Bernard Herrmann in The Man Who Knew Too Much

Storm Clouds Gather

Arthur Benjamin‘s greatest success came at the hands of another composer. In 1956, Alfred Hitchcock remade his 1935 film THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, this time starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day as an American couple who travel from Marrakesh to London in pursuit of the British couple who kidnapped their son. Benjamin’s cantata, Storm Clouds, is featured during the climactic scene involving the attempted assassination of a British ambassador. Bernard Herrmann, who had been contracted to compose the score, conducted the piece onscreen.

Benjamin wrote the piece for the same moment in the earlier Hitchcock film. Though he was offered the opportunity to compose a new cue for the remake, Herrmann chose to reuse Benjamin’s piece, saying, “I didn’t think anybody could better what [Benjamin] had done.” The moment is particularly impressive in the 1956 film (I haven’t seen the earlier version), with Robert Burks’s cinematography and George Tomasini’s editing contributing to the music’s effectiveness. And then there’s Benny on the podium in what biographer Steven C. Smith calls “the choicest screen appearance by a real-life conductor since Stokowski shook hands with Mickey Mouse.” Add to the mix the majesty of Royal Albert Hall, the London Symphony Orchestra, the massive Covent Garden Chorus, and Doris in full, teary panic mode, and you have a fool-proof recipe for suspense.

But what about Benjamin’s piece? Bold and dramatic, Benjamin delivers a top-notch musical moment, exactly what the scene calls for. The opening lines of text give a hint at the English sturm und drang to come:

There came a whispered terror on the breeze And the dark forest shook And on the trembling trees came the nameless fear

The piece is one dramatic buildup to that climactic cymbal crash, and its arrival doesn’t disappoint. Benjamin’s memorable piece displays enough stunning moments for both orchestra and chorus that I wish more of his film music survived.

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH may not be top-tier Hitchcock, but you’d never know it from this stunning set-piece. Thanks to my buddy Tim’s suggestion, I finally made it past the first 15 minutes. Jimmy and Doris are a delight to watch as always, but once the storm clouds break, Benjamin’s gorgeous music provided such sweet release.

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