Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 American remake of his 1934 British thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much does not attract as much critical attention as several other Hitchcock works from this period. And yet it reveals quite plainly a growing artistic abstraction in Hitchcock that comes close to blowing his cover as an entertainment filmmaker.
After an unexceptional exposition, in which the protagonists are characterized as rather stodgy Midwestern tourists in Morocco, the plot mechanism is sprung when the McKennas' child Hank (Christopher Olsen) is kidnapped to keep his parents from revealing incriminating information that they have stumbled upon. Having received word of the kidnapping first, Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart) must break the news to his wife Jo (Doris Day).
Ben insists that Jo take a sedative before he tells her what has happened. This scene so outraged the feminist sensibility of the students in a Hitchcock class I took at UCLA in 1978 that it's been marked in my mind ever since as a political football, and it wasn't until last week that I watched it without a particular ideological reaction. What I saw was something of a spiritual exercise, not unlike the scene in Torn Curtain in which Hitchcock illustrates just how hard it is to remove life from a healthy human body.
Hitchcock's reasoning in conceiving the scene probably went something like this: "Here the characters must undergo an unbearably painful experience before they can recover their ability to act, and the plot can advance. It is usual in moviemaking to pass over this pain, or to stylize it with a brief evocation of pathos. But I don't feel right about dodging this scene: it renders this movie superficial if I minimize the parents' ordeal. What if I conceive the scene as a problem? The doctor must break the bad news to his wife, but he knows that she will be devastated. How can he get from A to B with as little anguish to her as possible?"
And so the scene must depend on duration: ellipsis will defeat the purpose. And it must confront the mother's agony. It will take much longer than a brisk suspense plot would usually permit. Jo is smart, and cannot easily be fooled. The scene is subtly structured from Ben's point of view: we see his calculations, his reformulation of plans. He tries to push a sedative on his wife with no justification, but it doesn't work: she has taken a pill too recently, she perceives that his behavior is odd, and she resists his attempt to use his professional authority to bully her into drugging herself. He therefore has to hurt her a bit: he lets slip that something bad is going on. Despite his euphemistic phrasing, she is instantly alarmed. "Here's the price of finding out," he says, holding out the sedative. Desperate for information, she takes the pill. Now Ben must drag the story out to give the drug time to enter Jo's bloodstream. She is impatient, but he manages to dawdle until she shows signs of weariness. The bomb is dropped. It's as if the sedative did nothing at all: Jo shrieks in terror and must be restrained. After this unnerving moment, Hitchcock finally permits himself an ellipsis. We see Jo lying in bed numbly as Ben packs a bag, and we realize that the drug has probably softened the blow after all.
It goes without saying that experiments in duration were not common in the American entertainment cinema at this or any other time, and that Hollywood's Master of Suspense was in fact rather an arty guy. But no doubt some regard this scene as an exercise in sadism...and it would be disingenuous to dismiss this imagined charge lightly. There is no doubt that we are being put through a painful experience at a quite leisurely pace. And yet, there is a sense that Hitchcock is putting himself through the experience with us. The scene is more about the discomfort of dealing pain than it is about actual pain or even our anticipation of it. The artist's energy is principally deployed to make us share Ben's problem, his discomfort in using unpleasant tactics on his wife. It is a little fanciful to interpret the scene as being about the filmmaker's dilemma in hurting his audience - but the conceit has some dimension.
At the film's climax, Hitchcock once again goes experimental on us. The assassination attempt that the McKennas have inadvertently uncovered is to take place during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Earlier, Hitchcock shared with us the assassins' plan to fire a gun in synchronization with a particular cymbal clash in Arthur Benjamin's Storm Clouds cantata. He even played the passage with the cymbal clash three times, in order to familiarize us with the moment when the gun will fire - though we are given no information about how long the piece is or where the cymbal clash occurs in it. As Jo and Ben arrive independently at the hall, with imperfect knowledge of what will happen, we realize that Hitchcock intends to show the performance of the piece (with his composer Bernard Herrmann at the podium) without ellipsis: a nine-minute stretch.
This experiment in duration is not as emotional as the earlier one. The intended victim is an anonymous minister of a foreign country; we are encouraged to share Jo and Ben's horror at the assassination attempt, but the stakes are relatively abstract. During the performance, Hitchcock must keep a few balls in the air: he must show Jo gradually realizing where the key players are and what is likely to happen; he must show Ben arriving, and position him for his role in the action dénouement; and, above all, he must find enough variety of form and content, and create enough development, that the nine-minute visual accompaniment to the music doesn't bore us. The musical performance is elaborately documented, with various elements of the rather large orchestra and chorus highlighted at different times, and many shots of Herrmann conducting and of the fatal cymbalist preparing for his big moment.
Here the effect of the scene does not depend on the exact structure of the visual accompaniment - Hitchcock could have sequenced the footage in any number of ways - but rather on the mere fact that the entire piece is played. All suspense depends on an appropriate elongation of time, but this elongation goes well beyond the demands of suspense. Hitchcock wants us to take home some art with our entertainment: not just Benjamin's music, but the cinematic art of confronting the intractability of time.