People perhaps scoff at the idea of a remake today, even if it’s a director redoing his own film. But Alfred Hitchcock is not George Lucas, and when he chooses to remake “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and both versions are equally great, that’s the sign of a master director.
Hitchcock said in an interview with Francois Truffaut that the original 1934 version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” was the work of an amateur whereas the 1956 remake was the work of a professional.
That seems believable, as there are only so many liberties Hitchcock takes in tweaking the story between versions. Each is about a family who has befriended a man who has just been killed. In his dying words, he reveals to them a need to deliver precious information regarding a diplomatic assassination attempt to the British consulate. But before they talk, each family is informed that if they say a word, they will never see their child again.
The newer, American version starring James Stewart and Doris Day is certainly a more polished film, making use of bold color cinematography and elaborate travelogue sets in Morocco and Britain. But Hitch was hardly an amateur when he made this in 1934. He was already building a reputation as a great auteur of the silent screen now breaking out into sound, and he would even make his first masterpiece, “The 39 Steps,” a year later. That said, the quality shows in the original as well, and Hitch actually preferred the original because of its rough edges. It’s an unpolished gem rather than a processed studio thriller.
And while both films are arguably equally good, the battle will rage on deciding which is best and which history will remember more.
Superficially, the original is 45 minutes shorter than the remake and is in so many ways a more immediate, instantly gratifying thriller. The remake on the other hand has star power on its side, a big budget and the inclusion of the Oscar winning song “Que Sera Sera.”
If you ask me why Hitchcock chose to remake his film, the climax of the original is a messy, long and loud shootout. If you want a more elegant conclusion to your thriller, it doesn’t get much more elegant than the staple song by Doris Day. When the song first appears in the movie, it struck me as a throwaway number, a write-off moment to get Doris Day singing.
But Hitchcock is not so lazy, and as is true of both films, his masterful construction of details comes into play in the climax. As soon as Day sits down at the piano and begins singing “Que Sera Sera,” you can bet that the little boy will whistle as loud as he can to let her know he’s there.
Even the ending I just complained about in the original has its clever quirks. The first comes when the kidnapped girl is being chased on the roof of a house by the assassin, and her mother (Edna Best), a pro marksman, snakes the killing shot in to the assassin without harming her daughter. Her skill is such a miniscule plot detail established at the start of the film, and the fact that I had forgotten about it is a testament to Hitch’s charms as a storyteller.
The other involves the villain Abbott’s (Peter Lorre) signature calling card. We first know who the kidnapper is based on Abbott’s chiming pocket watch. It’s a cute little signifier, and the fact that it comes back time and again to build suspense and lead to his demise is priceless.
Hearing that noise, I began to think how perfectly Hitchcock had adapted to the use of sound. Watching “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” it would almost seem as if there were no learning curve between silent and talkies for Hitch. He can now use sound to build tension or even cue a witty gag. Take a scene in which the hero Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) makes a trip to a dentist’s office to find his child. At first we hear painful screaming from inside the room and realize it’s just a toothache, but we’re soon chilled by the amount of power that dentist holds.
And the way in which Hitchcock then silences that dentist shows why he was such a strong silent director. The shot placement and silent execution seems very much of the era. Even glimpses of Peter Lorre’s face as he’s smoking a cigarette could’ve been some of the finest, most iconic images of the silent era had it belonged to it.
Peter Lorre is also the standout from both films. Even though this was his first English speaking film and he had to learn many of his lines phonetically, Lorre proves to be one of Hitchcock’s best villains, leaps and bounds better than the 1956 version’s Edward Drayton. He’s so wonderfully devilish in the part, and I feel as if Hitchcock should’ve considered recasting him.
I really have praised the original a lot. At a brisk 75 minutes, there’s no waiting for great juicy suspense, even if it minimizes on plot development. This is not so in the ’56 version, but there is much to admire about the remake and value over the original.
Hitch really allows his characters breathing room in the remake, and he peppers in a lot of humor into the film. There’s a short sequence where Stewart struggles to sit properly on a small sofa in a Moroccan restaurant, or in the magnificent orchestra scene inside the Albert Hall, Hitchcock plays up the importance of the symbols as a cue, and he even throws in a visual gag when we see the musician’s music that reads nothing but a big crash at the end.
This scene lasts nearly 12 silent minutes in the remake, and he truly expands on all his set pieces, even if they seemed perfect and tight in the original. The original shows the performance from the perspective of Mrs. Lawrence as she begins to go delusional and lose focus knowing what is about to happen. From this we get a wonderful fade into the barrel of the gun, and although this isn’t recreated in the remake, both scenes are epic, and the remake even offers a greater payoff with the death of the assassin.
The remake likewise has stealthy precision in the church scene, and we can see how much the camera is a tool of the suspense. The one added scene is when Stewart’s character goes on a wild goose chase looking for the man he feels may have kidnapped their son. It turns out he should’ve been looking for a building rather than a man, and this little game plays to the remake’s feeling of psychological uncertainty.
Whereas the original merely asks if someone is willing to choose the life of their daughter over another World War, the remake deals more with Hitchcock’s standard trope of the innocent man in a sticky situation. He seems to say, “Now that you have this secret information and you already had suspicions, how does that affect your insecurities?” It’s a much more psychologically deep story that has ramifications beyond whether or not they actually get their child back.
The sad and perhaps ironically terrific thing is, just about neither of these movies could even crack Hitchcock’s top 10 greatest films. What other director is great enough to be able to make the same great film twice and still come up short of his masterpieces?