Hitchcock made The Man Who Knew Too Much twice. First in 1934 with Peter Lorre, then again in 1956 with James Stewart in the lead role. Hitchcock clearly wasn’t a director without ideas, so why the remake? According to the director’s daughter Pat Hitchcock, her father had been mulling over a remake since the 1940s; although proud of the original it was, in his opinion, the work of an amateur – a new version would benefit from his experience. Hitch engaged screenwriter John Michael Hayes (also responsible for Rear Window and To Catch A Thief), but wouldn’t allow him to watch the original – instead he told Hayes the story and then sent him away to write it. The two films follow a similar theme, but are very different in tone and setting.
As it happened, version two didn’t live up to the former which is often regarded as one of Hitchcock’s best films from his ‘British period’. By the 1950s, audiences came to a Hitch release with certain expectations, and the second movie failed to live up to the hype. There were complaints that it was slow, and overly long; accusations that aren’t without merit but the film is not without its merits, including a wonderful symphony scene that takes place at the Royal Albert Hall and is, in my opinion, a textbook example of suspense (Backlots has a wonderful analysis of what makes it so great, if you want to read more). In Hayes’ 1956 version Dr Benjamin McKenna (played by James Stewart) and his wife (Doris Day) travel to Morocco with their son Hank. En-route, they meet Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin), a mysterious character who’s clearly not all he seems. The following day, Bernard is murdered in the local souk, but not before imparting details of an assassination plot to McKenna. What follows is a tale of kidnapping, false leads, suspense and anticipation, and the action moves from Morocco to London. These are some of the best scenes – Hitch knows his way around these deserted streets, eccentric taxidermy shops and rundown chapels; they are the story of his youth. By 1956, James Stewart was one of the director’s favourite leading men. In fact, there’s scant evidence that he even considered anyone else for the part of Dr McKenna. Hitch liked Stewart because he was an actor cinema-goers could relate to; an ‘ordinary’ man. He was able to add comedic elements to the scenes that required them – including one in a Moroccan restaurant where, when required to sit on a traditional low chair, can barely bend his limbs to fit. The scene in the taxidermist’s workshop is cleverly shot – when a fight breaks out a (stuffed) swordfish is quickly carried out of harm’s way, its razor-sharp ‘sword’ appears to be drawn across Stewart’s neck. Highlighting Stewart’s ‘ordinariness’ isn’t meant to downplay his acting talents, rather celebrate them. Hitch was notoriously fussy – once he found collaborators he enjoyed working with, he stuck with them (see also: Edith Head). Doris Day, Stewart’s co-star in The Man Who Knew Too Much, was perhaps less of a fave – this is the only Hitchcock film she appears in. Unlike his other blondes, Day has a natural warmth and presence – in fact she’s perfectly enhances Stewart’s ordinary man. The duo combine to make a natural, all-American couple who share a deep love for their son. In a nod to Day’s recent Calamity Jane success, she’s allowed to perform Que Sera Sera – a talent that also sets her apart from Hedren, Novak, Kelly et al, who, for all their beauty, often remain one-dimensional characters. When Hank is kidnapped, Day is by turns hysterical, hopeful, mesmerising and full of despair, and she manages to pour all these emotions into a heartfelt performance that’s one of her best moments but was perhaps too much for Hitch.
20 thoughts on “The Man Who Knew Too Much: James Stewart”
First, I love your pics from the movie! Second, while this isn’t one of my favorite Hitchcock films, I think it’s as good–or better–than Hitch’s 1934 version with Peter Lorre. The premise is intriguing and the settings are well used, but it says a lot when the villains are the most interesting characters in the film (of course, it helps when one of them is played by the marvelous Brenda de Banzie). As much as I like Doris Day, I think she’s miscast as the mother and, yes, she sings “Que Sera, Sera” too much.
Thank you so much for organising this blogathon! I’ve learnt so much about Stewart and his films.With regards to The Man Who Knew Too Much, I do prefer this version, but I think my love of Day clouds my judgement of her performance. I know she’s miscast but that feels like such a betrayal. I’m willing to embrace the good parts of her performance and overlook the melodrama!
As with any Hitchcock film, there is much to admire in the 1956 version of the story, but the film from 1934 is so much more fun to watch. The emotional situation and the tension isn’t hampered at all by the dry British wit that permeates the earlier movie. In fact, I think it enhances the telling. The American couple are equally resourceful in the challenge, but I find them a bit of a drag. Oh, that I should say such a thing about Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day!
Although I prefer the 1956 version, part of me wishes Hitch hadn’t remade it at all. I think it takes away from the original, and because the latter has the bigger star draw, it’s become the more well-known film. Couldn’t agree more with your comments about the couple, Stewart and Day really do know how to drag a kidnap case out 😉
Interesting that I watched this with some friends who really aren’t into old movies and they didn’t like the comedic aspects of it (the friends waiting for Stewart to return from his assignment) or the song. While the song does go on too long, I have to disagree with them about the comedic aspects. They like their thrillers with only limited comedy or the occasional one liner, ala Bruce Willis in DIE HARD, but I appreciate Hitchcock’s British manners and lighthearted look at crime. If this were made today, the people in the church would all be steroid-pumped Eastern Europe types. Me, I prefer the ordinary looking common folk who look perfectly respectable on the outside but are capable of great evil. For me, the original has the edge, though I am quite fond of the remake. And we get to see Bernard Herrmann conduct on screen in the remake.
I think the London street scenes are one of my favourite parts about the remake – they really encapsulate certain areas of the city and have a real authenticity. There’s still a taxidermy shop like that in London today, it’s one of my favourite places to visit. Some of the comedy does feel a bit forced, but I like the relief it brings. Thanks for reading and commenting!
I have never seen the 1934 version of this story, but I enjoyed this ’56 version. I thought Doris and Jimmy were perfect in their roles. They really were believable distraught parents, and they played well off each other.
They are a great couple – so wholesome. I’d recommend watching the original, it’s interesting to compare, and you’re left wondering why Hitch felt the need to remake!
Wonderful review and love the stills you’ve chosen. I love the chemistry between Day and Stewart in this one and I completely agree that some of the scenes are beautifully shot. Personally I prefer this remake to the original, I like the tone and the cinematography very much.
Thank you for you kind comment! My favourite still is the taxidermy tiger…Stewart and Day do have great chemistry – I really like the scene in the hotel in Morocco where he sedates her, wonderful acting from both. I’m happy Hitch shot on location for both cities, as it brings such a realism to the film.
Admittedly not one of my top Hitchcock favorite. I like Stewart but, well, I am not that big on Doris Day and do believe she was miscast. I am actually one of those who prefer the earlier British version. As you mention, I am one those also who think the film moves just a bit too slow. That said, I did enjoy reading your review very much.
Thank you! I do love Day, and I think (in fact, I know!) that it clouds my judgement of this film. Nothing like an impartial review, hey? 😉
Lovely review, and while for me the leads never quite click with one another, they both offer a great deal individually in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Championing James Stewart is, of course, what this blogathon is all about, but being an admirer of Doris Day seems to be resolutely uncool today. That’s perhaps due to her wholesome image and the turkeys she was later forced into by her agent husband, but she was a remarkably talented woman with a singular voice. While her performance is best remembered for her Oscar-winning rendition of Que Sera, Sera, I totally agree that she also gives the film a much needed undercurrent of love and humanity, and an added feeling of maternal desperation during the disorientating, brilliantly-filmed Albert Hall sequence .
Wonderful review of a great Hitch classic. You can see why Stewart was so favored to work with – so talented in his craft! But I also agree with your assessment as to why Hitch preferred not to work withDay again. She was exceptionally talented as well- but not in the cold, mysterious way that he consistently preferred his blondes. As you pointed out, Day played the role of a frantic and desperate mother perfectly. She has always projected a natural warmth and kindness that is the opposite of a typical ‘Hitch blonde.’ Great review!
I’ve seen both the 1930 version with Lorre and this version with Stewart and Day and it’s the one I prefer. Thanks for choosing this film to write about for the blogathon!
I have to say that I enjoy this film more and more as time goes by. It has all of the wonderful Hitchcock touches and beauty, plus the naturalness of both Stewart and Day really sell it for me. Great review – really enjoyed it.
Thanks for your comment! As a nice coincidence, I was writing about the first version of The Man who Knew too Much when you commented in my post about Pot O’Gold.
This version has brighter colors and a better orchestra sequence, but, all in all, I prefer the 1934 one. I think Doris is at her peak here, but Jimmy’s peak with Hitchcock was Rear Window, in my opinion.
I was actually surprised that I liked the remake better than the original especially given my usual preference for older black and white films over color. But of course my love for Jimmy Stewart and admiration for Doris Day probably had a lot to do with it. I loved her performance of Que Sera, Sera. It’s one of my favorite movie music moments.
Oh she gave me my very first scary-movie nightmares! I have a distinct recollection of the sleepless night I spent a around 6 years old after my parents thought an old Disney classic would be harmless for me to watch – that laugh!! That profile! How fascinating to read some background… and I am glad I’m reading this while it is light out! Thank you!
How bizarre – I was commenting on the Wizard of Oz post (which you probably could have guessed from the content!) and it ended up here… sorry!