Why Hides the Sun in Shame?:
Ambrose Chapel and The Man Who Knew Too Much

by Murray Pomerance

[Editor's note.  Murray Pomerance is the author of 'An Eye for Hitchcock' (Rutgers, 2004) and professor in the Department of Sociology at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.  Here, in exemplary scholarly fashion, he investigates the hymn scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 version) and asks why the text of the original hymn, from the Magdalen Chapel hymn book of 1791, was subtly changed.]

[Still: Vicary Street, Brixton.  St Saviour's church hall as Ambrose Chapel.  Jo waits on right.]

THE SETTINGS IN HITCHCOCK films range from the ridiculous (Abraham Lincoln’s cheek) to the sublime (Muir Woods/Big Basin State Park), but surely the bleakest of them, the most hollow and forbidding, is Ambrose Chapel.  Here Ben and Jo McKenna (James Stewart, Doris Day) venture on a British Monday afternoon, desperate to find their kidnapped son Hank in the bustling labyrinth of London.  They have been cued to this place - or, as fans of The Man Who Knew Too Much will remember, to the sound of the name of this place - by a dying voice in Morocco, and have been led something of a wild animal chase getting here.  The little street in which they find themselves - supposedly Ambrose Street - is empty.  Vague sounds of choral singing waft from the tiny chapel across the way.  They walk toward it and gingerly enter, only to find quite another world.

The chapel is high and wooden, shabby, set up with folding chairs, with steel support poles running up here and there from floor to vault.  Edward and Lucy Drayton (Bernard Miles, Brenda de Banzie) are running a service, not a little to our surprise, since we encountered them in Marrakech as a pair of chummy British middle-class tourists vacationing from a life in agriculture.  It is Ben and Jo’s realization that they have finally found the elusive Draytons that gives them hope their missing son is nearby, since they have concluded already (and correctly) that these are the people who kidnapped him.  The room is filled with rather elderly, and by no means wealthy, worshippers, timid of posture, weak of voice.  Edward is on the dais, ready at some point to sermonize.  Lucy is passing through the congregation as they sing, with a collection plate held modestly in her hands.  During the hymn, as she moves up the aisle close to Ben and Jo, they prepare themselves to encounter her eye to eye.  Suddenly she discovers them.  Her face goes white and she quickly retreats to the front of the room, where try as she might she cannot make Edward catch her silent warning.  He begins to speak - about, of all things, adversity - and suddenly, in mid-phrase, as Jo too obtrusively sneaks out to call the police, he sees.  There, in fact, is the father of the child he has tucked away upstairs, waiting to confront him.  He excuses his flock, who file out exactly like so many sheep, and confronts Ben directly.  The end of this scene is succinct:  Ben calls out to Hank, who answers from far off.  As Ben tries to get past Drayton, he is coshed by a thug and left unconscious while Drayton and his associates take the child and escape.  Some time later, Ben climbs a rope into the belfry and by ringing the bell attracts a crowd and is freed.

I want to briefly discuss two particular aspects of this scene, the hymn that is sung and the location of the building itself, hopefully showing something of how the Ambrose Chapel scene is important for understanding this picture and the way Hitchcock worked in general.

[Still: falseness.  Drayton preaching.]

Staging a Chapel
Pure and authentic a haven as it may sometimes seem, a chapel has all the characteristics of any theatrical space: raised stage, special lighting, performers who operate according to something of a script and wear special costumes, thus becoming “characters.”  People “dress up” for church, especially those who are running the show there.  Indeed, a chapel is a kind of sanctum of role-playing and disguise, and this may be one of the reasons Hitchcock’s story places the perfidious and false Draytons there to work.  As Edward Drayton is dressing in his pastor’s dickie, the apparent contradiction between the invocation of the Church in his garb and the moral darkness in his dialogue as he rehearses the Assassin stun us with the thought that he is, as the Assassin wickedly puns, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”  But by including Ambrose Chapel explicitly in the film, Hitchcock jokes that it is the perfect lair for such wolves in general.  Given all of this, we might conclude that nothing is going on in the Ambrose Chapel scene but performance:  in short, Drayton is not really a minister, and the very fact that he looks like one is virtual evidence that he is anything but.

However, I think it possible Hitchcock is suggesting something quite different about Edward Drayton, something even darker.  When we consider that the feeble members of this congregation - whom we see quite clearly in medium close-ups - are comfortable with him; and when we see the dutiful way they listen to his words, and leave when he asks them to; we can only conclude that they have been coming to worship under his guidance for some time.  He is, in short, the actual pastor of this chapel, and there is no theatricality involved in his posture tonight at all.  The evil man is not hiding underneath a beatific religious cloak; more shockingly, the religious man himself is evil.  Just as earlier Hitchcock had set up other social institutions for critique, parody, and dismantling - the market, the family, the police, high society - and was about to do the same for high culture, he here dismantles the Church.  Drayton is fulfilling not a calling but an occupation.  Nor is there anything to suggest that earlier in life he might not, quite honestly, have been a man who did agricultural research, just as Lucy said.  In the scene in the chapel, then, no one is hiding at all.  To be villainous, one need not lie.

Aside from his normal penchant for pictorial realism, Hitchcock needed this setting to be believable as a place in which worship would actually be happening on a Monday afternoon.  The concert in the Albert Hall, happening on the same day as the chapel scene, takes place on the evening of Monday 6 June, 1955.  This fact alone almost certainly positions the chapel as appropriate to non-Anglican, probably dissenting, non-denominational Christianity.  Drayton’s garb is congruent with this reading, as is the general nature of his congregation:  slightly shabby, working-class, downtrodden folk aspiring to be “saved.”  As Bill Krohn describes them, “This is what people who believe in pre-destination look and sound like” (178).  In this setting it was vital that faith, adversity, anxiety, spirituality, and propriety might be invoked, yet also mocked.  And here, quintessentially here, a certain kind of hymn could believably have been sung.

Lieutenant Commander Foster Kemp, of Paramount British Productions Limited, had made arrangements for an exact London location.  Mr G. G. Hartwright of Milles Day and Co Solicitors, 5, Little College Street Westminster SW1 wrote on 13 May 1955 to the Reverend J. F. Balley at St. Saviour’s Hall, 3, St. Saviour’s Road, Brixton Hill to say that he had made an agreement with Paramount whereby “they are to use the Hall in connection with the making of a new film.”  He pronounced himself satisfied with the temporary alterations Paramount’s “architect” would be making to the belfry and considered, indeed, that Paramount would leave St. Saviour’s in better condition than it found it.  Work was to commence the following day.  For use of the Hall in filming the exteriors of Ambrose Chapel, St. Saviour’s was paid £75, a sum Hartwright earlier called “a good payment since the filming … will only last for two or three days.”  On June 16 the filming was completed, and the architects and surveyors Trehearne & Norman, Preston & Partners were concerned to learn from Balley whether he had made private arrangements with Paramount British to have the roof repaired and the belfry removed.  About the middle of August, just over £71 was paid to J. Kidd & Son Builders and Contractors for repair of the floorboards, windows, and wall; but the belfry was left alone.  The bell, which could be removed and sold off - as Balley had learned on 17 May from Hartwright - only with approval from the Bishop of Kingston, was not estimated to be of any value as such, but might do as scrap if it contained not less than 20% tin.  It was bought and receipted 8 December by Gillett & Johnston Ltd of Croydon in the sum of £5 9s 3d.  But notwithstanding all of these meticulous arrangements made on his behalf, Hitchcock did not shoot inside the Hall.

According to the daily production reports, the company finished at the Marrakech location May 23, 1955 and removed to London, commencing there on the 28th.  St. Saviour’s was photographed only on June 16, and only, as the sheet says, for exteriors.  The call box in which Jo frantically attempts to raise Inspector Buchanan but finds Woburn instead, was shot in Blenheim Gardens, a few blocks away, on the same day.  On June 25 a second unit worked in dull, “not ideal” weather to make transparency plates in the street for rear projection.

It should be noted, though, that there was a company call for the 16th at the Hall, and that it was rather extensive.  (Strangely, it even included Daniel Gélin, though his character had died in Marrakech.)  Nonetheless, in the end no interiors were shot there.  The Ambrose Chapel interiors were all shot on sets built by Henry Bumstead at Paramount.  Stage 5 was used for the main chapel interior, the filming taking up July 8, 9, 11, 12 (with direct recording of the hymn), July 18 (with playback of the hymn), and July 19.  Forty-two extras were called with the full principal cast, which again included Daniel Gélin (not used, though) and Christopher Olsen (heard off-camera only).  The scene in Drayton’s study upstairs was set on Stage 4, and filmed the 23 and 25 July.  

Why, we may reasonably ask, when a viable location had been found in London, and when all of the necessary cast members were not only in the city but on call, was a decision made to repair to Hollywood for the chapel interiors?  In general, Hitch always preferred to do his interiors on the sound stage, where much more meticulous control could be achieved and where he knew he could obtain from Bumstead the most verisimilitudinous look - a look often “realer” than what he would find in reality.  (For all the preparations in the real belfry, for example, it was reconstructed by Bumstead on Matte Stage 1 at Paramount and the bell-ringing scene shot with a rear projection plate on August 20.)  What precise look was it that Hitchcock needed here, what precise action did he need to shape and frame, that was so important?  As good a retrospective analysis as one will find is Krohn's:  “the Chapel, hideous as it is, is the place where Ben and Jo find Hank again, and the intricate criss-crossing paths of which it is the centre lead them to the Albert Hall, where Jo saves a man’s life, and then to the Embassy, where they are reunited with Hank” (178).  Yes, Ambrose Chapel is the center of criss-crossing paths; but Hitchcock has arranged that it should be.  Why, of all places, this one, and at a time when the parishioners are singing - or trying to sing - that particular hymn?

[Still: composite matte shot of rear of Ambrose Chapel.  Jo waits in street.]

A Shameful Song
It is vital in appreciating Hitchcock to recognize that every aspect of every scene is meticulously shaped to fit the story he is telling, and that there are no decorative flourishes.  While most people watching The Man Who Knew Too Much take the Ambrose Chapel hymn scene as an opportunity to watch Ben and Jo secretively plotting against Edward and Lucy Drayton, in fact it is worthwhile to consider the hymn that we are hearing - the somewhat tedious hymn, indeed - while this is going on.    

Hymn tunes and hymn lyrics are identified separately by churchmen and worshippers.  The tune in this case is called “Burford.”  It is a traditional melody - probably originally Welsh - which can be found arranged with various sets of lyrics throughout the long history of its use which goes back at least to the late eighteenth century.  It is to be found in hymn books as far back as 1791, where it is set to a text by Samuel Wesley Jr. (1691-1739, the nephew of the founder of Methodism), and it has appeared under various titles and with subtle changes of wording several times since.  However, the lyrics that are sung in Hitchcock’s film appear with this hymn only in the Magdalen hymn book.  What was that book?

Magdalen [pron. maud’-lin] Hospital dates from the year 1758, a time when the dominant culture as a whole had turned to a rationalist approach to human affairs, what might be seen as analogous to Ben McKenna’s practical way of looking at the world.  In the Methodist and non-conformist chapels, however, attention was devoted feverishly to the salvage of the human soul (Temperley 1994).  The climate outside was intensively industrialist: man’s relation to his world was through things, and the organization of men was by means of the organization of things.  The human was fragmented into operative parts, so human relations were partial and technical rather than holistic and spiritual.  The mundane world was thus open to errant behavior, a decline in the Puritan ethic; and in cities like London sexual unconventionality, in particular, flourished.  According to Nicholas Temperley, Magdalen House “became a remand home, which finally closed in 1966.”  (Hence Magdalen House was a remand home when, in 1955, Hitchcock and his team prepared their film.  At that time the girls of the home sang their hymns from behind theatrical screens to guard the public from seeing them.)

Crucially, though, it’s the Magdalen Chapel hymn book of 1791 that was the source of the hymn available in the Paramount Music Library and thus, indubitably, the basis of the hymn heard in the film.   That version of the hymn is without title, appearing in a section called “On the Passion.”  Its lyric - the one that would most easily have been available to Bernard Herrmann - is this:

From whence these dire Portents around,
That Earth & Heav’n amaze?
Wherefore do Earthquakes cleave the Ground?
Why hides the Sun his rays?
            . . .
Let Sin no more my Soul enslave;
Break, Lord, the Tyrant’s Chain:
O save me, whom thou cam’st to save;
Nor bleed, nor die in vain.

- and is, further, a lyric that has changed much through church history.  There is no absolute, exact, precise meaning of the hymn itself, no particular version that is better or more accurate in general than any other version.  If Hitchcock had merely wanted to decorate his church scene with a typical and believable hymn, the version in the Paramount library would have been quite as suitable as any other version anyone could have found.

But in the version actually “sung” in The Man Who Knew Too Much the lyrics are changed.  Some additional work was performed on this musical text before filming could take place - this in the case of a text frequently taken in Hitchcockian criticism to be insignificant to the meaning of the film (since it is very often not mentioned).  One exception is Krohn’s brief interpretation that “The person uttering those words, who is present at the Crucifixion, knows that the earthquakes and darkness are portents of his salvation.  In the second verse, he prays to the dying Christ to free him from the tyrant, Original Sin” (178).

But the lyrical alteration produced before filming deeply modifies the meaning of the scene.  The presumption must therefore be that it was Hitchcock, or Herrmann, or one of the production people associated with the actual sound recording, who called for the first stanza’s last line to be sung:  “Why hides the sun in shame?

Both times this first stanza of the hymn is presented, the camera realizes images that reflect and magnify these changed words, suggesting not that the sun hides his rays but that the sun hides in shame.  The first time, Ben and Jo are sneaking into the chapel.  As we hear “Why hides the sun in shame?” Ben and Jo hide themselves against the shame of being caught out spying.  And then, with the very source of all light being “shameful,” shame becomes the emotional key of the scene.  To obtain the very precise quality of lighting that could match this reconstructed lyric, and to stage the action in such a way as to hint at, and reflect, shame, Hitchcock needed to shoot on a soundstage, not on location in Brixton.

[Still: Ben and Jo “hide” in the chapel.]

Consider what we see and hear - “You have to listen closely,” writes Krohn (178) - when the hymn is repeated.  We have seen that (i) Lucy Drayton is making her way relentlessly down the aisle; and (ii) Ben and Jo have seen, too.  But also (iii) Lucy does not know that Ben and Jo are here, and so she is literally innocent of a trap that is being set for her by the McKennas.  This is crucial, because we must be brought to a position of some sympathy for her.  As the worshippers are intoning about dire portents around that heaven and earth amaze, Lucy is surrounded, as we well know, by portents that are about to amaze her quite radically.  The elements of the cosmos, in other words, have conspired against Lucy, and so she is pathetic and worthy of our concern.  

Now, significantly, we cut to a reverse shot to see Lucy move, and we are aware that the ground on which she steps will shortly quake:

Wherefore do earthquakes cleave the ground
Why hides the sun - Lucy pulls back and moves right, as we pan, until she is directly in front of us, her head down.  - in . . . -  She steps forward and opens her eyes directly into the camera in a CS.  - shame?

[Still: Lucy Drayton.  “Why hides the sun in shame?”]

Lucy is now the sun, the central element in this planetary system which includes the McKennas, the Draytons, kidnapped Hank, Louis Bernard, Buchanan.  Around her consciousness, and her activity, the plot’s many subtle threads now wind.  As we hear the vital words, “in shame” she is opening her eyes directly into the camera.  Her eyes flicker perceptibly.  She draws back.  It is the turning of the kidnapping story: the moment when we have the first inkling that Hank will be found and saved, and that his captors will be vanquished.


Hitchcock thus interceded twice before shooting Ambrose Chapel.  While a location had been prepared in London at some expense and trouble, he used it only for exteriors and shot the sequence at Paramount instead, where more time was available for a meticulous choreography around the hymn tune and a precise evocation of the shameful mood of the place.  As regards the hymn tune: while Steven DeRosa is quite correct when he suggests that “Although the lyrics of the hymn can only be faintly understood, Hitchcock’s selection of them is, of course, not an instance of sheer chance” (277), his casual comment that the lyric about the sun hiding in shame foreshadows the Albert Hall misses the fact that Hitchcock took a perfectly acceptable lyric that was already available at the studio and changed it (or had Herrmann change it) to throw a particular shadow upon his characters and his story.  The hymn is not a foreshadowing at all, but a direct portrait, of Edward, profoundly of Lucy, and even of Ben and Jo.  They, too, are riddled with shame inside this chapel, hiding from the people who have stolen their son, hiding from worshippers who do not even know them, hiding, to the sound of a bleak hymn in this bleak place of falseness, even from themselves.

References used:
DeRosa, Steven.  Writing with Hitchcock: The Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes.  New York: Faber and Faber, 2001.

Krohn, Bill.  Hitchcock at Work.  London: Phaidon, 2000.

Routley, Eric.  “Hymns by Accident,” Bulletin of the Hymn Society (October 1982).

Temperley, Nicholas.  “The Hymn Books of the Foundling and Magdalen Hospital Chapels,” in David Hunted, ed., Music Publishing and Collecting: Essays in Honor of Donald W. Krummel, Urbana-Champaign: Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, 1994.

•  I am especially grateful to Henry Bumstead, Steven DeRosa, Joseph Herl, Dr. Mai H. Kelton, Ken Mogg, William J. Reynolds, Nicholas Temperley, Eldridge Walker, and the Greater London Record Office.  MP