Alfred Hitchcock once discussed both of his versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much with François Truffaut, in a very lengthy interview that Truffaut claimed lasted for 50 hours. Hitchcock describes his first imagining of the film, from 1934, as the work of a “talented amateur” and the remake, which he himself created over two decades later, as the work of a professional. Perhaps this much is true. Both films are completely different in more than just setting and style. Hitchcock, it is commonly believed, still preferred his original version despite its flaws; perhaps because of its flaws. What was once a scrambled and slightly scatty labour of love was then developed into a more refined piece of work in 1956. The 1934 version was desperately English. Hitchcock’s remake is in no doubt an American film. Here, the story is moved to Marrakesh and it is within the sandy setting of Morocco that a large chunk of the story takes place. The film opens with Bernard Herman’s exceptional score and a visual of the percussion section of an orchestra. As two large cymbals are raised and clashed together, the following words appear; words that inform us what this film is all about…“A single crash of cymbals and how it rocked the lives of an American family.” From the offset, Hitchcock’s re-imagining is heightened by an intensity and drama that the original lacks.
The American family in question are in fact Mr. and Mrs. McKenna, (Ben and Jo), and their son Hank. After Ben and Jo find themselves the witnesses to a murder and are burdened with the unwanted knowledge of classified information regarding an upcoming assassination attempt, Hank is kidnapped. Both Jo and Ben must attempt to maintain their silence in order to protect their son whilst trying to rescue him and prevent the assassination. Hitchcock’s remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much is forty five minutes longer than the original. With two hours in which to tell its story, the 1956 version is able to take its time, allowing us to get to know the characters; understanding them and rooting for their survival. We are not thrown into the narrative but permitted to calmly accompany it as it develops gradually. There is an emphasis upon the unity of the family that we don’t experience in the original version. Here, there is time to get to know the family, and Hitchcock’s smartest move was to dedicate more time to the portrayal of suffering, when the family unit is torn apart. There is more sincerity in the reaction of Ben and Jo which is highlighted by their deeper personal involvement in trying to find their son.
The McKenna’s are played by Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. James Stewart appears in a handful of my favourite Hitchcock films. Prior to The Man Who Knew Too Much he had already made Rope and Rear Window, one of Stewart and Hitchcock’s greatest triumphs. He would go on to act in Vertigo two years later, which is arguably still Hitchcock’s most respected and talked about work. Stewart is as “Jimmy Stewart-esque” as ever in The Man Who Knew Too Much. This is just fine by me. Combine this with the charm and warmth of Doris Day and you have a complex thriller starring two Hollywood stars in their absolute prime. Of course, Day’s character lacks the humour of some of her other famous roles. There isn’t the cheek of Calamity Jane or the comical fierceness of Jan in Pillow Talk, which she would make the following year. Still, Day gives a marvellous performance as the protective and intelligent mother, wife and actress. Sadly, the remake is missing the villainous presence that Peter Lorre’s character brought to the film in 1934. The remake is undoubtedly a better film. It is a well-crafted and refined suspenseful thriller which still harks back to the original, particularly in the final scenes at The Royal Albert Hall. As much as I admire and would recommend this adaptation, there is something humbly imperfect about the original that makes it that little bit more favourable. Perhaps it is the English woman within me just being utterly biased.
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