WHICH IS BETTER: The Man Who Knew Too Much

Very generally, The Man Who Knew Too Much is about an assassination, a kidnapping, and an ordinary man who is forced to do extraordinary things to save someone he loves, yet the two versions have a number of quite obvious differences.

The original begins in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) and his wife, Jill (Edna Best), are there on vacation with their daughter, Betty (Nova Pilbeam). There, they meet a Frenchman, Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay). He is assassinated, while dancing with Jill, but not before he passes to her a secret: A British diplomat is to be murdered. In order to ensure their silence in this matter, a man, Abbott (Peter Lorre), kidnaps Betty and informs Bob that she will be killed if he informs the authorities. So Bob and Jill go to England to try to stop the murder and save their daughter.

The remake is similar in many ways, but a number of plot points are different. For example, the child of the main couple, who are now known as Dr. Ben (James Stewart) and Jo (Doris Day) McKenna, is a boy. The film’s opening scenes take place in Morocco, instead of St. Moritz. A few scenes are cut (including the original’s climactic shootout), while quite a few are added (the remake is 45 minutes longer). On the whole, however, the 1956 version’s plot doesn’t diverge too drastically from its source.

Hitchcock reportedly (and when I say “reportedly,” I mean that’s what I read on Wikipedia) remade this film because he was unhappy with the quality of the 1934 version. It’s not hard to understand why. In terms of story, the film is on solid ground, but it just looks and feels so (dare I say) amateurish. That’s not to say it’s bad (on the contrary, I found it quite entertaining). But the sound is very low-quality, and visually, it’s quite grainy. In other words, it’s an OLD movie.

The 1956 version does precisely what remakes should do: Improve upon an original’s weak spots. It’s a gorgeous effort, a Technicolor dream. The change of scenery to Morocco is welcome, and the insights into its culture are nice touches. In terms of sound, everything is crisper, and a musical element is added to take advantage of the fact that Doris Day stars in the film (the song she sings on more than one occasion, “Que, Sera Sera,” went on to win an Oscar and become a smash hit). The musical element is taken to another level in this film’s climax, which takes place at a concert hall. The dramatic buildup to a possible killing is accompanied by an orchestra’s performance. It’s the standout scene from either film.

One way in which the earlier film triumphs its successor is through its humor. There’s a scene at a church between Bob and a friend who are trying to find Bob’s daughter. They discuss their surroundings to the tune of a hymn. It’s one of many very funny moments scattered throughout the film. While the later film tried to recreate this scene, it doesn’t commit fully enough to make it work. All in all, while very engaging, the 1956 version of the film is a virtually humorless affair.

In terms of acting, both films are hit-and-miss. Of course, Peter Lorre is fantastic in the 1934 version. Less successful are the two leads, Leslie Banks and Edna Best. Banks just doesn’t have the charisma for a leading role in a Hitchcock film (or at least he doesn’t show it here), and Best is hampered by a stereotypically weak female role. The remake features bigger stars in Stewart and Day, but are they that much better? Yes and no. These are two actors who seem very appropriate for these roles, but their work isn’t the kind that made my jaw drop or anything. Stewart does his usual routine, while Day is more noteworthy for her singing.

Of course, the reason either of these films succeeds as much as it does is because of the great Alfred Hitchcock. These films are the definition of Hitchcockian—suspenseful, intriguing, and engaging. You care about these characters and their situations not because of outstanding acting but because Hitchcock wants you to. He films in such a way that we feel their fear and get swept up in their plight.

If you decide to watch only one of these films, I definitely recommend the remake more highly than the original. Both have their merits, however, and it’s fascinating to see what elements of them Hitchcock himself thought could be improved. Watching both films makes for any interesting study, and they are both solid enough to warrant the time investment.

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