James StewartYves BrainvilleHillary BrookeAlan Mowbray
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Medium: film
Remake of: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
Year: 1956
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: John Michael Hayes, Charles Bennett, D.B. Wyndham-Lewis
Keywords: Oscar-winning, remake, The Five Lost Hitchcocks
Country: USA
Actor: James Stewart, Doris Day, Brenda De Banzie, Bernard Miles, Ralph Truman, Daniel Gelin, Mogens Wieth, Alan Mowbray, Hillary Brooke, Christopher Olsen, Reggie Nalder, Richard Wattis, Noel Willman, Alix Talton, Yves Brainville, Carolyn Jones
Language: English, French [occasionally in Morocco]
Format: 120 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049470/
Website category: Hitchcock
Review date: 7 July 2009
Alfred Hitchcock made two films called The Man Who Knew Too Much. He famously told Francois Truffaut that he thought his 1934 version was the work of a talented amateur, while his 1956 remake was the work of a professional. Does that make it better? I've also seen claims that Hitchcock preferred the earlier one because it wasn't so polished, although I'm not sure who to believe on that one.
Personally, I don't think there's enough to swing it clearly one way or the other. They're telling the same story, but they feel different enough that they're both worth watching in their own right. The 1934 film has better characters, with all due respect to James Stewart, but the 1956 film doesn't end with that boring shoot-out. The remake's also longer. Much longer. We're talking 120 minutes as opposed to 75, with almost all the additional material seemingly set in Morocco.
I don't want to go on about the 1934 film too much, if only since it has its own review. This version is a much more expensive Technicolour adventure, starring two huge Hollywood stars in James Stewart and Doris Day. I'm not the greatest fan of Day, but when she travelled to London to shoot some of her location scenes, word leaked out to her fans and there was such pandemonium that she needed a police escort and she wasn't allowed to stay in her hotel. She was huge back then. This film also contains her Oscar-winning signature song and biggest hit of her career, Que Sera Sera, although ironically at first she refused to record it as a "forgettable children's song". Her performance is good and she sings like an angel, but unfortunately this is the Fifties and she's playing second fiddle to Stewart. I'm afraid I lost patience with her during the opera scene. 1934's Edna Best would have flattened her. Other lesser actors include Bernard Miles, who again is doing well, except that he's labouring under the handicap of not being Peter Lorre. All films are weakened if they don't have Peter Lorre. This is the law.
James Stewart on the other hand is, well, James Stewart. He's one of the two actors who could be said to be an improvement on the first film. I like Leslie Banks, but Stewart has star quality. The other of those two actors I enjoyed here is one Reggie Malder, who looks like Pete Postlethwaite and is playing a skull-faced assassin. Admittedly about 70% of what I liked about him is simply his face, but that doesn't mean he's not great to watch.
The film begins with our heroes on holiday in Morocco. This I liked a lot. It's a bit of a travelogue and it goes on forever compared with the original's shooting contest in the French alps, but our leads have enough charisma that it's fun just watching them explore what's clearly the real North Africa. It's exotic. It made me want to go there. James Stewart gets a bit of American on Holiday comedy and does well with it, although you'd think he should have been more familiar with this kind of thing since he was supposedly stationed at an army field hospital in Casablanca during World War Two. He's a doctor, by the way.
Soon the plot is under way. A nice Frenchman introduces himself and Doris Day makes herself look prickly, paranoid and possibly even mildly xenophobic by being suspicious of him, until we discover that she was absolutely right. Amusingly Hitchcock is capable of slipping blatant clues past you without tripping your Plot Alert detectors, since we all know he's also capable of outright cheating. That policeman in Psycho, anyone? There's fun to be had in seeing the ebb and flow of who we're supposedly trusting at any moment.
There's also lots of French, much of it spoken slowly and simply by an Englishman. I'm having a weekend in Paris later this month and to my surprise, this was good language revision.
After a while the action moves to England, where the police are likeable but not particularly useful. Everything moves along nicely, with only one slight hiccup where I was expected to recognise two people as the same characters we'd seen before in Morocco. Maybe I've got a blind spot for that kind of thing, but that slightly threw me. Bernard Miles I might perhaps have spotted, but I'd have never nailed Brenda de Banzie in a million years if Stewart and Day hadn't identified her for me. Another niggle was that the man being targeted for assassination comes across as the kind of pleasant old buffer whose presence or absence won't make a lick of difference to anything, but the bad guys want him out of the way and I suppose that'll have to do.
The remake's one big improvement is its ending. The original has a big gun battle which is impressively filmed for its era, but boring to watch. To my delight, Hitchcock has realised that that was rubbish and so here we've got something new. The baddies are hiding behind diplomatic immunity in a London embassy and the authorities are powerless. Stewart and Day are on their own. It's still not a particularly good ending, to be honest, but it's a whole lot better than bullet-popping tedium. Unfortunately the problem with this is that the film never tells us which nation is the root of all these troubles. This is coy and annoying. We go to their embassy, for crying out loud! How realistic is it for the film never to mention or ever hint at who we're dealing with? Everyone at the embassy speaks like a gentleman, has no discernable ethnicity and would seem to be as British as me. Perhaps in Hitchcock's universe, the Home Counties have seceded?
There's also a little bad dubbing here and there.
This film is one of the "five lost Hitchcocks", unavailable for decades because Hitchcock bought back the rights and left them in his will to his daughter. They were released to cinemas in 1984 after a thirty-year absence. It's neither his best nor his richest work, but it's still a very enjoyable movie and one of the few Hitchcock remakes that even his fans would admit is worth watching. Well, d'oh. I'm not sure this is the ideal Doris Day movie, but she does respectable work with what she's given and I was surprised in a good way by her song. Maybe it's a little slow from time to time, but does it need to be said that I thought this Alfred Hitchcock film was good?