Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934): Better the second time around

Alfred Hitchcock once described 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, made six years before he left England to make his first American production, as the work of a gifted amateur while the 1956 remake was the work of a professional.

There are film buffs who insist that the original is superior and sneer at the glossy Hollywood version starring James Stewart and Doris Day. Some of them smugly point to Day and that song, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be),” as the reason that the second film doesn’t measure up. So often dismissed as the epitome of bland, white-bread wholesomeness by those who claim to know more than they do (which is usually nothing), Day is a convenient and unfair target. The gifted actress is brilliant in the remake, more than equal to Stewart, and her touching recital of that charming (and Oscar winning) song is integral to the story.

Hitchcock knew better than his critics. The 1934 film has some brilliant moments, such as when a victim of assassination reacts very calmly after noticing the bullet wound in his breast before he collapses to the floor. The climax when the kidnapped child (a daughter in this case) eludes one of her captors on a rooftop, nervously stepping along the ledge, is another memorable scene.

Otherwise, The Man Who Knew Too Much, with a scant running time of 75 minutes (according to its IMDb listing), fails to achieve the dramatic impact of the remake. The assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall falls comparatively flat, as does the cast. Unlike Stewart and Day, Leslie Banks and Edna Best have little personality. I didn’t care about them at all, and it’s no surprise that Criterion put Peter Lorre, the chief villain, on the cover of their DVD release of the film.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


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