There’s a lot of lore written about Doris Day, her presence and her performance in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. In Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Patrick McGilligan writes that, ‘According to songwriter Jay Livingston, who wrote the theme song for The Man Who Knew Too Much, Day wouldn’t have appeared in the remake if not for the pressure from MCA, which represented Hitchcock and the actress. “His agent, MCA, said he couldn’t have [James] Stewart unless he took Doris Day,’ recalled Livingston. ” He told us he didn’t want Doris Day but he had to take her. He was very happy with her later’ (p. 517).
Indeed he was, and with reason: Doris gives a great performance in the film. She’s particularly wonderful in the scenes where she’s most hysterical, suppressing and on the verge of failing to contain emotion, the ones that demand most of her as an actress: when Stewart sedates her in Marrakesh, the Albert Hall scene, the scene where she sings Que sera sera again at the embassy knowing her son is upstairs. It’s a Doris Day audiences had barely had a glimpse of to then, though Hitchcock himself saw something of this in Day’s performance in Storm Warning, a KKK drama where she’d co-starred opposite Ginger Rogers and Ronald Reagan.
What caught my eye in the scene above is the tension between narrative and spectacle, between Doris Day as a singer/performer and as an actress, between what I take to be Hitchcock’s awareness of pleasing the audience, of film as a commercial enterprise, and his attempts at depth, of film as art. When I first saw this scene I thought Day was not good, that she was too much, that she was exceeding the bounds of her character in order to entertain the audience.
Hitchcock does odd and interesting things in this scene. The scene is prefaced by an image of a Crescent moon over over the minarets of Marrakesh, evoking strangeness, exoticism, a dash of danger. The film then dissolves into an image of Benjamin McKenna (James Stewart) looking in the mirror and dressing for dinner whilst Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), the man Jo (Doris Day) is so suspicious of, smokes by the balcony. We hear Jo beginning to sing ‘Que Sera Sera’ on the soundtrack. The camera then kind of creeps into the room, evoking a sense of portent. Then just as the camera crosses the threshold, it pans onto a mid-shot of Jo, also dressing for dinner and as the image of Doris Day appears, the son joins her in her singing. It’s a domestic scene but with an undertow of, not quite danger, more like potential disturbance. Everything is not quite right, and it’s not just because Louis Bernard is there.
On the word mother, as the boy sings, ‘I asked my mother, what will I be?’ Jo glances at Ben, who looks back, knowingly and lovingly before saying, ‘he’ll make a fine doctor’. Jo was a star of song and stage. Does she regret giving it up? Has it been an issue? Again, the choices in the mise-en-scène present but also raise questions doing so. And yet the focus remains on the boy and his future, particularly pertinent to the tension that is yet to reach its peak in the film but of which the mise-en-scène already makes us feel.
The next shot picks up on Jo, where the cut-reverse-cut with her husband started. She admires herself in the mirror, likes what she sees. As she enters the boy’s room to put him to bed, she swings her hips as if she’s on stage, and when she sings ‘Que Sera, Sera’ she sings ‘out’ as if to an audience, rather than to her son. Doris was never quite a belter. She’s one of the Twentieth Century’s great vocalists, a nuanced singer, with exquisite phrasing, and a tone that could seem hushed, caressing. She’s a singer who learned her trade on radio. But she’s singing ‘out’, as if to us in the audience rather than to her her child in the story, and she does this throughout the rest of the scene. She gives big broad smiles, make big broad gestures, sings the song as if she were in front of a band. It’s true that there are two men in the other room and that perhaps she’s singing to them as well as to her son. Certainly, Hitchcock always makes a point of returning to the child and the story. But the gestures are as broad as the singing. Doris is ostensibly putting her child to bed but she’s acting, and she’s being filmed, as if she’s performing at the Albert Hall. It’s a scene that feels disjunctive, where the spectacle of Doris Day singing seem to exceed the narrative of Jo putting her son to bed.
One of the beautiful aspects of Hitchcock’s filmmaking is how this will all make sense the next time Jo sings ‘Que Sera Sera’, when in fact she is ostensibly singing to an audience but really singing to her son, almost the obverse of the scene here.
Moments of ‘excess’ in Hitchock rarely are; here what may be initially observed as a moment of spectacle becomes the conveyor of a particular kind of feeling and meaning as well as the basis of later narrative cohesion, what’s planted at the beginning is brought marvellously to harvest at the end, including the guest in the room and the significance of the knock on the door that ends this little scene. It’s very beautifully done. And Doris is a joy to behold.