I suppose if you were to pick anyone to remake the classic Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Hitchock himself would not a bad choice. And that is just what the master of suspense did in 1956. In fact, this version feels more like an extended, director’s cut than a remake. The story is essentially the same. Ben (James Stewart) and Jo MacKenna (Doris Day) are vacationing in French Morocco with their son (Christopher Olson). They are quickly caught up in international intrigue and must try to stop an unknown diplomat’s assassination to keep their son from being harmed.
While the original stays mainly indoors keeping its action to a few set pieces. In this new version Hitchcock thrills in taking his characters and the audience, to wild, colorful places around the world. It begins in Northern Africa and here we see many lovely shots of the countryside. The action moves to London where there are numerous shots inside enormous, gorgeous buildings like the Royal Albert Hall.
The opening credit sequence is beautifully done. Hitchcock shoots a half orchestra playing the opening music. It takes a few moments to realize that the typical orchestrated number you are hearing over the credits is visibly being played by real people in the picture. This inventive bit is promptly ruined by an uninteresting title card played over the cymbalist.
I own the original 1934 version and recently watched it. Many debates are raging over the internet on which version is superior. Frankly, I find both versions to be lacking. The original was paced quicker but suffered from several jolts in the plot which created some confusion and no sympathy for the protagonists. The newer version tries to help this out by giving us long and unmoving scenes in which the protagonists try to stretch out their characters.
Jimmy Stewart does a marvelous job as usual, but Dorris Day is annoying in nearly every scene. She is pretty and plays the part of a normal, cheerful American girl, but she grits my teeth while she’s on the screen. Maybe I’m just not a fan. In a scene towards the end she sings “Que Sera Sera” and to my ears, it sounds like she’s howling the number. One could argue that she is singing loudly for a plot purpose, but I would say it would serve the movie better if it was pretty and not harsh. In an interesting bit of trivia, Ms. Day apparently didn’t like the song to the point of nearly refusing to record it. It turned out to be her biggest hit, and won the Oscar that year.
There is an ingenious bit of filmmaking in the latter 3/4ths of the movie filmed in the Royal Albert Hall. There are some 12 minutes when not a word of dialogue is spoken and the only sound heard is the music played by the orchestra. It is a beautifully crafted scene that builds tension like a bullet.
Several plot elements make me ill at ease. The Scotland Yard seems terribly inept. We are made to believe that these detectives are willing to allow the MacKennas to run around the streets of London trying to solve the crime by themselves even though Mr. MacKenna knows important details about the assassination of an important diplomat. Why would an assassin use a small pistol to kill the diplomat from a long distance? After the assassination attempt, why is everyone allowed to run free? There are other questions and inaptitude that go unanswered except to allow a movie to tie up loose ends quickly and move the plot along.
Hitchcock was a master at manipulating audiences. He is in fine form throughout this movie quickly moving the viewer through the scenery with a good bit of humor and suspense. This is not a bad movie by any stretch. There is a great deal to enjoy as a carefree audience member and for anyone interested in the craft and art of film. However, it is far from Hitchcock’s greatest film, and I find its flaws to be more disappointing considering the masterful hands that created it.