What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called The Fifth Annual Doris Day Blog-A-Thon being hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Because life happens, I was interminably late with this contribution, but the host graciously gave me ample time to offer more of my contrived slop 🙂
The Man Who Knew Too Much revolves around American physician Ben McKenna (played by James Stewart). After attending a medical conference in Paris, he and his wife Jo (played by Doris Day) and their 11-year-old son Hank (played by Christopher Olsen) embark on extended vacation.
The story starts while the McKennas are traveling on a bus to Marrakech when Hank accidentally pulls the veil off a Muslim woman. What could have easily become a very serious problem is headed off when French national Louis Bernard (played by Daniel Gelin) steps in to aid the McKennas’ behalf. However, while Ben McKenna is trusting of the assisting stranger; he’s more than happy to divulge details about his families’ travel plans, Jo McKenna is suspicious of the Frenchman’ and his constant questions.
Later that night, Bernard meets the McKennas in their hotel room for dinner. But the plans are suddenly cancelled when a man named Rien (played by Reggie Nalder) shows up at their door; Bernard knows Rien is a hired assassin. There’s more intrigue the same night when at an Arab restaurant, Ben and Jo meet a British couple by the last name of Drayton (played by Bernard Miles and Brenda de Banzie). They claim to be fans of Jo who was a well-known singer before she married Ben.
The next morning, the McKennas and Draytons encounter each other again in a local market. The light mood darkens quickly when a man being chased by the police collapses in Ben’s arms. Ben quickly sees this man has been fatally stabbed in the back. Worse yet, Ben then notices it is Louis Bernard disguised as an Arab.
Bernard’s dying declaration to Ben is there is a plot to assassinate an unknown political figure in London. He then implores Ben to get to London and contact the authorities with the message “Try Ambrose Chapel.”
As potential witnesses, the McKennas are taken to the police station for questioning. While they are with the police, Mrs. Drayton agrees to watch Hank. During the exchange with the Moroccan cops, a detective tells the McKennas that Louis Bernard was a spy working for the French government. As if on cue, at this moment Ben gets a mysterious phone call informing him Hank has been kidnapped. As one would expect, the ransom for Hank is the McKenna’s silence about Bernard’s last words.
Keeping the phone call to himself, once the McKennas arrive back at their hotel, Ben discovers two troubling facts; Mrs. Drayton never returned to the hotel with Hank, and that Mr. Drayton checked out a half-hour before the McKennas got back to the hotel.
Ben spills the news to Jo about Hank’s abduction, but only after he doses her with a sedative. They discover the Draytons left Marrakech on a private plane, so Ben and Jo decide to follow Bernard’s dying utterance; they travel to London to search for Hank. Jo’s former celebrity status means they are greeted at the airport by both the police and a legion of Jo’s fans.
Once in London, the McKennas are interviewed by Inspector Buchanan of Scotland Yard (played by Ralph Truman). It is during this exchange that Buchanan tells the McKennas he knows why their son was kidnapped. Despite Jo’s pleas, Ben refuses to tell the inspector what Louis said to him, claiming that the British secret agent had spoken to him in French. Again, almost as if on cue, Jo receives a phone call from Mrs. Drayton who allows the McKennas to speak briefly to Hank.
Upon checking into a hotel, the McKennas attempt to call Ambrose Chapel (which at this point they still believe is a person), but they are interrupted by the arrival of Jo’s old friends Val and Helen Parnell (played Alan Mowbray and Alix Talton), Jan Peterson (played by Hillary Brooke) and Cindy Fontaine (played by Carolyn Jones). While Jo stays behind in the hotel, Ben sneaks out through the hotel’s service entrance supposedly to meet Chapel.
At about the same time, Jo figures out something Ben learns the “hard way;” “Ambrose Chapel” is a place, not a person. Shortly, she meets Ben inside the chapel where Hank is being held captive by the Draytons. During this scene is when we discover the Draytons are actually the leaders of an international anarchist group. We also discover they are the ring-leaders of the assassination plot as they are instructing Rien of the exact moment during an Albert Hall concert that he is to commit the killing.
While Ben stays inside the chapel, Jo leaves to summon the police. Ben hears Hank’s voice and rushed to rescue him, but is knocked unconscious by one of Draytons’ henchmen. Naturally, by the time Jo gets the police to the chapel, the Draytons have escaped with Hank.
Since the cops do not have a search warrant, they refuse to enter the locked chapel. As a result, Jo calls the police station asking to speak to Inspector Buchanan, but she is told that he is at an important diplomatic function at Albert Hall. When the police refuse to contact Buchanan, she heads off alone to Albert Hall to find him. But once she arrives at Albert Hall, she encounters Rien who reminds her Hank’s safety depends on her silence.
Meanwhile, Ben escapes the locked chapel by climbing the church bell’s rope, after which he also makes his way to Albert Hall. Just as Rien is about to shoot a visiting foreign prime minister, Jo screams which causes Rien’s bullet to be off the mark; Rien only wounds his target in the arm. After the shot is fired, Ben jumps Rien, and during the resulting struggle, Rien falls from the balcony to his death.
The Draytons have since fled to the embassy, where the ambassador who recruited them for the assassination (played by Mogens Wieth) informs them the plot has failed. At this point, the ambassador orders Mr. Drayton to kill Hank despite Mrs. Drayton’s objection. Because embassies are considered to be sovereign territory apart from the host country, the British police cannot enter, leaving the McKennas to enter alone. They are able to do so as they have been invited as the guest of the grateful prime minister whose life they saved.
At the embassy, Jo is asked to perform for the guests. In no time, Hank recognizes her singing voice. Mrs. Drayton’s tells hank to whistle along with Jo’s song, which tips Ben to where Hank is being held. Shortly after Ben reaches Hank, Mr. Drayton bursts into the room. But instead of killing Ben and Hank, he decides to use them as human shields in an attempt to his escape from the embassy. However, as Drayton is leading them down a staircase, Ben pushes him; Drayton falls and his gun discharges, killing him instantly.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
The Man Who Knew Tool Much is a classic “cloak and dagger” thriller complete with all the plot twist mandated by the genre. Today’s hidden sports analogy is a similar tale rooted in the waning days of the “Cold War” between the United States and the now-defunct Soviet Union.
While the focus of the “Cold War” is mostly thought of as a geo-political real-world version of “Risk,” one of it’s coldest aspects could be found on the rinks of ice hockey. During this time, everything became a competition; both sides were engaged in an eternal game of “one-upsmanship.”
In the west, there was the National Hockey League (NHL) based in Canada and the United States. As the biggest professional league in the sport, the NHL was where the best players in the world could make big-time money and do so on the biggest stage the sport had to offer…with one glaring exception. The divide in Europe defined in Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech also hung straight across the heart of the hockey world. The NHL of the 1980’s was resplendent with players from around world, particularly Canada, the United States, and the European hockey powers Sweden and Finland…but there were no Russians.
Anybody who knew the game understood the players sequestered on the Soviet side of the “Berlin Wall” could play in the NHL. As early as the 1970s, competitions such as the Canada Cup designed outside the Olympic ban on professional player could showcase the “amateur” Soviets against the NHL’s best proved the assumption about the quality of the Russian players were correct.
But in an ironic way, the Soviets’ loss in the 1980 Winter Olympic to the American “rag-tag amateurs” accelerated the rusting decay of the Russian hockey “Iron Curtain.”
First, exposure to all those international competitions against professional-quality players showed them how good the global players were and that they could skate with the best of them. On top of that, the “amateur” Soviets saw the trappings of being a professional player in the west far outstripped those of being conscripted as a Soviet “amateur.”
“Conscripted”is the key word here. The players on the Soviet national hockey team were “amateurs” in name only. They were among the best players in the world, but they were paid as soldiers in the Red Army whose duty was to play hockey as instruments of advancing the cause of communism on the world stage of sport. Putting the hockey players in the togs of a soldier not only protected their “amateur” status for purposes of Olympic competition, it made it nearly impossible for the players as serving officers in the Red Army to escape for the greener money-lined rinks of the NHL.
Once the veneer of invincibility came off the Soviets with the 1980 Olympic loss, many of the Russian players began to look to the west. But the Russians weren’t the only ones peeking through the Iron Curtain.
Throughout the 1980s, the longing glances across the Berlin Wall continued as that very wall began to crumble. By 1989, the signs of communism’s impending fall were everywhere. As such, the Detroit Red Wings became the first NHL franchise to hatch a plot to score some to the Red Army players.
Despite the fact the end of the Cold War was dawning on the horizon, the Soviet Union stayed steadfast not allowing their hockey players to leave and play in the NHL. But heading into the 1989 NHL Draft, Red Wings general manager Jim Devellano and owner Mike Ilitch (the founder Little Caesar’s Pizza fame) were determined to make the desires driving those longing cross-wall glances a reality.
The first Russian player on the Red Wings’ wish list was center Sergei Fedorov, a 6’2″ scoring machine. At the time, the 21-year-old was considered to be the among the finest young players in the world. Naturally, there was a huge risk in drafting Federov given the fact the Soviets…communism or not…wouldn’t be willing to part with such a talented player with a stupendously bright future. Not to mention, they had no idea if Federov even wanted to leave the Soviet Union.
Regardless, Devellano consulted legendary Red Wing Steve Yzerman about Fedorov. Yzerman would end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame and is regarded as one the greatest players of his era and one the great Red Wings of all-time. Yzerman’s response to Devellano’s queries was to say simply “He’s better than me.”
That’s all Devellano and Ilitch needed to hear. Deciding the risk was worth the potential reward, Ilitch instructed Devellano to draft the best players available…no matter where they came from; communism or not…and he would take care of getting them to Detroit.
Following Ilitch’s order, Devellano acquired the NHL rights to Fedorov in the 4th round of the 1989 NHL Draft. This was higher than any Soviet player had ever been drafted before, but no other player had ever been successfully secured from the Soviet Union. When asked about the risk of not begin able to get Fedorov and therefore having wasted the draft pick, Devellano fell back on the conventional wisdom tin the NHL that most elite players were taken in the first three round.
“I used the theory, who are we gonna get here now in the 4th round from North America, really?”~Detroit Red Wings’ general manager Jim Devellano
Devellano followed up that 4th-round pick of Federov by doing the same in the 11th-round selecting a six-foot block of Soviet muscle named Vladimir Konstantinov. Being few years older than Federov, Konstantinov had established himself as a dominating defenseman already regarded as one of the best blue-liners in the game. The European style of hockey is not nearly and “rough-and-tumble” as is the North American version, but Konstantinov drew the eye of NHL scouts during the 1987 World Junior Championship when a brawl broke in a game between the Soviet Union and the Canadians.
“He [Konstantinov] was the only one of the Russians who fought back.”~ Detroit Red Wings’ scout Neil Smith
With the NHL rights to Federov and Konstantinov now secured, the focus now shifted in getting them to Detroit as Ilitch promised. Later in the summer of 1989, Red Wings’ executive vice-president Jim Lites contacted Detroit sportswriter Keith Gave to ask if he would be willing to pass a clandestine message to the two Soviet players. Gave was perfect candidate for such a mission as he was fluent in Russian and had a media credential that would allow him access to the players.
Gave accepted, and he accomplished this mission after an exhibition game between the Soviet nation team and an top-flight Finnish club held in Helsinki in August 1989. Gave managed to meet with Federov and Konstantinov, and during that encounter he slipped them each a message hidden in Red Wings’ media guides. The letters made it clear the Red Wings wanted both of them in Detroit and were willing to offer any means necessary to get the two Soviet stars over the wall.
Naturally, this would be a major move for both, so it shouldn’t be surprising they were initially reluctant to defect to Detroit. But over time and continued contact from Illitch, Sergei Fedorov finally decided to make the jump. Federov completed his defection on July 22, 1990 when the Soviet national team came to North America to play in the 1990 Goodwill Games. On this day, the Soviets played a game in the Portland (Oregon) Memorial Coliseum, after which Federov made a mid-night dash out the back of his hotel to a waiting car which spirited him off to the airport where Jim Lites was waiting with Mike Ilitch’s private jet. A few hours later, Federov was safely in Detroit.
The case of Konstantinov would prove to be far more difficult. Being a few year older than Federov meant Konstantinov had a wife and daughter whom he would not leave behind in the Soviet Union. Another reason he would not leave his family is he feared there would be government reprisals against them if he defected. Konstantinov was especially concerned about this as he was bound to a 25-year commitment to the Red Army as a hockey player. As a soldier, he held the rank of Captain and if he defected, the Soviet Union would consider him a felon for desertion. Not only did that leave his family at risk, his status as a felon would make him ineligible for a work visa in the United States, which would mean he could not play hockey professionally.
To this end, once Sergei Federov was in Detroit, he introduced Jim Lites to Valery Matveev. A long-time friend of Federov’s, Matveev was a Russian journalist who had also just come to Detroit. Matveev told Lites the only way around Konstantinov’s commitment to the Red Army was to find a way to get the Soviet government to grant a discharge to the hockey star, and the only way to do that was to convince the powers-that-be in Moscow that Konstantinov had no future on the ice.
After some discussion, a plan was devised to get the Red Army to believe Konstantinov had an inoperable form of cancer. To this end, Matveev set off for Moscow armed with a river of cash provided by Ilitch which he used to bribe six Russian doctors to diagnose and confirm that Konstantinov was seriously ill. The plan went without a hitch; Konstantinov was granted a discharge from the Red Army, and he and his family were allowed to travel to the United States, ostensibly as this was the only place with doctors equipped to treat his illness.
The idea was to get Konstantinov and his family out of the Soviet Union and to Detroit in time for the beginning of the Red Wings’ training camp in September of 1991. However, in August of that year, several hard-line old-school communists in the government staged a coup d’état to overthrow Soviet general secretary and premier Mikhail Gorbachev.
As a result, civil unrest broke out in the streets, the airports were closed, and there was a very real possibility that Konstantinov, his family, Matveev, and anybody involved in Konstantinov’s defection could fave a military court and subsequent firing squad. Acting quickly, Matveev got Konstantinov and his family out of the Soviet Union by train to Budapest, Hungary.
Once in the former Soviet Bloc nation, Matveev was able to secure asylum for Konstantinov and his family at the American embassy in Budapest. Because of where they were in the plan, the paperwork allowing Vladimir Konstantinov to enter the United States was already secured. Despite the fall of communism in Hungary two years earlier, it was feared there still may be a large number of operatives in the country loyal to the hard-line communists attempting to take power in Moscow who might kill Konstantinov in show of support.
Once again, Ilitch dispatched Jim Lites and his private jet to the rescue. Due to some procedural diplomatic stuff, Konstantinov’s family was not allowed to leave Hungary with him aboard Ilitch’s private jet, but two days later they were allowed to board a commercial flight to the United States where they were reunited with the former Soviet star.
The Moral of the Story:
Communism sucks so much it can be defeated by low-rent franchise pizza.
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