Classic conspiracy movies for summer viewing, week 3

CLASSIC CONSPIRACY MOVIE PICK OF THE WEEK

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is this week’s pick for a classic movie with a conspiracy theme. Although often classified as a thriller, this classic Alfred Hitchcock film has conspiracy and political intrigue at its heart and is a worthy addition to the conspiracy-film repertoire. And we can safely surmise that Hitchcock himself thought highly of it. He made the film ― first in Britain, where Hitchcock made a version of the film in 1934 with star Peter Lorre, and later in the US, where a better-known version with James Stewart and Doris Day was issued in 1956. Although serious film buff will want to experience both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, even casual movie fans should add the 1956 version to their list of films to watch. That version is our pick of the week.

By the time the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much arrived in theaters, television was already eroding the traditional audiences for Hollywood films. Hitchcock was an established top-tier director, but he realized the industry would have to reckon with the new, small-screen technology. Even as he continued to make high-profile movies, he also launched a television series, which he hosted and produced. (Alfred Hitchcock Presents was a staple on the CBS network from 1955 until 1965.)   

The new version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was released during this time.  Hollywood was trying desperately to differentiate the experience viewers had in theaters from the more intimate viewing experiences they had watching television in their living rooms.  The Man Who Knew Too Much surely provided such an opportunity. With its wide-screen format and with images bathed in the lavish color palette of 1950s Technicolor, it was a visual feast compared to anything television was capable of offering at the time. 

The format was ideal for Hitchcock’s transcontinental storyline, in which James Stewart — a Hitchcock regular — plays an ordinary man placed in extraordinary situations beyond his control. Indeed, the film starts out as though it is a travelogue. McKenna, an American doctor, is vacationing in Morrocco with his wife Jo (played by Doris Day) and young son Hank. It all seems innocent enough, though modern viewers will likely note the dismissiveness — characteristic of the era — that the film shows to non-Western cultures.

Playing an optimistic American everyman, Stewart’s character stumbles into intrigue after witnessing a murder in broad daylight. Soon, son Hank is placed in danger, and the story then follows efforts to secure the boy’s safety.  As the action moves forward and shifts to London, it becomes clear that this is no simple crime story. Instead, Ben and Jo McKenna have become pawns in a complicated assassination conspiracy with international consequences.

The conspiracy angles to the proceedings have many of the hallmarks that continue to appear in more recent conspiracy movies. Played to melodramatic perfection by Stewart, the McKenna character is both worldly and naive. The more he is out of his element, the more prone to panic he becomes. Meanwhile, viewers — like McKenna — are left trying to figure out which characters can be trusted and what is actually going on. It’s the classic stuff of the conspiracy film.

Hitchcock seems to have had a complicated relationship with female actors, to put it mildly. His relationship with the female characters in his films is no less complicated or straightforward. Modern viewers may note the manner in which Ben McKenna, the solid family man with strong Midwestern values, treats his wife Jo as the story unfolds. Jo, the story tells us, was a successful stage performer and surely more well-known than her husband.  Ben McKenna seems to adore her, but his adoration hardly seems to be one between equals. When young Hank is placed in danger, Ben McKenna decides that his wife is not strong enough to bear the news, so he insists that she take powerful prescription sedatives before he will explain the situation to her.  It’s hard to know exactly what Hitchcock had in mind with this scene (apart from the obvious sexism), and I think many viewers today will find it jarring. In any case, to modern eyes, the scene seems to show Ben McKenna, rather than Jo McKenna, as the weaker character.

I doubt many viewers would expect to find Doris Day’s famous song “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)as a key element in a conspiracy film, but in The Man Who Knew Too Much, it has a special importance.  Is that realistic? Probably not. But then again, The Man Who Knew Too Much doesn’t succeed by aiming for realism. In fact, it’s a highly mannered film, with many elements that in the hands of a less capable director would seem preposterous and ordinary. But, like a skilled conspirator, Hitchcock excels at manipulation. Off-screen, that may not have been a good thing. On-screen, however, it allows him to put together compelling cinematic works that add up to more than the sum of their parts.

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To mark the 10th anniversary of the book Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics, I ‘m suggesting a different classic film with a conspiracy or political paranoia theme every week this summer. Think of it as a do-it-yourself Paranoid Summer Film Festival.