Hitchcock made The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 during his career in England. It starred Peter Lorre and was a hit at the box office and with critics. In 1956 while in America, he remade The Man Who Knew Too Much to fulfill a contract obligation with Paramount and cast Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day as the leads. He agreed with the studio heads that his original was a great film with room for wonderful improvement in the new era of filmmaking. This week I watched both versions of the film back to back, and came to the conclusion that the 1956 version may have been a better film at the time, but that ruling doesn’t stand today. Ultimately, I think the 1934 version is more engaging and a better example of storytelling.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) starts off with the affable Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks from Jamaica Inn and Edna Best respectively) on vacation in Switzerland with their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). Jill is there specifically to participate in a sharp shooting contest, but loses to another man when her daughter distracts her. Everyone is very good natured and British about it, however.
They quickly befriend a Frenchman named Louis Bernard, who is also on vacation. When Bernard is suddenly shot while dancing with Jill at a party, he whispers to her that they need to retrieve a piece of paper from his room and get it to the British consulate immediately. Maybe because of their fondness for Bernard, or their curiosity, Bob sneaks up to his room and finds the message. Unfortunately, some suspicious characters see what he’s done. While being questioned by the police as to what and why Bernard whispered to Jill right before he died, Bob gets a phone call informing him that their daughter was kidnapped. If they want to see her again, they need to keep their mouths shut. Thus begins the Lawrences’ involvement in a secret plot to assassinate a foreign diplomat in London.
Due to the circumstances, Bill Lawrence decides to go rogue. From a series of clues, he discovers the assassination plans and tracks down the people holding his daughter. The gang of criminals responsible is run by Abbott (beautifully acted by Peter Lorre), a slimy character with a large scar across his eye and a skunk-like streak of white in his hair. Quite a menacing villain. They discover Bill and hold him captive with his daughter. It is now up to Jill to foil the assassination attempt, which is set to happen during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. She is successful, and the assassin is tracked back to the place her daughter and husband are being held.
Thus, a crazy shootout commences! It’s really really great! Eventually the chaos dies down, and an escaped Betty is seen up on the roof with one of the ruffians closing in on her. It is her mother’s sharp shooting abilities that take down the pursuer and save her daughter. Turns out, it’s the same guy she lost to in Switzerland. The irony is delicious. It’s suggested that Abbott killed himself, rather than be taken into captivity, and the Lawrences are happily reunited!
It was interesting for me to see the evolution of storytelling and editing in film by watching both back to back. The 1934 version jumps right into the action with barely any setup. The only evidence we have that the Lawrences weren’t too familiar with Louis Bernard is when a door is left open and we overhear Jill Lawrence telling the police that they were friends but didn’t know much of him. The editing hadn’t evolved too far from the silent film era, so imagery and quick sequencing was used heavily to communicate story and suggest action.
In stark contrast, the 1956 version has no need for the same kind of suggestive editing, as the plot is told primarily through dialogue. There is a noticeable transition in the use of the cinematography. The 1956 version is gorgeous to look at, in no small part to the striking Technicolor used. The shots are sweeping and the editing is graceful. It’s done for aesthetics more than necessity. In terms of storytelling, the 1956 version lingers and takes its time, adding in more details along the way. It has a lengthy set up where the American McKennas (changed from the English Lawrences) meet Bernard on the bus into Marrakesh from Casablanca (changing the setting from Switzerland to Morocco) and strike up a fast friendship with him. We know exactly the relationship between the undercover spy and the innocent vacationers before the murder takes place and the action begins.
Unlike the original, Bernard is murdered in the marketplace after running from police. He then grabs onto Ben McKenna (Stewart) and whispers a message before dying. Ben and his wife Jo (Day) are brought in for questioning as to how they knew Bernard, who is revealed to be a French spy. Ben and Jo answer honestly, that they just met him on the bus and had drinks. During the chat with the police, Ben receives a call informing him that his son Hank (Christopher Olsen) has been kidnapped, and if they wanted to see him again they’d keep their mouths shut about what Bernard said. Naturally, they lie to the police and decide to follow the kidnappers to London and foil the assassination mentioned by Bernard.
While in London, they are approached by a Scotland Yard Inspector about the kidnapping, but again lie. The two commence in a rogue attempt at finding their son. After being separated at a chapel, Jo goes to the concert where the assassination is meant to take place. She is able to prevent the act in the same way as the original, and is then joined by Ben. The two are thanked by the foreign Prime Minister the bullet was intended for and invited to his after party. They, of course, agree to attend (because why not enjoy a party when your son is still missing?).
The McKennas then summon the Scotland Yard Inspector and decide to finally confide in him. They discover that this was an inside job. Turns out the Ambassador of the undisclosed foreign country set up the assassination, so they decide to do some investigating at the party. When they arrive, Jo is instantly recognized from her career as a famous pop-star (weird, right?) and asked to play a few songs. She agrees, and just so happens to play a song that she would sing with her son (Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be), which won an Oscar for Best Song and topped the charts around the world). Hank, being held in a room upstairs, hears his mother singing and starts to whistle as loudly as he can. Jo hears him and motions for Ben to investigate, which he does successfully. Not only is this highly improbable, but it’s terribly cheesy. Jill’s badass marksmanship is replaced by a pop song? That’s what I mean about it being good for the times.
The ending only gets worse from there. After Ben finds his son, he is attacked by one of the goons and a scuffle breaks out on the grand staircase. The goon is thrown down the stairs by Ben and is killed when his gun accidentally fires. Much more subdued than an all out gun fight.
While the general plot remains the same, many details were changed from one version to the next, as you can see. While the remake takes its time building a solid base and really gives the plot time to bloom and flow smoothly, it tends to get outlandish and frivolous. The original does a much better job at succinct story telling, even if it isn’t as detailed or graceful.
I believe a great comparison to make between the two films is how the relationships are developed. In the original, the Lawrences’ friendship with Bernard is established quickly with a few shots of them laughing together, being overly friendly, and Betty calling Louis uncle. That instantly tells us that they all like each other quite a lot. The details are set straight when we quickly overhear Jill explaining that they only just met him. In the remake, the viewers are basically walked through the McKennas’ friendship with Bernard from the very first moment they meet him through a long scene where they have drinks and so on. And then the McKennas share dinner with another couple in the hotel who turn out to be the kidnappers. This dinner scene is horribly excessive. You feel like you’re actually sitting in on an awkward dinner between strangers, and it goes on forever! The point of it is to establish trust in this new couple and explain why the McKennas leave Hank with them when being brought in for questioning. Both examples are pretty gratuitous, however, and could have been easily trimmed down. The audience doesn’t need their hands held.
The most noticeable difference in versions is the tone. The original is a straight dramatic thriller, while the remake has quite a lot of humor integrated. My favorite moments include when Ben and Jo go to dinner while in Marrakesh, and Stewart’s lanky legs don’t agree with the cushion-on-floor seating. It’s a great bit of physical humor. I also love the addition of a group of nosey socialite friends who meet them uninvited in London in the middle of their crisis and offer up delightful comedic relief. The remake also ends on a light note when Ben and Jo return to their hotel room with their son who was taken from them, only to find their silly friends had waited all day after being unceremoniously abandoned by them earlier and were asleep in the chairs. Ben and Jo laugh and apologize for being so late, saying they just had to pick up Hank. This gross downplay of the events of the film is adorably funny. But clearly it’s a lot different from the original. I’d love to see how a remake of the film would be handled today.
I give the 1934 version an A and the 1956 version a B+. Both very enjoyable!