The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)


*. There are two unavoidable questions: Why did he do it? and How does it measure up to the original?
*. I’m not sure why he did it. He’d always thought of doing a remake, at least as early as 1940, when he pitched the idea to Selznick. But he seems not to have been all that keen, and was apparently mainly trying to help out a friend (Angus MacPhail, who co-wrote the original) while fulfilling his contract with Paramount for another picture.
*. These, however, are practical considerations. What creative reasons did he have for remaking this specific film? Here’s where I’m not sure. He didn’t really want to do a “remake” but only wanted to keep the basic plot and the Albert Hall sequence. Indeed, when he had John Michael Hayes write the script he only told him the outline and specifically instructed him not to watch the 1934 version.
*. My guess is that he just wanted to go back to the Albert Hall and do it bigger, louder, and in colour. Better? Well, that’s the other question.


*. How do the two films measure up against each other? Francois Truffaut thought the remake “by far superior to the original.” Hitchcock himself accounted for the difference by saying “that the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.”
*. I’m not convinced by Hitchcock’s explanation. In 1934 he was already a pro. When he was later asked to clarify the distinction he said that “the difference would be in the original The Man Who Knew Too Much I wasn’t audience-conscious, whereas in the second one, I was.”
*. Again, I’m unconvinced. Hitchcock was about as audience-conscious a director as there’s ever been right from the beginning.
*. I’m of the opinion that not only is the remake nowhere near as good a movie as the original, it’s a downright bad movie judged on its own.
*. In a head-to-head comparison it fails mightily. To start with the big things: the villains aren’t nearly as compelling. Of course Bernard Miles was never going to be able to equal Peter Lorre’s Abbott. That was a given. But Miles’s wife is only a weak, sentimental version of Abbott’s dour nurse, and she unbelievably gives the game away at the end.
*. The bad guys no longer present a clear political threat. The Cold War was nothing like Europe in the ’30s, and while the film originally had a stronger anti-communist bent it’s hard to see much of that in the finished film because references to communists and what was going on in Hungary were taken out by Paramount. So instead of a rather wimpy gang of fellow travelers all we have is a ludicrous bit of Ruritanian intrigue.


*. Then there is the running time. The remake is 45 minutes longer and is usually criticized for not being as well paced. Which is pretty obviously the case.
*. The real problem with the longer running time, however, is that all the extra stuff just makes the film that much messier. As is well known, Hitchcock wasn’t interested in plausibility. If the story didn’t make sense, so what? In a 75-minute movie based on such a philosophy, less is more. Here we get too much information not adding up, and too many unconvincing plot points.
*. Does it really never occur to Dr. McKenna that “Ambrose Chapell” might be a place? It was the first thing I thought of. And why he never confides in the police is something even his wife can’t understand, much less the audience. I mean, isn’t he an ex-military man? One could go on endlessly. More movie just means more confusion and lack of continuity.


*. The first film was funny in an understated way. The remake is painfully un-funny. The dinner in Marrakesh is a drag. The slapstick fight in the taxidermist’s shop is stupid. The joking banter about how the McKenna’s travels have been financed by various operations performed back home might have been funny in 1956, but for audiences today, especially those with some experience of public health care, it’s downright offensive.
*. Why change the kidnapped child from a daughter to a son? Nova Pilbeam was terrific as a wilful little troublemaker. Freckled Hank seems far less capable. His singing “Que Sera, Sera” with his mother in their hotel room was another cringeworthy moment.


*. I guess I have to mention that song. Actually, I like it. It’s a nice little tune. But I wonder: what does the audience at the embassy think of it? They sure don’t seem to be enjoying it much in the cutaways. Was this deliberate? A way of showing that this kind of music isn’t their thing?
*. I mentioned in my notes on the 1934 version how I didn’t think the musical cue for the assassination had been properly prepared for. In his interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock insisted that it had, but I don’t think he really believed this. Here he does more ground work to set it up, giving us a preview of the concerto and the one-note man with the cymbals under the opening titles, and then having Mr. Drayton play the phonograph with the musical cue for us not once (as in the original) but three times.
*. I do like the Albert Hall sequence, but it’s about the only part of the film I enjoy. The rest of the film seems terribly awkward. The rear projection for the Marrakesh scenes looks fake, and when Louis falls to the ground in the dirty street we then cut to a scene where he is clearly lying on a bare studio floor. This made me wince.
*. Cringing, wincing . . . these are not good reactions. And don’t even get me started on how good ol’ Doc McKenna decides the best thing to do is to drug his wife before telling her what happened to their son.
*. The opening titles are portentous nonsense (” A single crash of cymbals and how it rocked the lives of an American family.”). The final line is a throwaway gag that flops (“Sorry we were gone so long, but we had to pick up Hank!”). Why did he do it? I’m still not sure.


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