Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much ‘remake’
The Man Who Knew Too Much remake is a professional job, as Hitchcock said in his own words. For sure, the set piece play is some of the great director’s best. The early scene in a hectic Marrakesh marketplace and the extravagance of the finale at the Albert Hall are stand-outs. Both work as odes to Hitchcock’s earlier career in silent film by eschewing dialogue and relying on the visuals and score alone to tell the story; indeed the Albert Hall sequence even shows the characters mime their scripted lines as a crescendo of concert hall music drowns out the panicked conversations between Stewart and Day, who are desperate to avoid a murder and save their son.
These set-pieces are what we’ve come to associate with Hitchcock’s brand of suspense. I recently saw this film in public and was quite taken aback by the audience’s shocked reaction when, from behind a scarlet curtain, a gun is pointed at a young boy’s head – just when we think we’ve reached the happy ending. A testament to the power of the film that even today you can get kind of reaction to a film over 50 years old.
The technicolour images here are also something which grab your attention. Hitchcock had not actually made too many colour movies when he shot this reworking, yet his grasp of the colour medium was already requisite masterful. For me, the best images are those shot in Stewart and Day’s Moroccan hotel room as they entertain the mysterious Frenchman whose bathed in a kind of navy hue light.
On our leads, James Stewart is compulsive viewing and Doris Day puts in a good turn subject to caveats that I’ll come on too. But it’s the assassin, Reggie Nauder’s character, who just LOOKS like a hitman but has few spoken lines, that remained most memorable to me (he also played “Mr Barlow” in Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Salem’s Lot (1979)).
But for its many positive, there are some drawbacks here. Hitchcock’s remake dwells for far too long on Doris Day’s musical numbers and after a time these just serve to grate with the audience. The remake is also (unapologetically) slower than Hitchcock’s original 1934 blaster of a movie. This 50s version is at its strongest in Morocco and once the action transfers to London, Hitchcock seems less tight with his pacing and gives the impression that he’s not quite sure where to go next. As an example , there’s some rather senseless to-and fro-ing around Day/Stewart’s London hotel room which, honestly speaking, adds little-to-nothing to the picture. It seems to take a long time to get to the Albert Hall…
For many its superior technique and polished look will make the remake the better of the two versions, which to emphasise is not an indefensible view by any means. But I prefer the rough diamond that is the 1934 original, primarily because of the dynamism inherent in the fast-paced screenplay but also due to Peter Lorre’s intoxicating villain “Abbott”.