Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Modern film geeks seem to complain a lot about remakes. Whether they are needless, obvious commercialism for commercialism’s sake, or flat out assaulting childhoods, it’s a safe bet to rail on any film that’s been done before. Would we have felt the same way in 1956 when Alfred Hitchcock redid his own film, The Man Who Knew Too Much?
The first version, film legend Peter Lorre’s very first English-speaking role, features a lot of incredible moments. Hitch was just getting his stride as a filmmaker, and the suspense is as strong as you could hope for from the mind of a genius.
A couple vacationing in Switzerland befriend a spy who provides them some information about a political assassination in the final moments of his life. Desperate to tell the authorities, the couple soon learns that their daughter has been kidnapped in order to keep them from doing what’s right.
The premise, as with most brilliant works, is achingly simple. The key to the original version is its stripped-down beauty. Like an art film done well, it reverberates with basic human emotions and the types of ethical dilemmas that keep characters making choices that they, and the audience, don’t want them to have to make.
The signature of this piece is Peter Lorre – who was born to play the bad guy. His creep-factor sky rockets thanks to Hitch’s direction. Every scene he’s in is haunting and makes the film worthwhile.
It has its problems, though, especially seen through the lens of the modern film-viewer. It’s a bit too short, some of the scenes are more awkward than uneasy, and the acting is good but not great. So, perhaps it was right that it was remade.
The updated version fixes a lot of the problems, and causes a few of its own. For the most part, it’s every bit as terrifying, but the acting gets ratcheted up with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day nailing the part of the troubled couple whose child (it’s their son this time) is taken from them.
Perhaps the most startling thing about this version is its departure from the darkened palette of European style. Hitchcock trades it in for the lush textures of Hollywood. The film make take place overseas, but the visuals are pure Hollywood decadence. While the original is art house, the remake is bigger budget. Film noire versus classic tinseltown.
The second version keeps the same iconic scene, the first climax of action at Albert Hall when the assassination attempt comes to fruition. Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrman chose to keep Arthur Benjamin’s gorgeous cantata Storm Clouds for the scene, but the film’s most striking musical moment comes as Doris Day, whose character is a famous singer, performs “Que Sera, Sera” for an embassy crowd while Stewart hunts for their son. I grew up knowing the song, a breezy sort of sentimental piece – and it wasn’t until watching this film that I realized the true genius of Hitch. Somehow, he transforms a cheesy feel-good song into an unnerving mantra, a ghostly hymn that draws the tension even tighter while the fate of the young son is still unknown.
There are still issues, the ending seems abrupt, and purists dislike the departures from the original, but overall, both films are brilliant pieces of art that show off Hitchcock’s greatest skills. They may not be his best, but they are worth more than a few rental fees. They are both spy movies of the unlikeliest type, strikingly beautiful, and films that retain their strength over time. Now, we just have to make sure no one else but Hitch remakes them.
You’ll dig it if you dig:
The Sixth Sense
James Bond Films
The Usual Suspects