The Man Who Knew Too Much
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “far superior” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.
Title: A single crash of cymbals and how it rocked the lives of an American family.
Like many, I saw this version first, as a kid, and my recollection is of finding it perfectly enjoyable, while regarding Doris Day singing Whatever Will Be unnecessarily intrusive and slowing things down (which it is, and it does). With hindsight, the picture is revealed as one of the – if not the – most middling of his 1940s-50s zenith as a director in demand. It’s understandable that Hitch saw the potential in revisiting the material (first considering it in the 1940s) as it has an easily malleable template of the type that also explains the various iterations of The 39 Steps, or his later cut-and-paste, built from the set pieces up approach to North by Northwest.
However, the 1934 picture was tightly written and expertly paced. Hitch takes advantage of the melodramatic opportunities in husband James Stewart’s everyman Dr Ben Mckenna and wife Day’s professional singer Jo Conway and sketches out a lightly believable and playful relationship between them, but one entirely lacking the wit and get-up-and-go of Leslie Banks and Edna Best. Worse, it’s a malaise that extends to the supporting cast, who are at best serviceable. Essentially Hitch is trying to lay a “real” couple over an outlandish template, and the fit isn’t entirely seamless.
Jo: Ben, are we about to have our monthly fight?
Indeed, aside from the easy chemistry between Steward and Day, there’s little beyond the stars’ consummate professionalism to sell us on the pair. Day is actually very impressive outside of the usual romantic comedy pigeonhole, and Stewart is at his most laconic, even when he’s driven. They’re trying to get their son Hank back (a precious lad prone to inviting Daniel Gelin’s Louis Bernard over to tuck in on the family’s rampant snail population: “We tried everything to get rid of them. We never thought of a Frenchman”). This necessitates the curtailing of their Moroccan holiday in order to track him down in England. Indeed, the film’s most notable scene finds Doctor Jimmy drugging his wife before telling her the bad news about Hank. It’s a mesmerisingly shocking scene, as Jo rightly denounces him for denying her the opportunity to respond with her full faculties
Ben: I’ve got nothing to hide.
Jo: I’ve a feeling Mr Bernard does.
The Morocco set scenes have a certain flavour, and Louis’ death is suitably dramatic. Even if, as with all his colour films to a greater or lesser extent, the joins between studio and location are never less than jarring. It’s thirty minutes before Louis is stabbed, though (early scenes evidence their lack of cultural sophistication at a restaurant). And it’s an hour before Stewart locates Ambrose Chappell.
Louis: A man… a statesman… is going to be killed… assassinated, in London. Soon… very soon. Tell them in London… Ambrose Chappell. Chappell.
Well, the first Ambrose Chappell. Remember the marvellous sequence infiltrating the sun-worshippers coven in the first? Here, Stewart gets it wrong first time out, accusing a taxidermist of stealing his son (a nice slice of misdirection on Hitch and John Michael Hayes’ part; Hayes wasn’t allowed sight or script of the original, drawing solely on the director recounting the plot as a guide). When he arrives at an actual church, the results are disappointingly austere and flavourless, with only the leads “singing” their discussion of what to do next to enliven matters.
Ben: You not only ask the questions, you answer them too. Don’t you?
They have tracked down child snatchers Lucy (Brenda de Banzie) and Edward (Bernard Miles) Drayton, however. Both performers are expectedly solid, and de Banzie conveys Lucy’s reluctance for harm to come to young Hank (Christopher Olsen) convincingly, but they nevertheless come across as a couple who shouldn’t have tried to compete in the big leagues, meaning there’s a severe lack of dramatic heft regarding the overall threat.
Ambassador: In a few moments I have to welcome our prime minister as my guest of honour, when I had hoped and expected that he would be totally unable to attend.
Truffaut seemed to fixate on the Albert Hall climax – well, first climax, since the action then moves to the embassy – as proof of the remake’s superiority over the original. Seemingly on the thin basis that Stewart gets in on the action here too. Yes, he does, but all this really entails is frightening the shooter into toppling over a balcony. The set piece is undoubtedly more polished, with the extended staging of the cantata – conducted by Hermann no less, and advertised as such outside – but I actually prefer Best’s lone gun improvisation (before saving the day with her lone gunmanship). It certainly beats Doris sobbing to herself until Stewart rocks up.
Hayes came up trumps for Hitch with Rear Window, but I’m less convinced of the subsequent To Catch a Thief and The Trouble with Harry. With The Man Who Knew Too Much, there’s some nice, low-key observation in the couple’s relationship, but the plot mechanics are insufficiently oiled and there’s only the sparse memorable line (“Don’t you realise that Americans dislike having their children stolen?” chides Mogens Wieth’s ambassador).
Ben: Will it chew any better than it tears?
Pauline Kael didn’t pen a full review for the remake, but referred to it as a “stodgier version” of the original. She wasn’t wrong. The Man Who Knew Too Much manages to be both rather bland and also overwrought. Whatever Will Be was a no-brainer as a hit tie-in single – shrewd fellow, that Hitchcock – but it underlines the kind of manufactured studio product this was, thirty years before such an approach had become the norm.