Gabby: Steve Knauts and I talk over Hitchcock again, but this, it’s time a double bill! We go into The Man who knew too much, both the 1934 and the 1956 versions.
Steve: Hitchcock first made The Man Who Knew Too Much in the 30s, when he was still living in England. The he remade it in the 50s, after he had lived in America for about 15 years. The first iteration is classic British wit and understatement, while the second is American bombast. Also, the differences in the central couples (English in the first, American in the second) are fascinating. There are of course many similarities between the two, but the changes made are quite telling.
Both “Man”s are classics in their own way. When you re-watch them, watch for how the relationship between husband and wife is portrayed. In the American version, the tension between Stewart and Day is palpable. The British couple just seem more relaxed and comfortable with each other.
I have to say, the remake doesn’t get as much respect as Hitch’s other 50’s films, such as Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. But he made some pretty bold choices in this film…
From now on I’ll refer to the films as “original” and “remake”. The original film packs in a lot considering it’s not even an hour and a half long! That includes a location change from Switzerland to London, a kidnapping, an assassination attempt, and a shoot-out. I wish more films were this efficient with their time. I recently watched Spectre, and the whole running time of our 1934 film here could fit neatly inside the last act of that bloated film.
In addition to Hitch’s direction, I think this film’s best asset is Peter Lorre. He manages to make Abbot both weasel like and charming, threatening and pathetic. Lorre had already made waves in 1931 with Fritz Lang’s M, so Hitch had to know he had something special in the European actor. Lorre had been living in Germany when Hitler came to power, and fled to Paris and then London in 1933. He didn’t know English when he made Hitch’s film, so he had to learn his lines phonetically.
Gabby: The original definitely manages to packs a lot of punches for the time it has, especially considering how limited the sound technology, the camera movement and budget must have been. Peter Lorre is always a gem it seems. M is just one of the best performances. And he is so interesting whenever I see him. There is a great little BFI book about M, which I recommend.
Steve: There are two moments that leap out in my memory when I think of Lorre as Abbot. One is when he allows a brief reunion between Lawrence and his daughter. He then commands for the girl to be again taken away, and as the girl cries for her father. Hitch cuts to an unusual close-up of Lorre, whose face clearly shows discomfort and distaste for such brutality. The second moment is during the shoot-out, when the lone woman of the assassin’s crew is killed. Abbot is clearly shaken by her death, and this little moment again humanizes his character.
As far as negatives, I was disappointed that we did not get to see much of Leslie Banks and Edna Best as a couple. They are separated by one means or another for much of the film, although the teasing between them in the opening act is delightful. Banks is the epitome of British drollness, and the ease this couple have with each other is charming (it stands in marked contrast to the almost constant low thrum of tension between Doris Day and James Stewart in the remake).
Gabby: I too really would have loved more of Banks and Best as a couple. They really are so great together. It adds more personality to the film when they are together.
I do see what you mean about Day and Stewart. His character is always dismissing her accurate perceptions, it is very odd I think for him not even to share a little of his wife’s ideas. Decade or not I think they seem much more distant as a couple. Maybe that actually works for the movie though. It makes them joining forces perhaps more complex and tensional.
Steve: Another negative is that, as efficient as this movie is at moving things along, I feel a sag when we see Lawrence and his befuddled buddy try to suss out clues by investigating the dentist. Much of this is played for laughs, and it does tend to suck the tension out of the story. Ones Lawrence is captured by the gang, however, the focus switches to the wife and things get rolling again.
The Albert Hall sequence is a winner in both films, but in the original I was amazed at a long panning shot where we start on Jill sitting in the theatre. The camera pans to her right and up, revealing the “empty” box where the assassin waits. Then without a cut the shot pans back to Jill, who turns and looks to her left. The camera follows her gaze, and we see the policeman standing just a few feet away – to intervene if she makes a move. Then, cut to Jill looking at the pin from her daughter (given to her by the assassin as a reminder to keep quiet). I would watch this whole film just to see that one moment again.
Another interesting tidbit – it turns out that Hitchcock specially commissioned composer Arthur Benjamin to write the “Storm Cloud Cantata” for the film. I had always thought it was a pre-existing piece of music. The final line sung by the chorus just before the clash of cymbals is “Finding release!” Very sly, considering the incredible tension Hitch builds in the sequence.
Gabby: Jill really gets a chance to be a hero there, and her character is made much more dynamic by that one action than we get in many films with the hopeless mother roles. She is just not going to stand for any nonsense. She will protect her child no matter what. It makes that character so real. Especially when we see her face as she does it and after. The expressions are really telling and human. Great bit of acting there from Edna Best. A silent movie technique no doubt.
Steven: It is great for how Jill’s shooting prowess comes into play. I love how she doesn’t waste time asking for permission from anyone – she just grabs the rifle and takes the shot.
Gabby: The original Albert Hall sequence is a great technical achievement, as you mention, but I really do love the one in the remake! I think he had learned a lot of lessons by this point, and knew exactly how to use this location to the optimum effect.
Talking of locations, the remake has some very uncomfortable casual racism, which sadly was probably quite prevalent in this era. This is brought to attention on the bus with Hank using terms like ‘The dark continent’ and not understanding it due to it being so sunny in Africa.
Steven: I always thought that “the dark continent” was a reference to Africa being mysterious, but in retrospect I can certainly see that phrase being uttered with racist connotations.
Gabby: When talking of the way in which characters speak, in terms of how the actors use their voices in the original, there are some very clipped accents there. But the way they use their voices is to ensure clarity and that speaks volumes of the early sound era of wanting to sound sophisticated (‘Round tones!’). What do you think of the way the actors speak in the original? Their accents, the way they speak and how their performances fair in terms of dealing with the new addition of performing dialogue? It is an interesting though about their Englishness too when comparing it to the whole hearted American feel of combining Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. Casting those two in the leads there is definitely saying something about America and suburban life, and trying to place the target audience, at the time, in the middle of this thrilling, yet dangerous, exploit.
Steve: Indeed – you can’t get much more middle American than Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart. However, Stewart offers more than just good old fashioned Americana. His roles for Hitchcock showed a keen ability to project masculine neuroses. Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant each did 4 films for Hitch. I’ve heard it said (I wish I could remember where) that Grant played the hero that Hitch wished he could be, while Stewart played the hero Hitch knew he was. Thus, Stewart’s characters typically have some major flaw (such as the emotional coldness in Rear Window’s Jeff, and the obsessiveness of Vertigo’s Scotty). For the remake, Stewart gives a compelling portrayal of an overly patronizing and controlling man. I should emphasize that Stewart still makes Ben McKenna a sympathetic figure, but neither Stewart nor Hitch shy away from the more problematic aspects of his character.
For me, the most disturbing moment in the remake is when Ben deliberately drugs Jo with sedatives before telling her about Hank’s abduction. On the surface, Ben is playing on the notion that Jo, being a woman, is overly emotional and illogical – thus his repeated dismissals of her earlier suspicions about Louis Bernard. However, the way Stewart plays the scene shows that it is really more about Ben’s inability to deal with his wife honestly. Ben knows he is doing something reprehensible, which is why we hear him ask for forgiveness.
Doris Day is also terrific as Jo McKenna. It’s telling that her character has a “masculine” name; this is no shrinking violet. I mentioned before that Hitch makes some bold choices in the remake. One of the boldest is the scene at the beginning where Hank accidentally tears the veil off of the Muslim woman on the bus. The woman is required to “conceal” herself, her identity, to all but her husband. Later we learn that Jo is a famous singing star, who gave up her career in order to marry Ben and be the dutiful doctor’s wife. Thus, like the Muslim woman Jo is required to “conceal” her true identity for the sake of another role. When Jo belts out “Que, Sera, Sera” in the finale, she is triumphantly reasserting her true self.
Now, Jo McKenna is not perfect, either. Earlier in the film she relies on another stereotypical “woman’s” tactic – manipulation. We see her subtly wind up Ben when they spot Bernard at the same restaurant, after he cancelled their earlier plans. Once she gets Ben close to confronting Bernard, she then chastises him for losing his temper and telling him to settle down; “He gets so worked up over the littlest things!”
It’s one of the movie’s many ironies that the Draytons appear so much more in synch with each other than the McKennas, yet in reality they are the principle players in the assassination plot!
Gabby: There is a definite masculine neurosis at play here. With the idea of Day’s character giving up singing and being in a small town. He does not want to move for her to continue her career. Even though he could continue his, he would probably be as respected. She wants to return to the stage, as does her fans, but he is insecure and selfish. And that is a really good point about Stewart and Grant. I think a lot of us want to be like Cary Grant. That drugging is incredibly disturbing, indeed. The hysteria shrug of well she is a mother, as you say, seals the nasty undertone of just how terrible that is. Every time they have a disagreement or she does something he can’t handle, like have emotions, he has the power to do that. In effect, he does that with her career and her intuition. He is a very problematic character. I really like that at play when he mistakenly goes to find the person Ambrose Chapel scene. All those stuffed animals surrounding him. Something that also came up when we talked about Psycho. He being pushed into corners and mistaken. I think he is no better really than that stuffed tiger. He has a one track mind and will do just about anything to get his son, but also in proving to be right, in being the hero. Even though he has been so closed off and brutish in a way that lead him to this in the first place. If he had listened to his wife maybe this wouldn’t have happened.
I agree about her being allowed to become her true self by the end. It is only when they start to work together they are able to save Hank. When she is allowed to have her identity back and also when Ben starts to see the fact his wife is smart, strong, capable and he can use her help. They unite in the search for their son. This is one of the biggest differences with the original, where that couple is already strong together.
Yes, she is certainly no saint either. It really has some big problems as a film too. As we mentioned, its racial ideas are beyond unsettling. Whereas, the original has not got those problems, I don’t think. But the remake does have the advantage of having colour. The colour really works beautifully for the locations. Not to mention the editing, score, a more advanced director and technology.
On a side note, am I wrong in wanting a film about the Draytons?
Steven: There are some interesting parallels are made between the McKennas and the Draytons. The men act in what they think is a calmer, more rational manner, yet their rationality leads them to commit some fairly heinous acts (Ben drugging his wife, Mr. Drayton facilitating the murder of Hank). The women are more openly emotional, but also more compassionate and ultimately more insightful (it’s Jo who realizes Ambrose Chapel is a place, not a person; Mrs. Drayton realizes she cannot allow Hank to be killed).
I’d also like to point out the minor but wonderful performance by Mogens Wieth as the ambassador who turns out to be behind the assassination plot. He is loaded with snark, and his dressing down of Mr. Drayton is delicious (“You English intellectuals will be the death of us all”). His comment to Jo is also wonderfully ironic (“Madam, you have saved the life of the one person in our country who is truly irreplaceable”).
Gabby: In terms of putting these films next to each other, I am still conflicted with the fact I find the remake more thrilling. It is a great suspense. It does at least show that the characters are flawed. Even with those problems we mention. The original though is still a great watch also.
Steve: I really love both of these films, but I’m with you – the remake is better. The original is a supremely entertaining and fast-moving thriller. But the remake is deeper, richer, and ultimately more rewarding.