The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Man Who Knew Too Much could be one of the most influential movies in history, although it may not seem like it at first. 

In the first 20 minutes alone, we see an American couple whose marriage is on the rocks trying to patch things up with a bus ride through Morrocco (which showed up later in Babel) an American doctor and his wife attending a medical conference in a foreign country getting tangled up in international intrigue (which showed up later in the echt-Hitchcockian Frantic) and a hectic chase through a crowded Morroccan marketplace (which showed up later in Raiders of the Lost Ark).  For good measure, Jimmy Stewart also mentions that he was stationed in Casablanca during WWII.  With movies like these flooding the culture it’s amazing that Americans ever leave home at all.

(And of course the whole “assassination at the concert” sequence was lifted for the 70s Hitchcock pastiche Foul Play.)

Doris Day is just smashing in this movie.  Later she would rise to prominence as the light-comedic blonde stay-press goddess of Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back and That Touch of Mink (all of which this author highly recommends), but here she plays the bitter, regretful, eminently flappable wife of grumpy, out-of-sorts midwestern doctor James Stewart.

How screwed up is their marriage?  Here’s a good indication.  James has just found out that their son has been kidnapped, but instead of telling Doris right off the bat, he’s catty and brusque with her, prompting her to ask, snootily, “Are we going to have our monthly fight?”  In answer to that, James forces her to take a sedative in order to put her out so that she won’t be able to react when he finally tells her that their child has been spirited out of the country by ruthless assassins.  Doris’s reaction when she learns the truth is powerful and priceless; she acts like she can’t decide whether to kill her husband, throw herself out the window, storm out the door or go to sleep.

Then there’s a scene where they stand in the marketplace in Marrakesh, describing how so-and-so’s gall bladder paid for their cruise tickets and so-and-so’s tonsils paid for James’s suit.  The list goes on and on, over two scenes, as the two of them cheerfully describe how their luxury vacation has been achieved through the pain and suffering of ordinary people back home — in Indiana, which we are told might as well be Hell as far as Doris’s life as an ex-performer isconcerned.  So yes, I guess they have issues, but nothing that can’t be solved through busting up an international spy ring and preventing an assassination.

The movie is breathtakingly suspenseful, including of course the famous Albert Hall sequence, which is attenuated almost to the point of absurdity.  If the narrative has a flaw, it is this team of assassins, whose plan unravels at a startling pace and who make a number of clumsy, amateurish decisions when their plot is discovered.

We care about preventing the assassination not for the sake of the intended victim (about whom we know nothing) but for the sake of Doris, who won’t see her child again if she doesn’t allow the man to be killed.  The tension of this dilemma is compounded when, after the assassination attempt, the intended target comes around to thank Doris for saving him and reveals himself to be a pompous, supercilious, extremely-pleased-with-himself autocrat and we think “geez, she put her kid’s life in danger to save this asshole?”
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32 Responses to “The Man Who Knew Too Much”
  1. laminator_x says:

    When I first heard about The Red Eye I thought awesome, Cillan Murphy’s staring in a movie about the creepy drifter in Tick #8.

    When I found out what it was actually about, I was like “Oh. It’s just like The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

    (As an aside, I’ve wondered for a while how long it will be before the web makes italics officially replace underlining as the means to denote a title in print.)

    • Anonymous says:


      Using italics to denote a title (book or movie) is a very longstanding convention in print, not an invention of the web.

      You must be a college student. The convention in academia is to use underlining because typewriters didn’t let manuscript writers italicize. (Don’t bring up the IBM Selectric and its interchangeable typefaces — it was out of the budget for students and most professors, too.)

      –The Editor

      • laminator_x says:

        Re: Aside

        Heh. No, I haven’t been a college student for some time. However, my exposure to the MLA style guides does date to that period in my life.

    • Todd says:

      I was brought up being told that one italicizes titles of long works and puts quotes around the titles of short works. Therefore, “Lovely Rita” is a song on Sgt. Pepper and “The Doomsday Machine” is an episode of Star Trek. The New Yorker, for some reason, puts quotes around movie titles and another magazine, EW I think, puts song titles in italics, both of which feel wrong to me and drive me up the fucking wall.

      The Editor notes that the underlining thing came about because you can’t italicize on a typewriter; that’s what I remember too, and when I first started using a computer I went through years of confusion because I had been trained to underscore on a typewriter. It felt like such a decadent luxury to be able to properly italicize a title, but I would still underscore for emphasis, as in: “I hated The Sound of Music.” Now I italicize all over the place, even when it isn’t warranted.

    • greyaenigma says:

      The Red Eye was one of my favorite Tick characters. Despite the little mini-comic he got, he never had as much exposure as that character deserved.

  2. ndgmtlcd says:

    The suddenly bumbling assassins a plot flaw you say? I think it’s more like a didactic attempt by Hitchcock. It’s like his didactic attempts, in so many other of his films, to make us learn that it really isn’t that easy to get rid of a corpse.

    • Todd says:

      But dramatically, it lowers the stakes when the antagonists, in the third act, are revealed to be hasty, disorganized, overconfident and unprepared. Compare the flawed, divided antagonists in Man with the team of heartless, sadistic creeps in North by Northwest, who are ready to deal with every curve ball that Cary Grant can throw at them, right up to the end.

      • ndgmtlcd says:

        Yes! But I would have attributed the better results in “North by Northwest” to the beat of the drama, the execution of the script more than to what I consider the bare-bones plot, given the loony work (trying to kill someone while flying a crop duster, among many things ) by the villains, which you notice only when you manage to get your mind off the fast drama going by. Which means, I suppose, that (like many French film critics who have dissected these films) you consider the Hitchcockian plot to be one and the same with the finished product.

        • Todd says:

          If attacking a man with a crop-duster sounds inefficient to you, you should know that Hitchcock’s original suggestion to screenwriter Ernest Lehman was to have the villains attack the protagonist with a tornado. That’s why he’s in Indiana, because Hitchcock wanted to have Cary Grant chased by a tornado.

          • craigjclark says:

            What a very Bond villain kind of idea — and the James Bond series was still a couple years off. Was James Mason supposed to have a weather machine or something?

            • Todd says:

              I think the conversation probably went something like:

              H: And then I think it would be cool if Cary got attacked by a tornado.
              L: He did what now?
              H: Think of it, Indiana, corn fields, all that flatness, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide — it’ll be great.
              L: No, no, I understand that part, can we go back to the “tornado” part?
              H: What.
              L: He’s attacked by a tornado?
              H: The bad guys, yeah, they attack him with a tornado.
              L: How — um, how do they do that?
              H: What.
              L: Attack him with a tornado.
              H: You mean how do they do the effects? Same way as in Wizard of Oz, I imagine.
              L: No, I mean — how do the bad guys —
              H: Is that the time? I’ve got lunch with Grace Kelly, I’ve got to run. Listen, you think on this and type something up, mkay? Let’s meet again tomorrow.

  3. teamwak says:


    I love Hitchcock movies. They were a staple in my house growing up. But apart from a couple of movies I re-watched recently (N by NW and the Birds), I dont think Ive watched one in 20 years.

    As a kid I just remember them as great movies. Nice to see the subtext and story skill still holds up well today. The Birds totally stands out against formulaic chiller remakes we get overloaded with today. That guy who had his eyes pecked out gave me nightmares for ages. And when you know that he just chucked live birds at Tippi Hendron to get his effect, you gotta love the guy!

    He was a bit of a genius really, wasnt he? lol

    • Todd says:

      For a while I was down on Hitchcock because I felt he was a glib, superficial director of diverting entertainments while Kurosawa and Bergman were making “real” movies. Now I’m not so sure.

      He was a bit of a genius really, wasnt he?

      An evil one, yes.

      • craigjclark says:

        I was never really down on Hitchcock, but I wasn’t up on him, either, until a local repertory theater ran a series of the films he made for Universal in celebration of the 100th birthday. Got to see The Trouble with Harry, Topaz and Frenzy on the big screen, which can make even a lesser Hitchcock look like the work of somebody firing on all cylinders. And soon after American Movie Classics ran all of his films for a couple weeks straight. (This was back when AMC still showed classic movies and letterboxed to boot.)

        Man, I wish I could afford that Universal Hitchcock box set they put out.

  4. craigjclark says:

    You should check out the original Man Who Knew Too Much (made by Hitchcock two decades earlier in England). Peter Lorre plays one of the villains and the part of the wife is a lot more interesting. (She’s a world champion marksman, which figures into the climax.)

    • Todd says:

      The 1934 Man is not at my local video store, but apparently is out of copyright and available as a free download, so I may check it out, although Criterion has made me something of a “good print” snob.

      • craigjclark says:

        When it comes to British Hitchcock, I’ve learned to take what I can get. I’m thrilled that The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are available in good-looking prints (not exactly pristine, but they did the best they could with them), but he made quite a few films around the same time that are just as worthy of being restored. 1936’s Sabotage immediately comes to mind.

        • Todd says:

          I get Sabotage and Saboteur mixed up. Whichever one has the kid on the bus with the bomb and the climax atop the Statue of Liberty is jaw-dropping.

          • craigjclark says:

            Actually, you’ve described parts from both movies. Sabotage is the one with the kid on the bus. Saboteur is the one with the Statue of Liberty scene.

            • Todd says:

              No wonder I couldn’t remember the plot. Throw in the plane crash from Foreign Correspondent and you’ve got a kickass movie.

          • teamwak says:

            I always liked Strangers On A Train and Marnie as well. Strangers was one of the first movies I can remember that had a proper sicko in it. Perhaps I was too young but I was horrified that the man wanted to kill his father! Loved Marnie. James Bond and all that blood red.

            Actually I could keep going. Rear Window is also one I love, and they have done a re-make/re-imagining called Disturbia with Shia Lebeouf. In it he is kept in by an electronic ankle device by the police. Its had some good reviews so I would like to see it.

            • Todd says:

              The antagonist of Strangers on a Train is one of the most disturbing ever committed to film, perhaps because he is so understandably real, in a way that even other Hitchcock psychos (Tony Perkins, say) are not.

              • Anonymous says:

                Strangers on a Train

                That movie is a freak-out for many reasons, but it definitely starts with that character.

  5. Anonymous says:

    The wife

    It’s been too long since I’ve seen this, I think since the theatrical rerelease (in the late ’80s?). But I’ve always thought that she’s the only character who made any sense. The fact that her husband thinks it’s reasonable to drug his wife and hide their son’s kidnapping from her seemed proof of his idiocy, or insanity, or recklessness.

    You could make a study of dangerous-doctors in movies who give knock-out drops/pills/shots to their wives (or make the doctor do it) to keep the hysterical female under control. Apparently people used to think this was a fine way to treat women — for their own good.

    This is the movie that turned me into a Doris Day believer. Of course, I loved her in That Touch of Mink and Pillow Talk (sorry, I can’t seem to italicize on LiveJournal) — when I was a kid, I planned to grow up to move to New York and live just like her, but date Cary Grant instead of Rock Hudson. Then, when I saw The Man Who Knew Too Much, I realized how great she really was. And she sang the indelible theme song!