HITCHCOCK’S WOMEN: Breaking Silence With A Song – Jo McKenna in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956)

Rebecca McCallum continues her essay series exploring the representation of women in the films of Alfred Hitchcock…

Ever his own harshest critic, in 1956 Hitchcock sought to remake his 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much. He condemned the original as ‘the work of a talented amateur’ but he was clearly pleased with the results of his second attempt which he deemed to have been made ‘by a professional’.

With its infusion of domestic melodrama and political conspiracy, Hitchcock begins the ’56 remake in colourful Morocco where we meet an all-American family: husband and wife Ben (James Stewart) and Jo McKenna (Doris Day) along with their young son Hank (Christopher Olsen). However the jovial holiday atmosphere is soon shattered when Ben is given top-secret information about a planned assassination in London. While he and Jo attend the local police station to file a report, Hank is kidnapped. Blackmailed into silence, the McKenna’s travel to London where the drab greyness of the city reflects the gloom of their situation. Frantic with fear for the life of her son, Jo (a retired singer and entertainer) uses her greatest instrument to rescue her son whilst also rescuing a part of herself. 

‘Mommy’, ‘Wife’, ‘Entertainer’- What’s In A Name? 

The film’s introduction features an orchestra (conducted by Hitchcock composer, Bernard Herrmann) playing at the Royal Albert Hall. Through camera placement and sound we are encouraged to focus on what we see and hear, and thus our senses are primed towards sound and vision, the besuited musicians reflecting the cogs that make up the machine of cinema. The opening segment concludes with a note of text which reads ‘a single crash of cymbals and how it rocked the lives of an American family’. Before we even meet Jo McKenna, Hitchcock chooses to tell us that her world is about to be turned upside down and – in true suspense style – encourages us to watch closely as the ordinary evolves into the extraordinary. 

Travelling by bus through Marrakech, Hank nestles closely by his mother and father, an image that will be recreated at the end of the film. Jo is vibrant and the mood is light and full of laughter – this is the average family enjoying a holiday abroad. Unlike many of the women in Hitchcock’s films (Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Marnie) there is no element of mystery about Jo as Doris Day exudes a warmth and wholesomeness in stark contrast to the icy, sultry Hitchcockian blonde.  While Jo is ‘Mommy’ and ‘McKenna’, the shortening of her Christian name (from Josephine) suggests a masculine quality and as the film unfolds and the unspeakable happens, it will be revealed that underneath the gentle exterior of emotion and apparent submissiveness is a woman who proves herself to be pragmatic and free-willed. 

Through these names which reflect the various roles she occupies throughout the film Jo is coded as both a mother and a wife: to Hank, she is simply ‘Mommy’, to Ben she is an extension of himself as Jo ‘McKenna’. However, outside of these dominant identities, she is known by her fans as ‘Jo Conway’, a name attached to her former career which separates her distinctively from the doting mother and the dutiful wife. In many ways, Jo’s past reflects the 50’s career woman who, having come out of the domestic space during WWII, were now nurturing aspirations and achievements of their own. Unfortunately we learn that she has had to sacrifice a highly successful career on stages across the world to allow her husband to pursue his occupation as a doctor. As we will later see, this sacrifice has involved leaving behind fun, fans and friends as well as putting her dreams and desires to one side so Ben can fulfil his.

Although The Man Who Knew Too Much is ostensibly a tale of murder and blackmail, underneath this veneer, Hitchcock offers an exploration of conventional notions of the ‘rational man’ and the ‘emotional woman’ which are subverted and reversed. While Ben may process circumstances rationally, his behaviour often proves to be illogical and poorly thought out (he loses credibility in flying off the handle unnecessarily at Jo and the authorities, and will later misinterpret the instruction to go to Ambrose Chapel). On the other hand Jo may use music and song to process the world around her, but we see her time and again react with insight and rationality, maintaining a perfect balance of allowing emotions to manifest but never to cloud her actions. Ben may prefer his wife passive, as evidenced in the later sedation scene, but he underestimates how much he needs her active involvement to bring their family back together.  

Look, Listen, Know – The Enquiring Mind of Jo McKenna

On the bus journey to their hotel Hank mistakenly pulls off a veil from a Muslim passenger which prompts a man named Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin) to step in, easing an otherwise tense situation. Jo watches closely and suspiciously as Ben gives over information concerning all aspects of his life to a quizzical Bernard. When she interrupts them to ask ‘what business are you in?’ he fails to answer, arousing her doubts even further. When they reach the town centre and Bernard departs, she asks her husband ‘what do you really know about him?’, pointing out that ‘he knows everything there is to know about you.’ Although Jo has seemingly been in the background of the scenes between Ben and Bernard she has not been inactive as she proves – for the first time of many – that she is more astute and observational than her husband. She continues to share her growing misgivings about Bernard with Ben, noting how she has ‘a feeling that Mr Bernard has something to hide’. Rather than listening to his wife and considering the evidence she puts before him, Ben arrogantly dismisses this, claiming she is just ‘sore’ that no questions were asked of her. They may laugh this off together but it’s a revealing comment that exposes Ben’s habit of placing himself on a pedestal and minimising his wife’s voice. 

Jo’s ability to spot events and occurrences that are missed by Ben persists as they reach the hotel and she realises they are being watched by a couple who we will come to know as Lucy (Brenda de Banzie) and Edward Drayton (Bernard Miles). She turns to Ben and makes him aware of this, only to be disregarded once more. Relaxing ahead of a pre-arranged dinner with Bernard in their hotel room, their new acquaintance tries to interrogate Jo on the balcony but she adeptly turns this back onto him, repeating her earlier question of enquiry ‘what business are you in?’ In response, he fumbles to divert the conversation but Jo is now on high alert.

Bernard abandons his dinner engagement with the McKenna’s at the last minute after a strange man knocks at their door followed by a call he takes from their room. The telephone is bathed in a green light (already employed in Rope and utilised to maximum effect in Vertigo), representing the mysterious and the unknown. We also witness a tender moment of bonding between Hank and Jo as she begins a chorus of Que Sera Sera which he promptly joins in with. An embodiment of the power and purity of the parent/child relationship, they find connection and an expression of love for one another through the beauty and innocence of song. 

Showing Her Colours: Emotion Evoked by Costume 

Jo begins in a plain and inoffensive outfit that doesn’t reveal much about her character; the white blouse and black skirt are practical but with their inclusion of a neck bow and white gloves there is still a touch of the feminine to her ensemble. Upon arriving at Morocco her costume changes, almost seeming to reflect the colour and the beauty of her new environment. In their suite and during dinner (and when she is secure in the knowledge that Hank is safe and well) she wears a green flowered A-Line dress that recalls fertility, growth and the maternal. Swishing about the room as though floating, she is a vision of femininity and motherliness while attending to Hank. The white base of this outfit also suggests a purity and a degree of innocence as to what is about to occur. When arriving to dinner at the restaurant with her husband, the underneath of Jo’s dress fans out and Ben accidentally sits on it before she tells him to release her; an early sign perhaps of him attempting to dominate and limit her growth.

When she and Ben visit the market the following day, she wears a pale blue sleeveless dress with a white collar and accessories. In these final moments before Hank is ripped away from her Jo evokes religions’ most exalted mother; the virgin Mary. The juxtaposition of the belted and buttoned details along with the flowing and loose skirt speaks to both the current blissfulness and comfort of her family life and the forthcoming anxiety of a family torn apart. It is fitting too that it is whilst wearing this costume she will ask Ben when they are going to have another baby – for Jo, now that her career no longer exists, the prospect of another child is all she has left. 

Once she has touched down in London, Jo will wear the same costume for the remainder of the film. As though echoing the dull and foggy dreariness of the city, she dons a grey suit which is a reoccurring costume of choice for Hitchcock’s heroines (see Vertigo and Marnie). Here the looseness of the previous dresses are swapped for a more definite restrictiveness of the lifeless looking skirt suit that reflects the greyness of Jo’s mood. 

A Voice (and a Dream) Minimised

While Jo is frequently shown to be calm and at ease in the various environs of the film, Ben remains awkward, uncomfortable and repeatedly unable to control his temper. This opposition is depicted perfectly in the restaurant scene where he finds it difficult to adapt to local customs and becomes easily frustrated whereas Jo takes to these changes with grace and ease. As they settle in to dine, Jo notices that the couple who were watching them upon arrival at the hotel are starring at her. When she discloses this to her husband he characteristically shrugs it off, ordering her to ‘please stop imagining things’.

A moment or two later, the couple (who introduce themselves as the Draytons) apologise, advising that they recognise Jo as Jo Conway the singer. Immediately Ben corrects them, not only pointing out that Jo’s surname is McKenna but by placing himself and his professional status before her by introducing them as ‘Doctor and Mrs McKenna’. Jo is clearly thrilled at the chance to discuss her career and when asked if she ever plans to return to the stage she replies crestfallen ‘possibly never again professionally.’ Ben cannot resist adding further fuel to the fire, confirming that he sees his wife only in relation to his profession: ‘it’s just that I’m a doctor and a doctor’s wife never has much time…’ His behaviour in this scene cuts against the portrait of a harmonious and balanced marriage and exposes a relationship of imperfections. Suddenly, Jo spots Bernard entering the restaurant with a date and expresses anger at the rudeness of him appearing when they had planned to dine together. Ben echoes this sentiment but takes it one step further, allowing this to provoke an external rage as he plans to reproach Bernard until the collected and measured Jo successfully defuses his fury. 

An Extraordinary Woman in Extraordinary Circumstances

The following day the Draytons and the McKennas visit the markets of Marrakech together. Whilst browsing the stalls the peace is disturbed when a man is violently stabbed and – in his capacity as a doctor – Ben rushes to his aid only to find that the injured is in fact Louis Bernard. Taking his final breath, Bernard whispers to Ben that a statesman is to be killed in London, only managing to deliver the final cryptic words ‘Ambrose Chapel’ before dying in his arms. Ben quickly notes down the information, denying Jo sight of it. They are escorted to the local police station by Edward Drayton, but before leaving his wife Lucy obtains permission from Jo to take Hank back to the hotel; little does she know that she will not see her son for a long time after. 

At the station, Ben’s hot-headedness rises to the surface again as Jo remains seated and silent (but for one sentence) while he jumps to his feet, raising his voice at the officer, doing little to endear himself to the authorities. He receives a call threatening him that should he reveal to anyone what he was told at the market, Hank’s life will be in danger. Despite having this crucial information, again he chooses to withhold from his wife. Travelling back to the hotel once statements have been made, Jo asks to see what Ben wrote down. Initially he refuses but she persists, not allowing her request to be dismissed. However even as she becomes aware of the planned murder, she remains in ignorance of the threat made to her son’s life, a disclosure that Ben controls in the following scene in the most toxic way imaginable. 

‘I’m the Doctor’ – A Woman Rendered Powerless, Passive and Speechless 

Now back at their hotel room Jo immediately rushes to telephone Lucy to have Hank returned. After Ben unexpectedly instructs her to hold off on making the call, she naturally enquires as to why, only to be met with an aggressive response that evidently shakes her. Turning to his medical kit, Ben defers to his profession once more to assert his status: ‘I’m the doctor’ he declares, before making a remark pointing to his unwillingness to see her as rational – ‘you know what happens when you get excited and nervous?’ Trying to push her into taking pills, he then proceeds to note how she has been ‘talking a blue streak, walking around in circles’, an accusation which she denies and which we have seen absolutely no evidence of. 

With this forceful tactic proving unsuccessful, he changes his approach by teasing her in confessing there is one piece of information he has not yet disclosed. With pills in one hand and a glass of water in the other, he disturbingly refers to her taking the sedatives as ‘the price of curiosity’, essentially blackmailing his wife with vital information he is keeping from her about their son. In a telling comment that reveals more about the dark side of their relationship, she notes ‘a few months ago you told me that I took too many pills’: clearly Ben enjoys playing doctor whenever it suits him and all on his own terms.

Left with no alternative, Jo promptly swallows the pills as Ben reveals that Hank has been kidnapped. Absorbing the devasting news, she asks him disbelievingly ‘why didn’t you tell me?’ as she becomes inconsolable, clearly nursing heartbreak. Rather than answer her, he holds her down until she quickly falls into a sedative-induced sleep. When she wakes later it is dark, shadows cast over her face: all sunniness has been completely drained from this trip and from her being. Whilst under sedation, Jo has been unable to move or to contribute to the plans they need to make – all their future actions have been arranged by Ben who has rendered his wife passive, powerless and exhausted. Wordless, she simply holds on tightly to him as he explains their next steps. 

A Voice Growing Louder – Telephone Calls, Interviews and Marital Conflict

Travelling back to London in the hope of seeking help, Jo and Ben arrive at the capital to a crowd of fans who have flocked to see the famous Jo Conway. It has been four years since she last played in the city and she is still evidently adored, bringing her a moment of fleeting happiness as we glimpse into her past life before she surrendered herself to Ben.

Whilst in Marrakech, Jo remained silent (and was made to be silent): when meeting with the authorities in London, she makes attempts to speak but Ben continues to stop her. They meet Inspector Buchannan (Ralph Truman) who offers help and while Jo begins to soften to his proposals, Ben retorts – notably not to his wife but to the ‘man’ in charge – ‘you’ve been working on the wrong McKenna, Louis Bernard talked to me.’ While this may be true, Ben’s tone and behaviour point to a need to always be at the centre of attention, diminishing his wife’s input in the process. Pleadingly, with hope in her heart, Jo tries to convince her husband that ‘maybe if they could find…’ but she is not given the opportunity to finish before he chimes in, telling her what she ought to think: ‘maybe’s not good enough for me and I imagine it’s not good enough for you either’. Perhaps Ben has failed to consider that for Jo, ‘maybe’ might just be her only glimmer of hope.

Phone calls are a recurring motif in The Man Who Knew Too Much, acting as a reverberation on the theme of sound and voice. Standing in opposition to the call Ben receives in Marrakech warning him about his son’s safety, here at the London police station a call is made to Jo by one of her son’s kidnappers, Mrs Drayton. Such a call would never have been made to Ben as it is an exchange between one mother lacking a child and another whose child is no longer by her side. Although it is entirely permissible to read Mrs Drayton as a villain who aides and abets in the kidnapping of a child, she also acts an echo of Jo. For (just like Jo), Lucy Drayton too is battling to be heard and her voice is also sedated by the dominance and dark ambition of her husband. 

‘It’s Not a Man, It’s a Place’: Not Another Wild Goose Chase

At their hotel suite in London, Jo is greeted warmly by a second welcoming party, this time by friends, performers and close associates of the entertainment business. It is clear she is loved and respected as they cluck and inquire after her while Ben tries to call Ambrose Chapel (the name given to him at the market by a dying Bernard). The weight of the necessity of secrecy upon the couple is palpable. As they exchange knowing glances to one another across the room they are unified in their tragic knowledge. After speaking with Ambrose Chapel, Ben obtains an address which he prepares to visit. Jo asks if she can join him but he refuses her this under the guise that ‘two people are easier to follow than one’, always standing firm in the belief that he – and he alone – is capable of finding Hank.

At the address of Ambrose Chapel Ben finds a taxidermist who transpires to be a red herring and not in any way connected with the Draytons, Bernard or Hank. While he wastes valuable time following the wrong lead, Jo is left to sit in fear, listening to the idle gossip of her friends, denied autonomy once again. When one of them, Val Parnell (Alan Mowbray), makes mention of Ben ‘going to see some man’ and Jo echoes the final word ‘Chapel’ back to him, she instantly realises that Ambrose Chapel is not a name but in fact, a reference to a place. Resolute and armed with knowledge, she heads off alone to the address of the correct Ambrose chapel which she finds in the phone book. Not long after she departs Ben returns without Hank and- sitting in her seat for a moment – he becomes the passive half of the couple. Unlike Ben however, Jo realises that it requires both of them working together in harmony to get Hank back and she calls him at the hotel to update him.  

Entering together, Jo and Ben find that the chapel proves to be a place of darkness and duplicity (foreshadowing the Mission San Juan Bautista in 1958’s Vertigo).  Despite Jo having found the location referred to by Bernard, Ben cannot refrain from questioning the validity of this. Incorrectly condemning it as ‘another wild goose chase’, just seconds later a collection basket is passed around by Lucy Drayton and Edward Drayton delivers a sermon on the very apt subject of adversity. Ben sends Jo out to contact Buchannan (in another scene featuring a telephone call) at the police station; however, she is told that the Inspector is at an engagement at the Royal Albert Hall and instead speaks to his second-in-command who tells her ‘please believe me, I have everything under control’. The police are duly dispatched to the chapel where they find the doors are locked with no signs of life. Instantly, they doubt Jo and question her report: ‘there’s no one here, are you quite sure there were people there?’ In a state of disbelief and panic, Jo is left to pursue Buchannan to the Royal Albert Hall, allowing nothing to stand in the way of her finding her son. 

More Than a Scream – The Orchestral Crescendo

In the foyer of the Royal Albert Hall, Jo searches desperately for Buchanan but is unable to locate him. Standing in the entrance to the auditorium as the orchestra begins she remains silent at first, tensely clutching at her gloves, holding her chest to contain her anxiety. But as the sound fills the space something unspeakable seems to move Jo and her emotions are stirred, with music and song linking directly to memories of Hank and their earlier duet. She gazes around at the sea of heads, still searching as the sound fills the auditorium, and her heart. With her faith dwindling, she falls into the wall quietly sobbing. In contrast to the full shadows over her face after waking up post-sedation in Marrakech, she is now seen in half shadow and half light, signalling the possibility of hope. In hot pursuit of her comes Ben, who races to the authorities in the theatre to explain the forthcoming assassination while the gunman sits poised awaiting his cue. Unable to persuade the police in time, Ben is unsuccessful in his mission whilst Jo remains alone, tearful and internally begging for a sign that help (and Hank) is coming. 

As the music builds to a crescendo, it appears that Jo is about to sing as she begins to open her mouth. This moment is shown in tandem with the shot of a gun protruding around the curtain of a nearby box, resulting in a piercing, cardinal scream from Jo, cancelling out all other sound in the space. More than a scream to alert the Prime Minister of the attempt on his life – and even more than a scream for the return of her son – it is a call of defiance, an explosion of repression, a lament for her career: it is a refusal against being sedated any longer or, indeed, ever again. It is also what film critic Robin Wood defines as ‘the protest of women against masculinist politics and the cruelty and violence that issue from it (Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, p361). Crucially, it is through song that Jo has been able to find her voice again, because not only is that where her emotional connection lies but it is how she understands the world, it is how she connects with others and it is her personal and chosen form of expression. In this instance, her voice may come out involuntarily but it is a manifestation of all she has endured thus far as well as indirectly contributing towards saving the life of another. Although she has been silenced by her husband and their circumstances – which have literally stopped her speaking of a great secret – it is her voice and her cry that will become integral not only to finding their son but to her emancipation.  

The Voice as an Instrument of Power and Love 

In the aftermath of the attempted assassination, Jo’s voice becomes key once again as – upon believing that Hank is being kept in the embassy -Ben constructs a plan for her to telephone the Prime Minister requesting an invite in return for saving his life. Such a call could never be made by Ben McKenna as significantly this requires Jo’s voice, for it was her scream that saved the Prime Minister from the clutches of death. With Hank still missing, never does Jo’s voice become more meaningful than when she is asked to sing at the embassy. Both she and Ben have rightly calculated that if she performs with enough volume, Hank will eventually hear her and recognise the timbre of his mother’s words. It is these moments in the embassy – not, contrary to popular opinion, the scene in the Royal Albert Hall – that represents the great finale of The Man Who Knew Too Much. In one of the most touching and emotive moments of Hitchcock’s filmography, Jo gives the impression that she is singing to an audience when really both she (and we) are aware that she is singing for her son.

As her voice echoes about the empty hallways and corridors of the embassy we cut to Hank who is being held hostage by a somewhat reluctant Mrs Drayton. The familiar song Que Sera Sera which he and Jo have sung together in Morocco (and no doubt countless times before) acts as a signifier of their enduring love. Reaching his ears, hope begins to blossom when the boy recognises the sound of his mother’s voice. With a genuine sentiment that reveals her true character, Mrs Drayton encourages Hank to whistle the song as loud as he can. So far, Lucy Drayton may have belonged to and acted on behalf of the opposition, but through this small gesture she becomes aligned with Jo in their separate but equally sincere attempts to reunite parent and child. Hank returns the song to his mother as they unite through their love language of song. Painfully for Jo, she cannot go to her son as she so eagerly desires but instead must continue to play for the crowd while Ben is left to find him, which he does successfully. 

In the final cathartic and redemptive act of the film, Jo’s voice is the leading light and the instrument of agency, it is a reclaiming of her female power. However here too Hitchcock offers a quintessential and trademark message of unity and salvation between the sexes as both mother and father, husband and wife, must join forces if they are to stand any chance of rescuing their son. When Ben eventually has Hank in his possession and he is reunited with Jo, there is no prolonged moment of parental ecstasy. Instead, Hitchcock has the trio return to the hotel where they stand collectively as shown in the first shot of the film but this time they are on display not only in front of the film’s audience but also, importantly, Jo’s audience too. In returning to Jo’s world where she is surrounded by those who acknowledge and appreciate her talent – and ending on London turf (the place where she is mostly highly regarded) – suggests that the McKenna’s have been changed by their experience. Now the future looks bright for Jo, a woman who can enjoy the love and belonging of a family unit whilst also nurturing her own passion and desires through her career. 

© Rebecca McCallum

Enjoyed this article? Check out the rest of Rebecca’s Hitchcock’s Women series here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: