By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
Overall, the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is not considered one of Hitchcock’s best endeavors. Of the two versions made (the other was an early success of Hitchcock’s in his home country of England in 1934), the earlier version garners more overall critical praise, and the 1956 version was, sadly, greatly overshadowed by the earlier films that the American public had come to associate with Hitchcock’s unique style. There are, however, two glorious scenes in this movie in which we see the full extent of Hitchcock’s artistic genius. Along with the famous “Que Sera Sera” scene in which Doris Day sings to her hostage kidnapped son held upstairs (I hereby promise you a post on this scene in the near future), the scene we are about to discuss stands not only as an extreme example of the power of music to create suspense, but also as one of the most perfect scenes in the entire Hitchcock pantheon. For 10 minutes, the film skyrockets into a masterwork of suspense and intrigue, and keeps the viewer firmly on the edge of her seat anticipating the murder at the finale of the symphony.
An assassin who has kidnapped the son of Jo and Ben McKenna (Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart) is hired to kill the Prime Minister at the Royal Albert Hall during a performance. This information is unknown to the McKennas, but they are aware that Scotland Yard Inspector Buchanan will be at the Royal Albert Hall for a concert, and they attend to enlist his help in locating their son. There, Jo sees the assassin who threatens to harm her son if she interferes with the plot to murder the Prime Minister. When Jo sees the barrel of his gun as he points it at the Prime Minister, she screams. The bullet misses its target, and the assassin falls to his death trying to escape.
We are first given a preview of the murder plot when the assassin learns how he is to carry it out. He hears the final few bars of the symphony on a record, which include a loud cymbal crash. It is then that he is to fire the shot into the Prime Minister, as the sound of the gunshot will be masked. This is officially where the scene begins. We hear the final bars of the symphony over and over again, enough times so that we the audience know precisely when the murder is to take place. This is the setup to all the suspense that is to happen later, and Hitchcock masterfully starts the recording on a strange and rather eerie note, forcing the audience to remember the jarring tone it has on the ear.
At the Royal Albert Hall, the symphony the orchestra plays is a work by Arthur Benjamin, a piece specially commissioned by Hitchcock for his 1934 version of the same film. Leading the orchestra is the legendary Bernard Hermann, composer of the score for The Man Who Knew Too Much and famous for his musical collaborations with Hitchcock on such significant films as North By Northwest, Vertigo, and later and perhaps most significantly, Psycho. This marks his only appearance as an actor.
Aside from the sounds of the symphony, the scene at the Royal Albert Hall is completely silent. The events that unfold are communicated solely through gesticulations and expressions, and in this way the scene is very reminiscent of the days of silent cinema. The symphony serves as the background music that would be played at movie houses during the silent era, while the large movements and exaggerated facial expressions seem to be an ode to Hitchcock’s predecessors in silent cinema. At one point, Ben runs up the stairs in order to alert the inspector of what is happening. As he runs, we see the influence of the original swashbucklers in the adventure movies of the 1920’s, something the thin and gangly Stewart likely never achieved again in his career.
Jo nervously keeps her eye on the assassin as the orchestra plays. Suddenly, the assassin carefully reaches over the lap of the woman sitting next to him and pulls out a long black object. It is a moment worthy of a gasp, as the audience is led to believe that the assassin has taken his gun and will now start to get ready for the shooting. The assassin slowly pulls the object toward him…..and raises it to his eyes. He has taken out opera glasses.
It is worth pointing out that all of the assassin’s movements are slow and measured. This contributes to the viewer’s suspense and anxiety about what we know will eventually happen, and to the stoic creepiness of the assassin on the whole. Reggie Nalder gives a remarkable physical performance as the assassin, and his dramatic timing is flawless. His character is short-lived, but Nalder’s eerie portrayal of the assassin may be the best performance in the movie.
As the symphony reaches its climax, around the 7:30 mark of the scene, the camera cuts begin to occur in synchronicity with the musical line. Hitchcock waits until the end of a musical phrase to move the camera, subtly correlating the actions onscreen with the music as if to remind the audience that this is the moment of truth. The camera scans the musical score of the symphony, and we see the musical direction “poco a poco crescendo”–instructing the musicians to get “louder, little by little.” The musical direction “poco a poco crescendo” correlates exactly with the acceleration and slow building of the scene, and at the time the shooting occurs, the climax of the scene and that of the symphony collide physically and metaphorically with the crash of the cymbals.
Just before the shooting, we see the assassin’s gun inch out from behind the curtain, and angle itself slowly toward the camera. Allowing a gun to emerge from offscreen often elicits a scared gasp from the audience, and this is one of the more famous moments in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Notably, the technique was also used to great effect in the finale of American Beauty (1998). We then see a rather frightening image of the assassin with gun poised, ready to shoot the Prime Minister, his face completely still and focused.. This is an image I have trouble getting out of my head, as it is what I imagine an assassin in real life would look like.
Jo’s scream and the assassin’s bullet missing its target marks the divorce of the music from the actual scene. At that moment, the camera makes a series of quick cuts to the patrons around the theater, while the symphony plays its powerful and sustained final notes. The chaos that ensues at the crash of the cymbals can be viewed as the murder plot’s official unraveling–as the symphony ends gracefully and powerfully, the murder plot is botched and the assassin accidentally falls to his death in a clumsy finale.
Doris Day’s wordless performance in this scene is truly worthy of a silent melodrama. During shooting, Doris Day was concerned that Hitchcock was more interested in directing the lights and cameras than he was about directing her performance. She took this to mean that he was displeased with her performance, and approached him about it. He responded “My dear Miss Day, if you were not giving the performance I wanted, THEN I would have to direct you!
I am attaching the clip here for you to reference.
See you next time!
This is a fantastic scene and I love how you’ve analyzed it.
Wonderful commentary on what I think is one of Hitch’s greatest scenes – proof of his genius of manipulation. While, as you say, The film is not one of his best, the symphony scene is outstanding – how she methodically constructed it to leave us no choice in all manner of suspense-building. (Did that even make sense?). Anyway – really enjoyed reading this.
Excellent breakdown and analysis of this scene. While people don’t regard this film highly in terms of Hitchcock, they also miss the masterful talent on display in scenes like this one.