emphasizes the unintentional cruelties of officialdom. These are developments of a well tried formula which always moves from slow beginnings by way of false clues and every kind of attack on the emotions to a final, unbearable suspense and a happy ending with loose ends secured. Mr. Hitchcock's latest application of the formula shows again that no one, except perhaps M. Clouzot, can rival him in creating suspense.

But it is suspense born of a formula plot and only valid if the events appear spontaneous and the acting is always credible. Here Mr. Hitchcock is let down by his cast. Mr. James Stewart plays a ham-handed middle-class American doctor, Ben McKenna, on a high, hysterical note which knows none of the subtlety which Mr. Leslie Banks once brought to the English version. By the end of the film he has exhausted most of the cliches of the actor's trade without creating a character in which we — or, what is perhaps more important. Miss Doris Day, as his wife Jo — can really believe. Miss Day, thus hampered, makes the best of her scenes with Mr. Stewart and comes out extremely well by herself, particularly when she stands alone in the Albert Hall, torn between the impulses of love for her son and the commands of a more complicated compassion for a threatened human being.

Mr. Hitchcock's scenes in the Albert Hall, supported by excellent model shots, which look as if they came out of the special effects department at Shepperton studios, are, of course, the climax of his latest version of The Man Who Knew Too Much as they were of old. They pose the question, though, whether the new techniques of cinema now at Mr. Hitchcock's command really justify the re-make of a story which is already part of film history in its black-and-white version. The quality of acting, after all, is less good, the story is neither better nor worse, and the direction does nothing to prove the value of a film director repeating his work.