The Men Who Knew Too Much (and Not Enough)

You invariably have some expectations when watching a thriller.  Though I haven’t seen a lot of this genre, it’s similar enough to mystery that I expect something.  I expect to be scared, and I expect to care about someone in the film.  To a degree, all three of these accomplished that.  Some more than others.

Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man trailer 02
The Wrong Man (1956).  
Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda) gets arrested for a series of crimes he did not commit.  5/5 stars.

The Wrong Man was the most interesting and worthwhile.  I’m biased in that I’m drawn towards any film with Kafkaesque qualities.  Henry Fonda’s character is essentially Josef K. from The Trial, albeit a more sympathetic and family-man type of guy.  The plot is based on a true story, in which circumstantial evidence and other issues render the suspect, Balestrero, practically guilty until proven innocent.

There is something inherently frightening about “due process” going horribly wrong, affecting not just Balestrero but his wife Rose and two sons.  Hitchcock focuses a good deal on Rose, who becomes completely overwhelmed by her husband’s suffering.  It is vaguely reminiscent of the psychological effects of the lengthy court case in Bleak House.  I wish that the film had depicted the aftermath of her story, instead of printing it on the screen, but probably that was for dramatic effect.

I certainly recommend The Wrong Man, especially to Kafka fans.  It’s suitable for most ages (young children might find it boring).

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).  Dr. and Mrs. McKenna (Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day) find their vacation turning into a nightmare after they meet four mysterious fellow travelers in Morocco.  3/5 stars.

The theme of female psychological reaction reappears in The Man Who Knew Too Much – however, it is worth emphasizing that this story is purely fictional.  Stewart as Ben McKenna gives an excellent performance (his best, out of his films I’ve seen) as a middle-class dad who suddenly has to go up against world-class assassins.  Day also is well cast as Jo McKenna and sings her signature song “Que Sera, Sera.”

That said, I didn’t care for the way these characters were written.  They leave their son in the care of total strangers, probably a 50s-ism that is nonetheless disturbing.  There is also a scene in which Ben makes his wife take a sedative, because he predicts she will become hysterical.  He doesn’t suggest she take the pill; he refuses to tell her critical information unless she takes it.  Again, not necessarily unusual for the era, but not appropriate for very young/undiscerning viewers, either.

The plot is reasonably good and pretty suspenseful.  It centers heavily on the theme that familiar places and people may not be as safe as they appear.  Recommended, with the above reservations.

The Woman in Black (1989).  A young solicitor, Arthur Kidd, goes on a business trip to a house haunted by a bitter, mourning-clad specter (Pauline Moran).  1/5 stars.

Here we find a film that is definitely not for young viewers.  Everyone else will be either bored or rather “unsettled” (yes, that’s me).  I’ve watched more disturbing or gory stories, but this was filmed in such a way as to get your imagination going, in a way that was not particularly rewarding.  The ending was gratuitously upsetting and abrupt, which was more irritating than anything else.

Plotwise, the story had potential and your typical Victorian characters – the eccentric elderly lady, worldly-wise older man, adventurous young man, and angelic young wife.  It seemed very much like a spin-off of Dracula, without Van Helsing or any of the redeeming qualities of that classic.  We have a female character who is kept in the dark, with slightly more understandable reasons, which still didn’t convince me as being necessary.  I am not sure how the story would have gone if she had been aware of what was going on.  In any case, Kidd’s family is here just used as another part of the plot’s trainwreck.  That, to me, shows poor writing and too much reliance on shock value, even for a thriller.

Let me know what you think – have you seen any of these films?  Have you read the book The Woman in Black or seen the newer film starring Daniel Radcliffe?  I’d be interested to know if that one is any better.

Disclaimer: I don’t own the images in this post; they are used here only for illustrative/educational purposes (fair use). 

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