A remake of his 1934 picture of the same name, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much finds the director pairing once more with James Stewart and revisiting material he had wanted to tackle since the Selznick days.
But with this stroke of foreign fear-mongering and downhome privilege, Hitch seems to have finally delivered the goods. This vision of The Man Who Knew Too Much takes the original Lorre-stoked dread and pushes it under the lights of congenial Americana, with the director tinkering with notions of who the audience – and the protagonists – can trust.
Stewart is Dr. Ben McKenna and Doris Day is his wife Jo. She is a famous singer. They are vacationing in Morocco with their son Hank (Christopher Olsen) and come in contact with a seemingly amiable Frenchman (Daniel Gelin) on a bus. After a series of apparently suspicious events, the McKennas once again run into the Frenchman – but this time, he’s been murdered.
Before he dies, the man passes Ben a message. Afterwards, a man telephones the McKennas and informs them that Hank has been abducted. If Ben says anything about the Frenchman’s last words, the kid gets it. Just like that, the McKennas find themselves involved in a plot to assassinate a foreign Prime Minister (Alexis Bobrinskoy).
The Man Who Knew Too Much starts by setting up the characters as familiar faces in a strange land. The audience is asked to identify with these American tourists through a series of semi-comical events, including Ben’s attempts to sit and eat in a restaurant. This sort of bumbling fish-out-of-water material may initially seem like dated groundwork, but Hitch weaves it through.
Casting Stewart and Day in the lead roles furthers this notion. As two quintessential Americans, it’s clear who the McKennas would put their trust in. But when the “strange” foreigners turn out to be harmless, it’s clear that Hitch and screenwriter John Michael Hayes have laid the foundation for a reason.
Placing one of the main villains (Bernard Miles) in the position of a preacher and ensuring that the other (Brenda De Banzie) has a more humane side once again ensures that the issue of trust wavers. Very few people actually help the McKennas along the way and, because the criminals want secrecy and not money, their affluence is of little assistance.
In establishing these constructs, Hitchcock is once again reinforcing his worldview: nobody can be trusted. There are even cracks in Ben and Jo’s relationship, most notably exposed when he drugs her to tell her about Hank (note her comment about “taking too many pills”). Jo even mentions that they are about to have their “monthly fight” and earlier brings up the idea of having another baby.
That this assassination plot can come out of nowhere and encroach on the lifestyles of so-called “normal” people plays into Hitchcock’s waiting hands beautifully and makes this version of The Man Who Knew Too Much that much more adept at communicating the director’s vision.
With this more “human” of underpinnings, The Man Who Knew Too Much volleys ahead with the Royal Albert Hall climax and the church scuffle (sans chair-throwing, sadly). Hitch hits the expected marks, including the vividly suspenseful cymbal symbolism – this time with bigger cymbals – and Day’s shriek for good measure.
The 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is more ambiguous and less personal, but it also features a stronger villain thanks to Peter Lorre’s portrayal and seems more adversarial in nature. The protagonists are stronger ad less human, however, which reveals the multipart strengths in the remake.
Which is better? That’s hard to say. Both films should be considered as individual markers in Hitchcock’s career. He is more masterful as a director in 1956 and the technology is more advanced, but one suspects that the remake is a little more stuffed. It’s nearly 45 minutes longer and features more mandatory flippancy, but that’s also highly indicative of the timeframe.
While the original is steadier in tone, the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much is more unfailingly human. A great picture with big-time movie stars and stunning sets, including some vibrant location shooting in Marrakesh and a hilarious sequence in a taxidermy shop, this surely is the “version made by a professional.”