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.