Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

I haven’t any idea why both Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart hold such happy places in my heart–but they do. This is the sort of Hitchcock I enjoy most, when I’m not left feeling sick and paranoid. Well, right now I’m feeling sick because I’ve been drinking coffee all night and that’s a miserable thing for one to do. Beyond everything else, what I found striking in this film was his character development, which extended beyond the individuals and into their relationships with one another. I argue that Hitchcock takes the archetype of the hero/homecoming story for his model, but improves and modernizes it (don’t the two always go hand in hand?) by giving us two heroes whose ‘home’ is contentment in marriage; and I don’t mean that marriage is the goal, as in much of comedic Shakespeare, but rather more like in Austen, where characters battle each other and themselves in order to discover why a marriage would be happy.

Hitchcock throws us in some sense in media res by placing us at what proves to be the crucial moment in a troubled marriage. And then, rather than relying on flashbacks a la Telemachus to divulge the prehistory, the characters themselves drop hints. The first indicator in the film that this Hitchcock follows the archetype is that the film is neatly divided into two segments, both of which begin and end abruptly, and all hints are found within the first segment. A third segment is the one that occurs before the film, being the one only hinted at. The Morocco segment lays out all the problems: the marriage is in trouble, and the son is kidnapped. The kidnapping of the son arguably is a result of the failing marriage, and the London segment is dedicated to saving the son and fixing the marriage.

The first thing I noticed was that the son talks a lot. He’s obnoxious because he’s constantly commenting on everything his parents say, usually in a way that serves to lift the mood of the conversation though he acts as if he doesn’t know he’s being witty or funny. I’ve seen children act like this before–it’s how they desperately attempt to keep everyone happy. It’s how they try to prevent their parents from arguing.

1. Ben (Jimmy Stewart) says he’s called his wife ‘Jo’ for so long that he’s forgotten that she’s called anything else–her name is actually Josephine. Not only has he forgotten who she is, but he’s also given her a new name, which, as in the first chapters of Genesis, is a way of acquiring domination over anyone/anything.

2. They easily get caught up in tiffs. This is maintained throughout the Morocco segment and ends with the London segment, when they immediately begin working together seamlessly.

3. He’s fickle about what he feels strongly about, or else he tries to take up her cause with excess vigor. When he pushes aside her distrust of Louis Bernard, after she insists he finally becomes enraged with Bernard, to the point that even Jo tries to calm him down–because his emotions don’t make any sense. This is what made me begin taking notes, because it made me believe they’d had a fight in the past to which he was reacting.

4. She wants to have another baby. She brings this fact up entirely out of the blue. To us. But it’s a continuation of a series of conversations that take place in the pre-film segment that we don’t see.

5. They have monthly fights. They let us know this–and the ‘monthly’ bit threw me off because it inevitably implies that it’s her fault, but it’s not Ben who says it. She asks, ‘Ben, are we about to have our monthly fight?’ when, if it was related to her, he would be looking to her for the answer. At the same time, this happens to be the same day that she’s mentioned that she wants another baby. The conclusion I reach is that everyone should be praised for not blaming the fights on monthly lunacy, but rather they should be blamed on a monthly reminder of fertility.

6. ‘Six months ago you told me I took too many pills,’ says Jo. They measure time with their fights; but also, if she’d merely taken one aspirin too many and had a stomach ache, she wouldn’t have pinned it to a date like this. I’m going to call it a suicide attempt. Ben says ‘you know what happens when you get excited and nervous’–and she usually becomes hysterical (whose Greek root suggests the stereotype I mean), the hysteria ultimately being what saves the day.

7. Ben’s big plan is to offer the kidnappers ‘every penny I have’ to get back their son. He’s thinking in terms of his own money, not what they share. This would be meaningless except for the detail that she’s a world-famous singer who he’s convinced to give up her career and move to a backwards town in the midwest and be supported by him. In fact, their whole Europe/Morocco vacation is being funded by him and his work as a small-town doctor. They begin and carry on a joke for quite too long about which fixed body-part or delivered baby is responsible for, i.e., ‘I’m wearing Johnny Matthews’ appendix’ and ‘All the way home we’ll be riding on Herbie Taylor’s ulcers.’ Jo’s the one who comes up with this concept–and it’s the first time they’ve discussed it, as Jo says she’s ‘never thought of it that way’ before. Where is her money, as one would expect her to be worth significantly more than he is? Who knows.

So, these are the hints. And I think what it comes down to is likely this: they made a ‘deal’ that meant her retirement, their marriage, some children, and their total settling down. It wasn’t in that order, as she’d played London four years before the film’s action, and their son is older than that, but since then she’s settled down–and another child hasn’t come. And I think this is why they fight, because he hasn’t held up his end of the deal, and he’s holding her down because he feels inadequate when he compares their respective financial values.

In the end, it takes what he regards as her weaknesses (her hysterics, when she screams and thwarts the murder; her music career, when she uses it to both find their son and keep all the bad guys occupied) to save them all. And while this occurs, he’s given the opportunity to deliver their son to her by rescuing him from near-murder. If the son was the most important focus of the film, it would have ended with his rescue, the happy family back together. But it doesn’t. There’s an additional, slightly jarring, brief scene in which the happy family returns to the hotel room: they open the hotel room door, Jo’s uppity friends who used to work with her in showbiz are waiting there for them, and only one line is spoken, Ben saying, ‘I’m sorry we were gone so long, but we go and pick up Hank’ [sorry, but the screenplay transcript I’m using was made by a Russian (seriously), and I don’t have the energy to go back and see what the actual Jimmy Stewart quote was, so you’re just going to have to imagine Jimmy Stewart speaking in broken English]. I think his apology indicates that he’s accepted Jo more fully as a person–accepted her past in music, and may be willing to give her back her career (he never flaunts her career in the film–though she’s happy to mention it, he’d prefer to discuss himself), and who knows, maybe they’ll make some more babies.

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