by Isaiah Speller
Hitchcocks Display of Female Leads Challenging The Status Quo
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) falls into Hitchcock’s later films that more overtly feature female suffering. While it is commonplace that he prioritizes female leads, this film instead focuses on the power struggle between husband and wife. Jo McKenna (Or Jo Conway), Ben’s wife, was a famous singer who gave up her career for the family. We learn that with marriage, sacrifices are made, but to what extent is varied. My take is that Jo sacrificed more for Ben than the other way around. In many heterosexual relationships, men are taught to be the breadwinner or provider, while women are to nurture their offspring among other domestic affairs. Ben tries to assert his position by making Jo feel as small and dependent as possible. For instance, while Jo and Ben are in the hotel room discussing the police interrogation, Ben holds the weight of Louis’ message as well as their son Hank being kidnapped. He believes that the best way to prevent an outburst is to drug his own wife. That way, he can explain the situation without being overpowered.
This film, which is based in the 1950s, delves into the common shortcomings found in the nuclear family structure. According to our text, Writing with Hitchcock, “Given the social climate of 1950s America, Hitchcock’s reworking of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) was very much ahead of its time. While American popular culture was spewing out entertainment that suggested a woman’s place was in the home or that a mother’s position in the family should be subservient — a view effectively promulgated through such television series as I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best — Hitchcock’s film said quite the reverse.” (DeRosa 278). Ben and Jo are at odds taking initiative to save their son, whether one agrees or disagrees. Cooperation tends to be manufactured as both sides are unable to fully express themselves. Communication between husband and wife during this time is conducted in a way that promotes stability, but with one side subduing the other to reach it. This is proven from the beginning of the movie when the Mckennas attend a dinner in Marrakesh and Jo continues to be suspicious of Louis. Ben is not receptive to her genuine concerns but threatens to confront Louis out of irritation. And when there is mention of Jo Conways past career, Ben subtly gestures for Jo to back down. He does not want her taking too much space. Lastly when being interrogated by Inspector Buchanon, Ben takes over the conversation even though Hank is also Jo’s son. There is power in emotion, and Ben is threatened by it. Ben believes that with a leveled head, he can take responsibility and save the day without Jo.
In actuality, it is with the combined forces of Jo and Ben that save their child. Hitchcock understands that women are underestimated in this patriarchal society, so we should not have any expectations. Jo helped save the prime minister at the opera by screaming at the right time, but also used her talent of singing to be heard by Hank at the embassy party. Mrs. Drayton conducts herself in a way that has us question how big of a mastermind she is. There is barely any interaction between Mr. Drayton and Hank, but Mrs. Drayton keeps Hank under her watchful eye. She seems to have morals and felt guilt putting a child in the middle of an assassination attempt. This is inserted in the hymn Hitchcock chose which foreshadows her future acts. It reads, “‘Let sin no more my soul enslave/Break now the tyrant’s chain’ when she decides to help Ben escape with Hank and stands up to Drayton, saying ‘You’ve got to let the boy go!’” (DeRosa 290). Throughout the film Mr. Drayton is oblivious to the gradual shift in Mrs. Drayton’s allegiance and believes everything is going according to plan. It is when the ambassador insults Mr. Drayton’s methods that the audience views him as an unsmart henchman. Hitchcock certainly has a preference for women’s emotional intelligence because they hold influence over many institutions. Hank clearly has a stronger connection with his mother than father, shown by him singing and whistling the song, “Whatever will be”.
Another example of women’s emotional intelligence is when Mrs. Drayton signaled to her husband that the McKennas were at the church service, which prompted their team to leave with Hank before their cover was blown.
The connections between The Man Who Knew Too Much and Rear Window are shocking. Even though Jeff and Lisa are not married, he is intimidated by Lisa’s higher status and tries to disassociate when possible. Even when she finds a lead and seeks his validation, he reduces it by bringing up her career once more. Lisa says, “‘Jeff, how did I do?’,” and he replies, “‘Real professional. Would have made a great layout for the Bazaar. The model pressed against a brick wall, eyes wild, tense. Low-cut bodice, in new suspicious black, with a-”. It is a common occurrence that credit is not given to the female leads, and every time we see that it deflates their spirit to a degree. Lisa suffers from not having feelings reciprocated, while Jo suffers from having her feelings suppressed. If characters like Jeff and Ben truly saw their female counterparts as equals, they would have someone to talk to about their own insecurities. Films like The Man Who Knew Too Much and Rear Window show that when women are given the opportunity, they can achieve just about anything.
DeRosa, Steven. Writing with Hitchcock: The Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes (New York: Cinescribe Media, 2011).
Hitchcock, Alfred. Rear Window. Paramount Pictures, 1954.
This was a very insightful post. When we look deeper into these movies we can truly see what happens beneath the surface. “The Man who Knew Too Much” was not only a suspenseful and adventurous film, but Jo’s character was perfectly depicted as a heroine with her determination and strength to save Hank, really making her the dominant lead. She really carried the movie!
I completely agree with your statement about how the film “The Man Who Knew Too Much” where Jo is playing as the “woman” stereotype. Luckily that is not true for all of Hitchcock’s fifty-three films. An good example of a female defying the stereotype is “Young Charlie” from “Shadow Of a Doubt” who feared becoming just like her mother, a ordinary woman who only cleans, cooks and take care of the kids. Another is “Lisa” from “Rear Window” who helps “Jeff” with his investigation of “Lars Thorwald’s” apartment, even sneaking inside the apartment to find evidence to help prove that Lars murdered has wife. In “To Catch a Thief” “Grace Kelly” helps “Cary Grant” to caught the thief that has been framing him for crimes because of his past. Hitchcock does write some women in his films as basis, but he counteracts that with strong, female characters in his other films.