[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]
Like Leo McCarey, Alfred Hitchcock returned to one of his signature 1930s works two decades hence, armed with stunning color cinematography, A-list movie stars, and the commercial license to tell his story more leisurely. And there’s where the similarities end. As I wrote, McCarey’s An Affair to Remember feels like the director’s ultimate vision of a very personal story made manifest; Hitchcock’s film, while as handsome and expertly made as one could expect from the Master in the ’50s, also routinely feels like a technical exercise. Granted, even the guy’s technical exercises rank as some of the most fully realized films ever made, but the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much doesn’t so much add to the 1934 original as repurpose its plot for a couple bravura suspense sequences and some luscious Morocco-set photography. It’s an uneven film, an indisputable breather between masterpieces, but still so technically ravishing that it renders the initial film almost moot.
If Hitchcock’s primary artistic aim truly was, in his words, to play the audience like a piano, then it only makes sense that his films would improve along with the technology he used to make them. The early scenes of the 1934 version include some marvelous cutting and rapid-fire editing, but particularly in retrospect, it’s hard not to think of the relatively young man pushing up against the limits of his medium. As he grew older, directed more films, and eventually inherited the full resources of Hollywood, Hitchcock reached a point where even his innocuous passages had incredible visual power. Those 1934 scenes are set in the Swiss Alps, where a vacationing British couple (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) watches a downhill skiing competition. It’s a nice scene, with perfectly adequate outdoor shots and convincing art direction, but it simply can’t compare to the vibrancy and control of the equivalent 1956 scenes, set in Marrakesh’s bustling Djemaa el Fna marketplace.
In Hitchcock’s peerless ’50s and ’60s work, the storytelling and visual style are so intertwined as to be indistinguishable. Quite simply, the technical aspects are the story, something he acknowledges most readily in Rear Window, where Jimmy Stewart’s character stares through a lens and literally puts the film’s plot together from static individual images. The films of this era are built around tent-pole images and sequences—the shower scene, the crop duster scene, the clock tower scenes, the kitchen and ballroom scenes in To Catch a Thief, and of course the Saul Bass credits—and fleshed out with conversational and scenic longueurs. These movies contain marvelous performances by some of the great stars of the era, but we remember their faces more than their lines, and the terrifying situations they encounter even more than their faces.
For better and worse, the 1956 film is perfectly representative of this period. Stewart gives a great, harried performance as a father whose son is held hostage by political assassins, but my main memory of him in this film is a devastating close-up that comes when a dying man whispers a conspiratorial secret into his ear. This is classic Hitchcock storytelling; he goes from the Djemaa el Fna, depicted in long shots as a teeming mess of cobras and dyed fabrics (a fair depiction, based on my own week spent there), to an indelible picture of silent individual terror. Guess which one registers more forcefully?
Once the plot kicks into gear (Stewart and wife Doris Day follow the kidnappers to London to subvert the assassination and save their son without the police’s help), the interlude/set-piece/interlude structure becomes more problematic. Hitchcock’s visuals might be impressive enough to tell his stories on their own, but that also means he’s not beholden to the tenets of economical storytelling, and The Man Who Knew Too Much could easily be a half-hour shorter. (The original is, in fact, 45 minutes shorter.) The periodic attempts at comedy, most involving Day’s nosy English friends, are all superfluous, even if they do provide a break in the tension. With less visual razzle dazzle, the 1934 film manages to find a tone and stick with it throughout.
Both films climax with a harrowing showdown in the Royal Albert Hall, though here too Hitchcock’s focus on individual objects and tactile details enhances the suspense. More fascinating, however, is the differing role of the Hall in each film. In the two decades separating them, Hitchcock became all but naturalized American, and he wouldn’t make another English film until the vastly underrated 1972 Frenzy. So in the 1934 Man Who Knew Too Much, the Hall feels almost like an inevitability, to the extent that it’s of a piece with the distinct Englishness around it. But Stewart and Day are Americans, however worldly ones, so their unexpected London detour only heightens their anxiety. Here, the Hall functions as a fascinating counterpoint to the Djemaa el Fna—two iconic public meeting places that are equally foreign despite one’s relative primness. Hitchcock’s style by this point had become such a force of nature that it transcended nationality; locations, no matter how exotic or well-known, were just playgrounds for his camera. Or rather, venues for him to play piano.
John Lingan lives and writes outside of Washington, DC. He blogs at Busy Being Born.