Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Mother's Day Tribute to Doris Day in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much"


On this Mother's Day, I wanted to share some memories of the times I spent enjoying movies with my Mom.  My mother's favorite actress happens to be Doris Day.  When I was growing up, one particular film she and I enjoyed watching together was Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956), the remake of his 1934 British film of the same name.  I think it was the first movie where my mother became aware of Doris Day and, thereafter, she was always receptive to watching a film with her.  Mom always responded to the warmth and decency that Day's characters always represented.  I think Mom identified with Day's screen image in that respect.  Mom continues to respect Doris Day as an all-around talented powerhouse, someone who was skillful at comedy, drama, as well as musically, and probably her favorite of all of Day's films is the first one she saw, "The Man Who Knew Too Much."


Interestingly, Mom never refers to this movie by its proper name but as "Que, Sera, Sera," the Oscar-winning song that Day's character sings two separate times in the course of the film.  Perhaps Mom instinctively felt that the fateful meaning behind the song "Whatever will be, will be" was more descriptive and fitting for the film than its actual title.  Mom particularly admired the character that Day played in that film, a concerned mother who, along with husband James Stewart, takes a proactive role in order to rescue her son, who has been kidnapped by assassins whose insidious plot Stewart has unexpectedly uncovered while the family is on vacation in Marrakesh, Morocco.  Mom always felt that the actions and reactions that Day's character experiences throughout the course of the movie made sense to her from the perspective of being a mother who would also do everything she could for the welfare of her children.  Mom responded positively to the credibility of Day's character, which is appropriate given that it's probably one of the best roles that Doris Day played in her entire film career. 


Day played Jo McKenna, the wife of American physician Ben McKenna (James Stewart) and mother of Hank (Christopher Olsen), their young son.  Jo was once a popular singing star before she gave up her career to become a homemaker in Indianapolis.  They are on holiday in Morocco when they witness the murder of a French intelligence agent (Daniel Gelin) before their very eyes at an open marketplace.  The agent, who the day before had spent time with the McKennas asking them probing questions about their lives, tells Ben about an assassination plot that is afoot which will take place within days in London and to tell the authorities to look up "Ambrose Chappell."  Ben and Jo leave their son Hank in the care of a British woman Mrs. Drayton (Brenda de Banzie) who they met just the day before as her husband Mr. Drayton (Bernard Miles) accompanies Ben and Jo to the police station to give a statement of the events they just witnessed.  While there, Ben receives a phone call threatening the safety of their son if Ben ever reveals what the French agent told them.  Mr. Drayton offers to return to the hotel to locate his wife and Ben.  When Ben and Jo return to the hotel, Ben learns that Mrs. Drayton never returned from the marketplace with Hank and Mr. Drayton has checked out of his hotel.  Ben informs Jo about the threat made against Hank and that the Draytons have disappeared with their son.  Jo becomes hysterical as Ben attempts to comfort and calm her.


Ben and Jo head straight to London in pursuit of the Draytons and follow several leads in order to locate their son.  Their investigation leads to their discovery that "Ambrose Chappel" is not an individual, but is actually a church where Mr. Drayton poses as the minister.  Jo goes to call the police as Ben confronts the Draytons.  He is knocked unconscious and locked in the church, but makes his escape by climbing the church's bell rope.  Jo, unable to find Ben at the church after she returns with the police, heads to the Royal Albert Hall where the London police detective who offered to help them locate Hank is attending a performance.  While there, Jo instinctively realizes that the target of the assassination plot is a visiting foreign Prime Minister attending the performance, as well as recognizes who the assassin is from having briefly met him in Marrakesh, and screams in time to foil the attempt on the statesman's life as Ben arrives on the scene to wrestle with the assassin for his gun, who falls to his death.  Later, Ben and Jo rescue their son from the Draytons, who are hiding at the foreign Embassy of the dignitary who was the target of the assassination plot, as the physically and emotionally exhausted family is once again reunited.


Jo McKenna stands out among other depictions of mothers in the films of Alfred Hitchcock because she is one of the few who is portrayed sympathetically.  Edna Best, who played essentially the same character in Hitchcock's original 1934 version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" is another that comes to mind.  True, Jo McKenna has traits of being hysterical and emotional upon learning of her son's kidnapping, but that's understandable under the circumstances.  (I think my mother felt a lot of compassion for Jo during the heartbreaking scene when she learns that Hank has been kidnapped.  She felt that Doris Day accurately portrayed how any mother would feel under the circumstances.)  Day's performance in the scene where Jo reacts to learning of Hank's kidnapping, as well as the one where she is put on the phone with him while at the London airport, has rawness, as well as primal rage and intensity, that you don't normally associate from films of this period.  Jo grieves over the kidnapping of her son with the same level of hurt and pain as if he has died.  Jo is different from other Hitchcock mother's because she's not nearly as treacherous, or as grasping and controlling, as Leopoldine Konstantin in "Notorious" (1946), the unseen Mrs Bates in "Psycho" (1960), or Jessica Tandy in "The Birds" (1963).  Jo has many positive traits which end up helping to save her family's life throughout "The Man Who Knew Too Much."


Jo McKenna is a sincerely loving and well-meaning mother who has a strong bond with her son, as demonstrated by the charming scene in the Marrakesh hotel room where Jo and Hank sing "Que Sera Sera" with each other as she is helping him prepare for bed.  Despite Jo giving up her career to become a mother and homemaker, she is still able to constructively utilize her musical talents by imparting it to her son.  The mother/son duet scene in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" resonates because Hitchcock utilizes it to underscore the love and respect that Jo and Hank feel for one another as mother and child.  Later, this is put to good use when Jo comes to the Embassy, on the pretext of singing, so that her voice will trail off throughout the large structure of the Embassy and alert Hank that she is within the vicinity.  Hank, in turn, whistles the melody of "Que Sera Sera" from the room upstairs where he is held captive, alerting Jo and Hank to his whereabouts.  In essence, the love of music that Jo has shared with her son ends up playing a vital role in saving his life.


Hitchcock also underscores his respect for Jo by demonstrating her keen instincts and situational awareness that allows her to scope out a situation better than her husband Ben.  The movie might be called "The Man Who Knew Too Much," but it's the woman with him that takes that knowledge and does something proactive with it.  Well-meaning Ben is a patriarchal figure who clearly believes the man is the dominant figure in the family and Jo has gone along with it to the degree that she's given up her career and moved to Indianapolis in order to be with him.  (James Stewart should be admired for allowing himself to play more complex, less sympathetic characters in his films for Hitchcock.)  However, naive Ben never suspects anything is afoot when Frenchman Louis Bernard practically interrogates him and his family on the bus ride into Marrakesh.  Jo, on the other hand, instinctively senses that there is more to Louis Bernard's questioning of her and her family than meets the eye.  Moreover, Ben never feels any suspicion towards the Draytons, even admonishing Jo to stop being paranoid about them, while Jo intuitively feels something threatening about them the moment she first encounters them as they arrive at their hotel.  Jo is an individual who is protective of her family, particularly her son and, if she had her way, Jo would never have associated with Louis Bernard or the Draytons, or entrusted her son with Mrs. Drayton, if it were solely up to her.  Ben's trusting naivete ends up endangering the lives of his family and, in many ways, Jo ends up having to play a proactive role to restore the status quo.


Throughout the movie, Jo is continually one step ahead of Ben in their on-going quest and investigation to locate their son.  While Ben goes on a wild goose chase to find the gentleman named Ambrose Chappell that Louis Bernard told him about, Jo is the one who figures out that "Ambrose Chappell" is not an individual but an actual location--a church ("Ambrose Chapel")--that they should be directing their attention towards.  Rather than waiting for Ben to return to their hotel room to inform him of her realization, she heads straight to Ambrose Chapel to scope out the locale, leaving word with her friends (who were visiting with Jo at the hotel) to tell Ben her whereabouts.  Jo waits for Ben to arrive as she wisely realizes that she should not go into the church by herself to confront the Draytons.  However, at Ben's insistence, Jo reluctantly leaves him behind and calls the police for help as Ben foolishly confronts the Draytons inside the church without reinforcements.  Ben is knocked unconscious because he again underestimates the Draytons.  When Jo returns with the police and is unable to locate anyone at the church, she proactively heads straight to the Albert Hall, where Police Inspector Buchanan (Ralph Truman), who offered to help them earlier, but was rebuffed by Ben, is attending at diplomatic affair.


While at the Albert Hall, Jo recognizes who the assassin is, after having seen him earlier in Marrakesh, and instinctively realizes the target of the assassination plot is the visiting prime minister attending a musical performance at the venue.  In a scene that should have earned Doris Day an Oscar nomination, Jo watches in silent agony as she sees the assassin assume his position in order to take out his intended target.  The emotional turmoil that Jo experiences as she weighs her duties as a mother (who must remain silent in the hope that it will save her son) and her duty as a citizen of the world (who must speak up out of a moral duty to avert an act of terrorism) is absolutely gut-wrenching as Day skillfully demonstrates Jo's conflicted loyalties on her emotionally expressive face.  Eventually, Jo makes the right moral decision and lets out a scream that causes the prime minister to shift slightly in his seat and sustain a minor flesh wound instead of being killed.


Jo ultimately does more to avert this assassination attempt than Ben does, who simply wrestles with the assassin for the gun and watches as the assassin falls to his death while attempting to make a getaway.  As Jo explains to a bystander, "He was pointing at the prime minister and he was going to kill him and I realized that I had to scream."  Unlike Ben, who refused to cooperate with the police or try to inform any third parties that Hank had been kidnapped, Jo can no longer remain silent as to her knowledge of the events swirling around her.  She takes proactive measures not merely to save the Prime Minister's life, but also to not allow the kidnappers to intimidate her any longer by forcing her to remain silent.  In so doing, she defeats their plans and helps to set up their ultimate downfall in the last act of the film.  Her scream is both a cry for help but also a proper expression of her rage at what the Drayton's, and their associates, have put her and her family through.  Jo, and not Ben, is ultimately the true hero behind "The Man Who Knew Too Much."


Doris Day gave an excellent and sensitive performance as Jo, allowing one to see all of the character's weaknesses, vulnerabilities, paranoia, as well as courage, strength, and resolve.  She is a multi-dimensional, sympathetic human being whose sense of duty as a mother, and love for her son, helps inform and guide her decisions to try and bring about a positive resolution to this crisis that has been thrust upon her.  Rather than remaining weak and helpless, wringing her hands back at the hotel, Jo is emboldened throughout "The Man That Knew Too Much" to take proactive measures that not only help ensure the safety of her son, but also averts an assassination attempt and undermines the treachery of the Draytons.  My Mom really admired the Jo McKenna character because she felt that Jo is acting and reacting the way any mother would have done under the circumstances.  I think the truth, credibility and validity of Jo McKenna was what my mother responded to the most in that character, which is why we both continue to enjoy that movie immensely to this day.  On this Mother's Day, I want to pay tribute to my own mother and all the wonderful times we have spent together enjoying movies and each others' company, as well as honor and acknowledge one of the finest cinematic depictions of a mother's enduring love for her child: my mother's favorite actress Doris Day as Jo McKenna in Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 classic "The Man Who Knew Too Much."

1 comment:

  1. Lovely tribute to your mother and an exceptional review of a classic motion picture and an actress (Miss Day) at the top of her game. Bravo!!

    Paul E. Brogan

    ReplyDelete