A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956)

It's not hard to see why Alfred Hitchcock would want to remake his 1934 film version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. It has good bones: a murder, a kidnapping, a political assassination plot, attractive international locations, colorful villainy, mistaken identifications, and innocents put in jeopardy by sheer accident. But he kind of blew it the first time with pallid protagonists (Leslie Banks and Edna Best), tedious comic byplay involving a sinister dentist, a wacky sun-worshiping cult, and a confusingly staged climactic shootout. Today it's best remembered for Peter Lorre's delicious villainy in his first English-language role. For the remake, Hitchcock supposedly told screenwriter John Michael Hayes not to watch the original or to read its screenplay by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, but to follow his own retelling of the story. The result is a more supple narrative, and the stars, Doris Day and James Stewart, are a definite improvement over Best and Banks. Hayes has made them a rather edgy couple: She's an internationally known musical star who has gone into retirement to marry him, a Midwestern surgeon. He seems to be a bit resentful of her celebrity, and she seems to be a little disappointed at having to settle down in Indianapolis. He's given to outbursts of temper that she sometimes has to quell before he does something rash. Their marital tension never results in an out-and-out fight, but it makes for some uneasy moments. In some respects they verge on '50s stereotypes of male and female roles: He pulls out his medical expertise and administers a sedative to her before telling her that their son has been kidnapped, a rather extreme form of mansplaining. In the 1934 film, Best played an award-winning sharpshooter who fires the shot that kills the villain, while Day is given a softer task: She helps locate their kidnapped son by singing (and singing and singing) "Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)," the film's Oscar-winning song. The remake is 45 minutes longer than the original, and it seems a little overextended. Still, the performances are good, and Robert Burks's Technicolor cinematography and the Marrakesh location of the first part of the film give the remake a definite edge, as does Bernard Herrmann's score. Herrmann makes his only on-camera appearance conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in the "Storm Cloud Cantata" at the Royal Albert Hall, in the pivotal scene that was carried over from the 1934 version.

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