Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH – Bernard Herrmann

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH – Bernard Herrmann


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Alfred Hitchcock had directed in England, the film “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934). In 1941 he decided on a new American incarnation, but it did not come to fruition until 1956 when Paramount Pictures agreed it was a movie that could be well-adapted to the new decade. Filwite Productions joined with Paramount and provided a $1.2 million budget. Hitchcock would manage production and direct, and Charles Bennett and D. B. Wyndham-Lewis were tasked with writing the screenplay. A fine cast was assembled with James Stewart as Dr. Benjamin McKenna, Doris Day as Josephine Conway McKenna, Bernard Miles as Edward Drayton, Brenda de Banzie as Lucy Drayton Christopher Olsen as Henry McKenna, and Daniel Gélin as Louis Bernard.

The story is set in Morocco and England and tells a tale, which features espionage, murder, kidnapping and an assassination plot. The McKenna family is vacationing in Morocco when the cross paths with Louis Bernard, a covert French agent. It comes to pass that he is stabbed, but lives to warn the McKenna’s that a foreign statesman will be assassinated in London and they must alert Scotland Yard about “Ambrose Chappell”. Things escalate when the McKenna’s son Hank is kidnapped and his life threatened if they disclose to the police Bernard’s message. What follows is intrigue and a race against time to prevent the assassination and save their son Hank. Even though the budget ballooned to $1,834 million, the film was a commercial success, earning $11.3 million. Critical reviews of the film were for the most part paositive. It received one Academy Award nomination for Best song “Que Sera, Sera”, which it won for its songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans.

Director Alfred Hitchcock had bonded with Bernard Herrmann during their first collaboration “The Trouble With Harry” (1955), and asked him to score the film. He brought Herrmann in early on the project and even cast him in a cameo role as the orchestra conductor at Royal Albert Hall. Herrmann was judicious in spotting his score and he composed only 29:05 minutes of music, his shortest score of his career. For most of the score, he employed a small ensemble of woodwinds, strings, harp and percussion. Only with the “Prelude” do we get a grand orchestral statement powerfully expressed by 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 8 French horns, 6 trumpets, 6 trombones, 2 tubas, 46 strings, piano, harp plus expanded percussion section including tympani, bass drum, suspended cymbals, tam tam, 2 vibraphones, 2 snare drums, 2 tenor drums, piatti, crash cymbals, glockenspiel and xylophone.

For his soundscape, Herrmann eschewed themes, instead utilizing recurring motifs, including; The Danger Motif resounds powerfully, with a declarative seven-note A phrase, which ushers in a surreal, kaleidoscopic B phrase with a descending contour by an unsettling triplet figure borne by violin, harp, xylophone and glockenspiel. The Menace Motif offers a grim four-note phrase empowered by minor modal chords and sometimes a plucked harp ostinato, which speaks to the sinister forces aligned to oppose the McKennas. The remainder of the score offers what would become Herrmann’s signature suspense auras and effects for his subsequent films with Hitchcock. For the crucial climax scene at Prince Albert Hall Herrmann decided that he would not compose an original cantata, but instead reuse Arthur Benjamin’s cantata “Storm Clouds” which was used in the original “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934), judging it well suited to the movie.

Cues coded (*) contain music not found on the album. (*) “Universal Studio Logo” opens grandly atop Jerry Goldsmith’s fanfare bravura empowered anthem for the Universal Studios logo. We commence album-film synchrony with a segue into Nathan Van Cleave’s “VistaVision Logo” atop resplendent declarations by horns brillante. At 0:16 we flow into “Prelude”, a fortissimo percussive score highlight propelled by yet another dynamic, molto dramatico Herrmann main title where he masterfully sets the tone of the film. The Danger Motif resounds powerfully, with its declarative seven-note phrase, which ushers in a surreal, kaleidoscopic effect with a descending contour by an unsettling triplet figure borne by violin, harp, xylophone and glockenspiel. On the screen an orchestra comprised of three trumpets, three trombones, an array of drums, a gong, and suspended and clash cymbals, expresses the theme as the flow of the opening credits proceeds. At drum bridge carries us at 0:37 into repeat phrasing of the Menace Motif, which offers an escalating, grim, repeating four-note phrase buttressed by minor modal chords. At 0:57 a descending cascade atop the Danger Motif’s surreal B Phrase from which ushers in another forceful declaration of the theme’s A Phrase. These two motifs continue interplay sowing a mounting tension. We conclude dramatically with a cymbal clash, which portends the moment during the concert when the assassin will shoot, the gun noise hidden within the clash.

“Que Sera, Sera” reveals Louis having a drink on the McKenna hotel room terrace as they prepare to go out for dinner. Jo hums the song’s melody, and is joined with her son Hank singing a modification of its lyrics, tailored for a boy, and her, the refrain as she puts him to bed; in “Nocturne” Jo is mistrusting of Louis and in conversation she probes to discover more about him. They are interrupted by the arrival of a man named Rien who mistakenly knocked on the wrong door. Afterwards, Louis appears unsettled and cancels joining them for dinner as he just remembered that he need to attend to an important matter. Herrmann supports the extended scene with one of his classic nocturnes, which offers a meandering flute Arabo with a retinue of soft shifting strings gentile. “Arab Trio #1” supports the McKenna’s arrival and seating at a famous Marrakesh restaurant. Herrmann establishes ambiance with a danza esotica borne by a small ensemble of kindred strings and bubbling woodwinds led by violin. “Arab Trio #2” reveals the cultural washing of one’s hands prior to eating, followed by an introduction to Lucy and Edward Drayton, who are seated at the next table, and who confess to being fans of Jo. Herrmann offers a romantic tête-à-tête between an exotic solo violin and bassoon with kindred woodwinds and harp adornment. Later Jo is upset when Louis arrives at the restaurant with a date and ignores them. “Arab Trio #3” offers a woodwind misterioso as Louis and his date appear tense as they look at the McKennas’

(*) “The Market” reveals the McKennas and Draytons at a bustling market the next day. They are entertained by a diegetic small ensemble consisting of a hand-held drum, banjo’s Arabo and tambourine playing festive Moroccan music as street acrobats perform. “The Chase” offers the score’s most kinetic cue as we see police chasing after a man. As he flees, he soon catches up to another man who is also running. Herrmann propels the chase using a driving rhythm by one snare drum, one tenor drum, a timpani and piano. At 1:05 we segue into “The Knife” atop repeating dire chords of death with grim abyssal woodwind counters as we see Louis’ futile efforts to pull out a dagger thrust deeply into his back. In “L. B. Death” Louis staggers up to Ben and tells him he is Louis Bernard and discloses an assassination plot of a statesman planned for London. He says to inform Scotland Yard of “Ambrose Chappell” and then expires. Herrmann supports Louis’ dying words with repeating phrases by dire abyssal woodwinds of death.

“The Warning” reveals the McKennas taken to police headquarters for questioning as the inspector is curious why a member of the French Deuxième (military intelligence) would say his last words to Benjamin. They are interrupted so Ben may take a phone call. A sinister man tells Ben to not disclose to anyone the information he was provided by Louis Bernard or harm will come to his son. Herrmann sows an eerie misterioso of terror with a wandering violin with shimmering ethereal adornment after the man hangs up, as Ben tries to absorb the horrible news. (*) “The Note” as they journey by open air carriage back to the hotel Ben withholds that Hank has been kidnapped. Jo demands to see the note Ben wrote after Louis died and he shows it to her. She demands to leave Marrakesh with hank as soon as possible. Herrmann supports unobtrusively with background nativist percussion. At the hotel Jo returns to the lobby and Ben remains and is stunned when the doorman reveals that Mrs. Drayton and his son never arrived, and that Mr. Drayton just checked out. “Loneliness” was edited out of the film. It offers a soliloquy with four-note phrasing by aching violins doloroso, which seem to wander devoid of hope.

In two unscored scenes Ben gives Jo some sedatives and then discloses that the Draytons are suspects in the plot. He says that they have taken Hank hostage and will harm him if they disclose Louis’ information to the police. She is very distraught but passes out from the sedative. Later that night as a mu’addin proclaims the call to prayer, Ben packs their suitcases. Jo wakes up and Ben advises that there is still no update on Hank, but he discovered they have taken him to London aboard their private plane. He says they will also go to London, find Ambrose Chappell and get Hank back. In London as they deplane a menacing woman (Edna) glares as Inspector Eddington of the Criminal Investigation Department greets them, and instructs them to follow him. Edna then makes a phone call at a phone booth. They are escorted to meet Mr. Buchannan from Scotland Yard and he discloses knowledge of the kidnapping and a desire to rescue him with their cooperation. They receive a phone call and it is from Mrs. Drayton, who lets Hank speak to them, but the Drayton’s hang up before he can disclose his location. Ben and Jo leave still unwilling to cooperate with Scotland Yard, but accept Buchannan’s phone number should they change their mind. At their hotel room Ben places a call to Ambrose Chappell that he found in the telephone book as Jo welcomes friends Val, Jan, Helen and Cindy on a surprise visit. Chappell agrees to Ben visiting him and he departs leaving Jo behind with her friends.

“The Alley” offers Herrmann’s mastery is sowing anxiety with minimalism. It reveals a nervous Ben walking to meet Ambrose Chappell. A man follows him, then passes, and eventually walks into and outdoor entry with signage which states “Ambrose Chappell Taxidermist”. Ben is wary, and music enters on shimmering tremolo violins, which support his entry. However, the musical narrative darkens, and descends in strings, joined by foreboding low register woodwinds the deeper he walks into the alley. “A Close Call” reveals that Ambrose Sr. and Ambrose Jr. have no idea of what Ben is talking about regarding his missing son, Mr. Bernard or political plots. As he raves, Ambrose Sr. calls the police his workers restrain an angry and agitated Ben. Music enters to support Ben’s struggle to free himself, and his fleeing escape. Herrmann whips up a tempest propelled by strings spiritoso and snare drums.

“Ambrose Chapel & The Chapel” reveals Jo having an epiphany over cocktails as they all wait for Ben to return. She blurts out Ambrose Chapel is a place, not a person and Val assists her look up its street address. She excuses herself, says she will come back shortly, and departs with the chapel’s street address. Music enters atop the Menace Motif, a foreboding bassoon, a plucked harp cadence, eerie shifting strings and dire horns create a misterioso of unease. As Jo waits outside for Ben to arrive, Lucy Drayton completes a display of two hymn numbers, 290 and 985 near the altar. She then walks upstairs and joins Edna and Hank who are playing checkers. We end darkly as she joins Edward and Rien in the next room as Rien straps on a pistol holder over his tuxedo shirt. Edward plays a recording of the cantata for tonight’s performance and identifies the exact moment when Rien should shoot – when the cymbals clash with the cantata’s climax.

“Exit” reveals Lucy escorting Rien out the back door to a waiting limousine. Out front Ben joins Jo as they walk towards the chapel. Dire strings voice a menacing, descending five-note figure, which ushers in a reprise of the Menace Motif with its plucked harp cadence and eerie shifting strings figures. In (*) “The Chapel” Ben and Jo enter the chapel to find it full with parishioners singing the traditional hymn “From Whence These Dire Potents Around” (1750) by Charles Wesley. As Lucy comes around with the collection tray, she is shocked to see Ben and Jo, but maintains her composure. “Postlude” appears to have been dialed out of the film and was most likely attached to the ending of the service and the parishioners departing. Borne by woodwinds full of woe, it bathes us in sadness, growing grim at 0:45 atop bassoon as Ben alone remains to confront the Draytons. In “The Fight” the Menace Motif portends danger as a desperate Ben offers anything, including money for his son, to which Edward responds, in good time. Ben yells out “Hank”, the kid calls back “Daddy” and we surge with desperation at 0:36 atop a crescendo di terrore, which climaxes with horrific dissonance as Ben races to retrieve his boy, only to be overpowered and bludgeoned by Edward’s henchman.

Jo called for police assistance and they arrive only to find the chapel locked in “Arrival”. She is frantic and as the police seek a way in, the Menace Motif sows unease and dread. The Danger Motif ushers in a xylophone chord at 1:17, which supports Ben waking up. The police decide to leave and Jo accompanies them and as we see them drive away, the Draytons, Edna, Hank and the guard depart in the back. Herrmann sustains tension and they xylophone effect as a groggy Ben struggles, with sinister interplay of the Danger and Menace Motifs. At 3:05 we segue darkly atop repeating statements of the Menace Motif into “Embassy” as the Drayton party arrives at the embassy. The footman asks Drayton to wait while he clears out the kitchen staff. Once done, they escort Hank into the embassy. Back at the chapel Ben climbs to freedom using the church steeple bell rope, and escapes down the roof to the ground.

In “Embassy Hall” Jo arrives at Prince Albert Hall and meets Rien in the lobby. He smiles and then informs her with menace that Hank’s safety will depend upon you tonight. He departs and we see the foreign Prime Minister and his ambassador arrive. She is desperate, runs into the hall and sees Rien take his seat in the balcony. Herrmann supports by sowing tension with the Menace Motif. (*) “Storm Clouds Cantata” offers the score’s finest moment, an epic performance for orchestra, soprano and a massive mixed chorus. The Cantata is a short piece, which takes nine minutes to play. It opens grandly atop bold resounding fanfare declarations and unfolds with a Lento in three-quarter time in C major. The soprano and mixed chorus join for a wondrous performance.

Upon conclusion we flow into an Allegro agitato, propelled by rhythmic strikes by timpani. Rien at this point pulls out his pistol and prepares for the assassination, as a helpless Jo frets below. Ben arrives, she points to Rien’s balcony booth, and Ben runs upstairs to warn the police. For the cantata’s conclusion, we drive forward Presto, with a slowly swelling crescendo whose energy is amplified by mixed chorus.

We culminate Maestoso in the finale, crowned with the cymbal crash, at which time Jo screams, causing Rien to wing the ambassador as he shoots. Chaos erupts as Ben wrestles the gun from Rien who falls to his death as he tries to escape. Ben and Jo receive the Prime Minister’s gratitude and then meet with Inspector Buchannan. He asks for all they know and says that hope remains of rescuing their son. (*) “Aftermath” reveals the Draytons at the embassy supported by dark low register strings of doom and pizzicato strings as they summoned to see the ambassador. Edward is shocked to learn the assassination failed and that Rien is dead. He tries to absolve himself of blame, but the ambassador will have none of it. He orders the boy removed and ’silenced’ much to Lucy’s distress. In an unscored scene Buchannan receives word that the Draytons, and most likely Hank, are at the embassy. Ben calls and uses Jo to parlay a visit.

In (*) “Que, Sera, Sera”, upon arriving, Jo accommodates a request by the Prime Minister to sing a few songs and sits at a piano. She then reprises singing “Que Sera, Sera”. Upstairs Hank hears his mother singing and begs to go to her but the door is locked. Lucy tells him to whistle the song as loud as he can, hoping it will lead to his discovery. Ben and Jo hear him, she continues on, while Ben sneaks out and ascends the stairs. “The Stairs” was dialed out of the film and offers a slow, violin led ethereal shimmering ascent. Lucy hears his footstep, screams, and Ben breaks down the door. As he and Hank move to escape, Edward arrives with a gun. Edward takes them hostage and they depart down the staircase at gun point. “The Gun” was also dialed out of the film and offers similar motif as “The Stairs” cue, only in this case we begin with a slow violin led ethereal shimmering descent, which rebounds and reascends. Instead, Hitchcock continues with Jo singing in the background. Ben then brushes Hank aside, pushes Edward down the stairs and as he tumbles, the gun discharges killing him. “Finale – Film Version” reveals their arrival back at their hotel room, where they wake Val, Jan, Helen and Cindy and apologize, saying they needed to pickup Hank. Hitchcock chose to end with a coda of the Prelude with its cymbal clash, closing powerfully atop a storm of timpanic power and staccato horns dramatico. Cue 21 offers Herrmann’s original conception, a fortissimo orchestral coda of the “Que Sera, Sera song, which ends in a grand flourish.

I have long advocated of the importance of recording Golden Age scores that have no commercial release, and re-recording scores with archival sound. In the 2000s William Stromberg, Henry Morgan, Anna Bonn now (Stromberg) formed Tribute Film Classics for this very purpose. Unfortunately, despite producing superb albums, there was insufficient public support to keep the enterprise commercially viable. Undeterred, the Strombergs and Intrada Records have restarted their earlier efforts with a kick-starter project, this exceptional album being their inaugural effort. The recording of the never released scores to “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “On Dangerous Ground” offers excellent audio quality, and the performance of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under William Stromberg’s baton is superb. I commend their efforts and hope for additional projects in the future. This was a classic Hitchcockian film noir tale, full of mystery, danger, and suspense. Herrmann chose to create a soundscape using a small ensemble of instruments with recurring motifs, which sowed danger, menace and sinister purpose. In scene after scene, the mystery, suspense, and our discomfort are potentiated more by Herrmann’s music, than Hitchcock direction. Herrmann’s creative decision to reuse Arthur Benjamin’s “Storm Clouds Cantata” was spot on. In my judgment Herrmann actually improved upon the 1934 performance with his orchestrations. Opening the film with a grand prelude, which is kindred to the cantata with its closing cymbal clash, and played by a live band during the opening credits, is sheer genius, as it portends the assassination attempt during the actual cantata performance. Folks, Intrada offers a quality album with two wonderful Bernard Herrmann scores and I highly recommend its purchase as essential to your collection. I also advocate continued support of their future Kick-starter projects as the team have a proven record of excellence.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the Prelude; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3L35sx5KFo

Buy the Man Who Knew Too Much soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • VistaVision Logo & Prelude (2:40)
  • Nocturne (2:27)
  • Arab Trio #1 (1:36)
  • Arab Trio #2 (2:13)
  • Arab Trio #3 (0:20)
  • The Chase & The Knife (1:59)
  • L. B. Death (0:31)
  • The Warning (0:29)
  • Loneliness (1:41)
  • The Alley (1:09)
  • A Close Call (0:43)
  • Ambrose Chapel & The Chapel (1:51)
  • Exit (1:01)
  • Postlude (1:14)
  • The Fight (1:08)
  • Arrival & Embassy (4:02)
  • Embassy Hall (0:41)
  • The Stairs (0:36)
  • The Gun (1:31)
  • Finale – Film Version (0:20)
  • Finale – Original Version (0:19)

Running Time: 29 minutes 05 seconds

Intrada INT7176 (1956/2023)

Music composed by Bernard Herrmann. Conducted by William Stromberg. Performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra . Original orchestrations by Bernard Herrmann. Recorded and mixed by Mike Ross-Trevor. Score produced by Bernard Herrmann. Album produced by Douglass Fake.

  1. John Steven Lasher
    May 10, 2023 at 12:01 am

    I am left cold by this recording, if only because it lacks the urgent, tense qualities of the original soundtrack, or, for that matter, Esa-Pekka’s taught performance of the Prelude as recorded by Sony Music Classics. Stromberg is clearly not up to the challenge. Another conductor like John Wilson would have been the prefered choice.

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