Alfred Hitchcock Runs into “The Man Who Knew Too Much” Again

27 12 2010

“Let’s say that the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” — Alfred Hitchcock

In 1956, Alfred Hitchcock did something few, if any, directors had done before. He remade one of his earlier works, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” updating it in many ways from its original 1934 version. Hitchcock committed to this remake to fulfill his contractual obligation to Paramount Pictures, but it’s also easy to imagine him rising to the challenge of how best to update the story while preserving what worked so well in the original.

The second “TMWKTM” is in color and VistaVision, and features James Stewart as the hero, Dr. Ben McKenna, with Doris Day as his wife, singer and theatrical star Jo Conway. With their son, Hank, the McKennas are on vacation in Marrakesh, when they meet Louis Bernard, a Frenchman of mysterious means, on a bus heading into the city. Bernard befriends them, but begs off dinner when something comes up. Meanwhile, Jo is convinced that a British couple from their hotel is watching them.

The McKennas cross paths with the British couple, the Draytons, at a restaurant. They say they recognize Jo from the stage, and the foursome end up eating together, although the appearance of Bernard at another table nearly disrupts dinner.

The next day, the Draytons and the McKennas visit the market square together, where violence erupts when a man in a white caftan is chased by police and others. The man ends up with a knife in his back at Dr. McKenna’s feet, and as he falls, McKenna’s hands touch his face, rubbing off dark makeup. McKenna sees that the dying man is Bernard, who whispers a few words before it’s too late.

The police insist on taking in the McKennas for questioning, accompanied by Mr. Drayton, while Mrs. Drayton offers to take Hank back to the hotel. While they are talking to the police chief, insisting that they barely knew the victim, McKenna gets a call saying that if he wants to see his son alive again, he must say nothing to the police about what Bernard told him.

After being released, the McKennas go back to the hotel, only to find the Draytons gone. Dr. McKenna finally tells the hysterical Jo that the Draytons must have taken Hank. Following Bernard’s dying message, they fly to London to contact someone called Ambrose Chappell and stop an assassination. After fending off some old friends, Dr. McKenna locates Ambrose Chappell, a taxidermist who has no idea what he’s talking about. Meanwhile, Jo realizes that Bernard meant Ambrose Chapel, a place. The McKennas go there and find Mr. Drayton leading a church service. Convinced that Hank is on the premises, Dr. McKenna stays behind while Jo tries to get help from the police, but he is knocked out while the Draytons escape again.

The McKennas follow the clues to the Royal Albert Hall, where a gunman is preparing to kill a foreign diplomat during a concert welcoming him to England. Jo spots the hitman in the audience and screams when she sees him taking aim, saving the diplomat’s life. The diplomat thanks the McKennas, inviting them to visit him. The Draytons, meanwhile, are ordered to kill Hank by the diplomat’s assistant, who has been pulling the strings all along. The McKennas are sure that Hank and the Draytons are in the embassy, but the police are powerless to help. However, the McKenna’s wangle an invitation to that night’s reception, where Jo is called upon to sing – and sing she does, belting out “Que Sera Sera” at the top of her lungs so Hank can her it.

Dr. McKenna slips away and finds Hank upstairs with Mrs. Drayton, but is cornered by Mr. Drayton, who walks him and Hank back downstairs at gunpoint. As they turn a corner on the staircase, Dr. McKenna trips Mr. Drayton, pitching him down the stairs and causing his gun to fire. The guests crowd around the now dead kidnapper while the McKennas are reunited.

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” features Hitchcock’s most exotic location, with colorful scenes filmed in Morocco. As American tourists, the McKennas marvel at what they see, and also struggle with local customs. (Hitchcock makes his cameo during the market scene, his back to the camera as he watches acrobats perform.) The strangeness of Marrakesh helps increase the tension in comparison to the original, which was set in relatively familiar Switzerland.

The second half of the movie, set in London, replicates the original version more closely than the first half did. The scenes at the church and the Royal Albert Hall are very close to the original, although the taxidermist scene is new, and the finale at the embassy replaces the shootout from the original. Of course, Jo’s singing career provides are more subtle way to save her child than the original version, in which the sharp-shooting mother, Jill, guns down the last of the kidnappers to save her daughter.

This version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” focuses primarily on the family endangered by what they’ve learned; the villains are not terribly interesting, and certainly pale in comparison to the 1934 version’s charismatic international criminal played by Peter Lorre. On the other hand, the McKennas’ desperation to find their son is far more convincing than the parents from 1934. James Stewart’s Dr. McKenna is forcefully American, expecting rights that may not be his in a foreign land, while Doris Day is every bit as clever as her husband. (Day, unsure of her performance, had to ask Hitch whether he was pleased with her work, as he never made any comment. Suffice it to say that Hitchcock was indeed happy with her.)

There is much more humor in the 1956 version, too, including the absurd fight that erupts at Ambrose Chappell’s taxidermy shop, and the utter cluelessness of Jo’s London friends, who are left for hours in the McKenna’s hotel room till the end of the movie.

Hitchcock creates numerous arresting visual moments in “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” from the chase in the marketplace, during which Louis Bernard’s white caftan is covered in sky blue paint, to Dr. McKenna’s escape from the church by climbing the church bell’s rope, ringing it repeatedly and attracting a crowd. Hitchcock also preserves great touches from the original, like the chilling sight of the assassin’s gun peeking out from behind a drape to take aim at the ambassador.

Bernard Herrmann conducts the London Symphony Orchestra

Hitchcock works again on this film with composer Bernard Herrmann, who after only one film with Hitch had gained the filmmaker’s trust. Background music is used sparingly in this film, and Herrmann decided to keep the original film’s classical piece, Arthur Benjamin’s “Storm Cloud Cantata,” during the Royal Albert Hall scene. It’s a delight to see Herrmann himself in the film, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

This is the final film Hitchcock made with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who brings his usual wit to every sparkling line of dialogue. Hayes was not allowed to screen the original, forcing him to create entirely new characters. Tensions between Hitch and Hayes had been growing, and they would never work together again. (I’ll be writing more about the relationship between Hitchcock and Hayes soon.) Cinematographer Robert Burks captures the colorful bustle of Marrakesh in spectacular detail.

“Que Sera Sera,” originally won an Academy Award for “Best Original Song,” although it is listed in the credits as “Whatever Will Be.” Doris Day was not a fan of “Que Sera Sera” at first, preferring the film’s other original song, “We’ll Love Again,” although it is barely heard during the movie. “Que Sera Sera” has an emotional resonance in “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” as it is first heard early in the movie when Jo and Hank sing it together while he gets ready for bed.

Here’s the trailer for this version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” in which James Stewart talks directly to the audience, describing their trip to Marrakesh, “right in the middle of that whole trouble area…”:

Next, Hitchcock adapts a real-life story that fits his greatest theme with “The Wrong Man,” starring Henry Fonda.


Alfred Hitchcock Meets “The Man Who Knew Too Much”

16 05 2010

“Let’s say that the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” – Alfred Hitchcock

After the very strange movie “Waltzes from Vienna,” Alfred Hitchcock returned in 1934 with “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” which started a run of his final seven British movie productions, nearly all of which are very well regarded. “The Man Who Knew Too Much” made an excellent start to this run; it is Hitch’s first real thriller in years, and the first with a story that’s as strong as Hitch’s filmmaking skills.

Starring Leslie Banks and Edna Best, and featuring Nova Pilbeam and Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role, “TMWKTM” opens in St. Moritz (one of Hitch’s favorite vacation spots), where the Lawrence family are on a sports holiday – Jill Lawrence is taking part in a shooting competition. Although she loses to a German shooter, Jill spends the evening dancing while her husband, Bob, and daughter, Betty, relax over dinner. But when Jill’s dance partner is shot, the Lawrences are introduced into a world of danger.

The dying man tells Jill to deliver a message to someone; she sends her husband to retrieve it. It’s a clue, written on a slip of paper, and it seems that enemy agents quickly find out that Bob and Jill have it. They kidnap Betty, threatening her parents that they will kill her if they tell anyone about the clue.

Back in England, the Lawrences are contacted by Scotland Yard, who say they know that this spy ring plans to assassinate a diplomat and plunge Europe into war. The Lawrences refuse to admit anything, and when they’re left alone, Bob and a family friend begin their own investigation. They find the place where Betty is being held – a strange sort of church, of which Peter Lorre is the minister. They capture Bob, but the friend escapes and gets word to Jill that the assassination will take place during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

Jill reaches the concert hall in time and spots the gunman, who happens to be her competitor from the start of the film; she screams, throwing off his aim, then puts the police on his trail as he flees the scene. The police surround the church, and a shootout begins. One by one Peter Lorre’s gang is picked off, until only the sharpshooter and Lorre are left. The shooter is sent to fetch Betty, but with her father’s help she escapes to the roof, although he is wounded by the gunman.

On the roof, the gunman tries to grab Betty, but from the street, Jill grabs a rifle and shoots her daughter’s attacker. The police pull Betty back inside, then find Lorre and shoot him dead.

It’s a riveting movie from start to finish, and despite the suspense, there is a lot of humor in it. Peter Lorre is particularly charming; he laughs at everything, leading to one chilling moment during the siege when he’s laughing, unaware that his comrade has been shot right next to him.

This was Peter Lorre’s first English language film; he had just fled Germany, and had to learn his part phonetically. Nonetheless, he is very charistmatic, and Hitch became very fond of him, so much so that they worked together again in “Secret Agent” in 1936. Hitch also enjoyed working with young Nova Pilbeam, who played Betty; Hitch said that she lacked the artifice of most British actresses, making her a natural and believable performer. She would star in Hitch’s “Young and Innocent” in 1937.

Aside from being a strong story, the film also has several well choreographed fight scenes, in particular the shootout at the end. Hitchcock builds up our empathy with the police (an unusual move for him); the moments when one officer is shot at the church door, and another when one is shot while getting ready for the siege are both shocking.

Up next, we’ll look at “The 39 Steps,” probably the best-loved movie from Hitchcock’s British years, and of course the one I’ve been circling around all through my ongoing “39 Steps Fest.” We’ll save comparisons between Hitch’s two versions of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” for later this year, when I get to the 1956 version.

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