I watched a Hitchcock movie and a choral piece broke out

knew2 Hitchcock went the whole nine yards when he made The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), recruiting Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day, and Bernard Bermann, the composer and conductor.  The movie stars Jimmy Stewart in the leading role, as an innocent man caught up in a political conspiracy, and he learns something he has to hold back from the police, in order to protect the life of his young son, who has been kidnapped.  The movie really isn’t as complicated as you might think from that stupid sentence, because it’s well-done, and has some great performances.  This time, there’s some emotion from the leading man, as he goes all-out to try to recover his son and save the day, all at the same time.  At one point, he ends up at orchestral hall.  A full orchestra starts playing.  A huge choir rises up and begins singing.  An assassin leans out of his seat and prepares to kill an important-looking Amassador! Uh oh!

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Bernard Hermann conducting in the movie

The best scene in the whole movie bar none is the choir scene.  It’s maybe better than anything in The Wrong Man and North by Northwest.  The tension is just inescapable.  It’s amazing.  Doris Day plays Stewart’s wife and she is in the hall before he arrives, just as the orchestra starts playing.  Bernard Hermann himself makes a cameo as he conducts a few minutes for the camera.  Doris Day stares up at a box, knowing there’s an ASSASSIN up there.  She looks over at the Ambassador’s private box, worrying about what will happen.  But they have her boy!  She can’t do anything! What can she do!? She has to do something! She begins to cry.  

Jimmy Stewart rushes in and becomes the Man-of-Action, like Harrison Ford or something.  He rushes up to the Ambassador’s box but they usher him away.  Typical, right?  So what does he do?  That’s right, he has to confront the assassin himself!  But there’s no time left!  He has to hurry, folks!  He’s frantic to stop the shooting! From a conversation earlier, we the audience know the exact time the killer will shoot the Ambassador: when the cymbals of the orchestra ring loud at the climax of the piece.  The tremendous sound will mask the gunshot.  There’s an element of limited time gnawing at us for about ten to fifteen minutes and Hitchcock reminds us of this point repeatedly.  He cuts two or three times to the cymbals player.  As Jimmy Stewart is rushing around, the cymbals guy gets up out of his seat! Uh oh! You know what that means?!? Hurry up, Jimmy!  The cymbals player picks up his instrument! He raises them up…and…then….!!!

knew3I know I’m a big tease, but I won’t spoil it for you.  Needless to say, this is the climax to the movie, but it goes on for another ten minutes or so to wrap up some loose ends and tidy up.  Hitchcock plays with the audience a little more by not securing the boy’s safety right away and the ending is a bit overdone, but I didn’t mind.  I was exhausted by that point, so I’m not sure if the movie went too long or what.  

Overall, this is a great movie.  I’m told the choir scene runs for about twelve minutes without any dialogue, but the music makes up for it and the tension is amazing.  That is classic Hitchcock right there.  Most of the movie has to do with knowledge, which is characterized nicely by the main characters.  The whole first half of the movie takes place in Africa, which the characters know little to nothing about.  This is a good setting for our key theme.  They then become embroiled in an assassination attempt they learn everything about, but can’t share.  Jimmy Stewart goes from knowing nothing to knowing too much.  It works.  

Turning the tables on the characters is very effective, which goes hand in hand with the pace, because it takes off like a rocket with their desperation to find the little boy.  This is one of those movies I could watch on repeated viewings, to discover more and see what I can find, hidden in the details of Alfred Hitchcock.  Luckily, I knew who Bernard Hermann was ahead of time, so I enjoyed the music.  And the tension.  And Jimmy Stewart running around.  All at once.  Perfect.

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