I’ve spent the last couple of days with Hitchcock and my classics marathon continues today with a double bill of his films. Hitchcock originally made the British The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 but when David O. Selznick bought the rights to the film in 1941 he urged Hitchcock to make an American version. Only in 1955 did Hitchcock feel a remake was appropriate, using the modern technologies of Technicolor and VistaVision to update the film.
Both the 1934 and 1956 versions essentially follow a similar plot. In each case, a married couple traveling abroad witness a murder. The victim gives them a clue about a future assassination, urging them to help prevent it. Before the couple are able to do so, their child is kidnapped, forcing them to keep quiet while they search for the assassins alone. In both versions the film reaches its incredible climax during an orchestral performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Hitchcock’s 1956 version makes excellent use of Technicolour, moving the action from Switzerland’s St Moritz in his 1934 film to the colourful location of Marrakech. This more exotic location also brings with it added tension as the American couple struggle to understand the foreign culture.
Hitchcock used his favoured screenwriter, John Michael Hayes, for the 1956 version forbidding him to watch the original and instead informing him of the main plot points himself. What results is a set of very different characters. In 1956 we see Benjamin (James Stewart) and Jo Conway (Doris Day) with an undercurrent of marital tension – Jo having given up a career on the stage – that gives the film added depth and intrigue.
The 1934 film is a dark, black and white thriller brimming with sinister undertones. In this original version the child is female, kidnapped by a gang of mostly male villains. Peter Lorre is menacing as the gang’s leader and the threat faced by the child is much more ominous and harrowing than in the updated 1956 version which uses a male child cared for by a more sympathetic female crook.
In both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the female heroine is a strong character. In 1934, the mother, Jill Lawrence (Edna Best), is a markswoman competing at an international level and plays a significant role in bringing the kidnappers to justice. In 1956, the seemingly masculine attributes of Jill are replaced by Jo Conway’s (Doris Day) more feminine theatrical pursuits and she ultimately outwits the villains using her singing voice. Nevertheless, Jo is a perceptive and intelligent woman who identifies early on that something is amiss, ‘Mr Bernard is a very mysterious man’ she comments after their first meeting. Her astute comments and observations work wonderfully in building the tension. It is in this casting of the lead couple that the 1956 remake really shows its strength. Doris Day and James Stewart are compelling as the grieving and desperate parents, giving an emotional performance that fills The Man Who Knew Too Much with jeopardy and peril.
The remake is also more overtly comedic. Hitchcock uses humour early on to make his characters appealing. The couples’ son, Hank (Christopher Olsen), owns some gems of dialogue, ‘If you ever get hungry, our garden back home is full of snails. We tried everything to get rid of them. We never thought of a Frenchman!’ he says to the French Louis Bernard. Hitchcock beautifully relieves the tension with lighthearted moments throughout the film, including a quick and very amusing final scene that should not be missed.
But Hitchcock was not afraid to retain elements that worked so well in his black and white original. There’s an amusing scene where the characters sing their thoughts to each other in church so as not to appear suspicious, that appears beautifully in both versions. Hitchcock also shows us the assassin’s gun emerging from the curtain at the Royal Albert Hall in very similar shots that builds suspense upon suspense. In his remake, Hitchcock goes to town in this climactic scene showing us 124 shots over twelve minutes, all accompanied by the music from the orchestra and without any dialogue. Progressive close-ups of the sheet music, waiting cymbals, the orchestra, the assassin and the gun build to an intense crescendo. It shows Hitchcock’s complete mastery of the suspense genre and is a must see scene.
The original film is backed entirely by sounds that occur within the film – that only the characters can hear – it creates a realistic atmosphere that attracts tension. It’s a clever move that Hitchcock develops in 1956 as the film’s soundtrack becomes incorporated in the action that his characters are experiencing.
There are come clear marks of genius in Hitchcock’s original film – as Jill Lawrence faints from shock when her child is kidnapped, Hitchcock uses some short shots of the child’s brooch, Swiss mountain scenery, and a cityscape to show how far the child has traveled. Yet in 1956 we see a much more polished film. Hitchcock’s positioning of the camera and building of shots to create the utmost suspense is expert. At the taxidermists, Stewart is filmed with the head of a vicious tiger clearly in view, suggesting his imminent danger, while in church, Hitchcock lingers on the sermon, using close-ups to show the fear building in the eyes of his characters.
The 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is suspenseful, subtly making it’s audience feel unnerved and uncomfortable – a scene in the dentist’s chair is particularly uneasy. This original feels grittier with sinister villains and a more exciting, if more predictable, finale. The remake is evidently much more Hollywood but is also better cast (with the exception of Peter Lorre) and a finer example of Hitchcock’s talent. Witty and sharp, Hayes’ 1956 script is delightful. As Hitchcock himself famously said, ‘Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional’.