08 January 2009

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 120 mins.

If the question is which of Alfred Hitchcock's two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much is better, the answer is not as clear cut as some would have you believe. Both films have their defenders – although to be fair, the lion's share tend to side with the 1934 British version instead of the 1956 Hollywood remake. Both films are successful thrillers, strumming bizarreness at the right moments and twisting suspense at others. But I have never found either film to be unequivocally great; interestingly enough, too, both films succeed and fall short in rather parallel ways. If it were possible to go in and seamlessly splice the two films together, you might just have yourself a Hitchcock masterpiece.

The 1956 film is biographically notable because it is the only film Hitchcock remade, although that fact alone doesn't necessarily make it a complete anomaly in the director's work. Ever since Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood in 1940, he'd been itching to return to one of his earlier British films. His overwhelming preference was The Lodger – a 1927 silent feature that was officially his third film but in many ways his true debut as a suspense director. His dream was that a new version of The Lodger would be his first film in color, and "color for a reason, not just color to knock people's eyes out." He wanted the yellow fog of London and blood red liquids on white fabrics. But during those early Hollywood days, he discussed as frequently the notion of remaking The Man Who Knew Too Much (the film he and many others consider his breakthrough), and the project began picking up steam when he imagined James Stewart in the lead.

There was desire within him to do more with the material, but the remake wasn't motivated entirely by artistic desires. Hitchcock's friend Angus MacPhail, who had helped in developing the 1934 version in Britain, had become a drunkard and fallen into debt. Hitchcock had given MacPhail money directly and also contributed to a friendly group collection to help pay down MacPhail's debt, but he wanted to get MacPhail an American screenwriting credit so that he might be able to get into a screenwriting guild and acquire some health insurance. MacPhail brainstormed and imagined scenes with Hitchcock, but his final contribution to the film wouldn't even be credited (he would receive credit on Hitchcock's next film, The Wrong Man). Instead, screenwriting credit would go to John Michael Hayes, his fourth and final collaboration with the director. Hayes had written his three previous films by himself, and his ego was bruised.

The remake is grander, curiously darker, more complex, and more technically accomplished. It is also bloated, occasionally too cheeky, and, with its plot-based emphasis on a pop song, perhaps too slick for its own good. Stewart and Doris Day are Ben and Jo McKenna, American tourists vacationing in Morocco. They accidentally stumble onto the knowledge of a planned assassination, and their son is taken hostage by conspirators as leverage for their silence. Released during Hitchcock's most productive and best period of film-making, of course there is enough to enjoy in The Man Who Knew Too Much to make it easy to watch. There are a number of memorable scenes here, including confusion about a specific name that leads Stewart to a bizarre taxidermist's office to investigate the whereabouts of his son.

The '34 version and the '56 version both contain the famous assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall concert, but the version here is superior. Because of a tight budget in the British film, Hitchcock had built an eye-trick replica of the Hall, but for the remake he was given permission to film on location. The sequence was lengthened (Arthur Benjamin actually added minutes to his cantata), and the suspense is brought to a brilliantly new level. Anyone interested in Hitchcock should be required to watch his expert handling of the scene: 12 minutes, 124 shots, not a single line of dialogue as George Tomasini's impeccable editing and the crescendoing cantata curl the suspense around and around, tighter and tighter, until the moment it seems like the world is about to be shattered and then everything is broken with a scream from Day, a witness to the crime. (Look for Bernard Herrmann, in a cameo as the orchestra conductor.)

The strength to the remake, besides its polished veneer, is greater depth and emotion to the main characters. While I don't prefer Day to Edna Best, the mother from the '34 film, there isn't much doubt that Day is given more room to explore the psychology of a mother whose child is taken from her. I'm not much of a fan of her "Que Sera Sera" number – it works in terms of the plot, even if I don't like the music – and ironically, although she would embrace it as her signature song later in life, she resisted it at first when it was played for her during production. (The song, written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, would nevertheless win an Oscar – one more than Hitchcock ever won.) Stewart is solid, although there's a case to be made that The Man Who Knew Too Much is his weakest collaboration with Hitchcock; he still exudes more charisma than Leslie Banks, who occupied the same role previously.

What is lacking is the presence of a meaty villain. The threatening storm cloud coming from the interior of the European continent in the 1930s provided plenty of spookiness to the villains in Hitchcock's British version, and although Peter Lorre might have been insurmountable to recreate, someone with his beguiling weirdness would have helped even out the cast here. The villains for the remake are faintly veiled to be communists, but the threat isn't as potent and they aren't as wicked. But while some fun villains would improve the periphery of the film, the chief problem with the remake is that there are about ten to twenty minutes of inadvertent fat that should have wound up on the cutting room floor. Some of it is smart (the expanded Royal Albert Hall sequence, to be sure), but most of it is quite tedious, including too much front-loaded exposition that weigh the film's start.

Often it is attributed to Hitchcock that he preferred the large-scale Hollywood release to his shoe-string British version, but that's not the whole story. The source of the quote is the director's book-length interview with Francois Truffaut, who insisted "the remake is by far superior to the original." Hitchcock's uneasy reply was: "Let's say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional." However, notice the diplomatic circumvention of Truffaut's declarative review, and notice the adjective talented on amateur and the lack of an adjective on professional. Later, Hitchcock would say the primary difference between the films is that he was "audience-conscious" with the remake and not with the first, which, considering that the director was at the height of his powers, is quite logical. Cutting through Hitchcock's wordplay, however, I think there is a sense that he was satisfied with both films, but perhaps they were not among his own favorites. And what can I say – I enjoy, but don't love, both films and can totally sympathize.


MovieMan0283 08 January, 2009  

I've never seen this version, but have never been very crazy about the '34 version and remain somewhat surprised that it's considered his first great movie.

T.S. 08 January, 2009  

I'm very much on board with that sentiment. I think '34 is good, just as I think '56 is good, but I've never been part of the love-train. And I do agree with the reservation in whether '34 is his first "great" film. For my money, the first great Hitchcock film is probably Blackmail (1929), with the first masterpiece, or great-great film, naturally being The 39 Steps.

the editor., 09 January, 2009  

Hi! T.S.,
I totally agree with your opinion about... and your review of... both films!...there is no room for disagreement!...and yes,I do "fall into the camp" that tend to favor the 1934 British version.(But, keep in mind that my opinion about Hitchcock's 1934 version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" being the more interesting and thrilling of the two films was just recently formulated.)Btw, This week-end, I plan to watch "both" of Hitch's film(s) again!...maybe this time with a more "critical eye."

dcd ;-)

Movie Production 11 January, 2009  

Its a great review. I feel both the versions of the movie, have their own speciality.


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