It’s been sixty years since Alfred Hitchcock remade one of his own films, The Man Who Knew Too Much, which today may be remembered for its Oscar-winning song, “What Will Be Will Be,” rather than anything else. But it’s a solid suspense film, perhaps milked a little too long (at two hours, it’s about ten minutes too much).
The first version of a film of this title was made by Hitchcock in England in 1934. He had always wanted to remake it, and finally did so in ’56 with James Stewart and Doris Day as a typical American couple that gets involved in an assassination plot. As per the Hitchcock tropes, Stewart is the common man who takes on international spies and killers, his laconic drawl erupting into anger at every encounter with either bad guys or cops (along with the other Hitchcock films he made during the ’50s and the Anthony Mann Westerns of the same decade, Stewart spend much of the ’50s pissed off).
He and Day and their son (an unfortunately awful Christopher Olsen) are vacationing in Morocco. On a bus to Marrakesh, they are helped out of a possible incident by a Frenchman (Daniel Gelin). Gelin questions Stewart in a friendly manner. Day notices this and is suspicious, and then later, when they are stood up for dinner, she becomes even more so. But they befriend an English couple and forget about him, at least until he ends dying in Stewart’s arms, his face covered in makeup and wearing Arab robes.
Gelin whispers some information to Stewart about an assassination plot in London before he dies, and the boy gets kidnapped. Warned not to reveal any information by a mysterious phone caller, they go to London to try to find him, foiling a plot to assassinate a prime minister at Albert Hall, and then later rescuing the kid when Day sings “What Will be Will Be (Que Sera Sera)” to get the kid’s attention.
The first thing one notices is what Hitchcock is notoriously known for: bad rear projection shots. Day and Stewart are in the back of a bus and the rear projection is so noticeable it takes one right out of the film. Oddly, the film was shot in location in Marrakesh, where it was beastly hot (one colleague said it was the first time he had seen Hitchcock in short sleeves without a tie). But some of the marketplace scenes also appear to have been shot with rear projection. The scene of the first murder, though, comes across vividly, with the makeup on Gelin’s face coming off in Stewart’s hands. Actually, the way they shot it was with Stewart wearing white powder on his hands, which came off on Gelin’s face.
There are many memorable set pieces, including Stewart and Day confronting their son’s kidnappers in a London church, and the climactic assassination attempt, in which the shooter is supposed to fire during a crash of cymbals. Day, helplessly, watches, unable to do anything but scream. The shot of a gun barrel poking around the curtain is one of the things that Hitchcock duplicated from the first film.
Their is also some comedy in the film, especially a scene in which Stewart attempts to sit at a low table in a Moroccan restaurant, and then a bizarre and almost hallucinatory scene in a taxidermist shop.
I have not scene the original film, which Hitchcock described as being made by a “talented amateur” while the remake was by a “professional.” The film is shot in almost lurid Technicolor by Robert Burks, one that suggests the paranoia of the film, in which everyone seems to be watching the couple. There is also a scene of great cruelty, not by the bad guys, but when Stewart gives Day sedatives before telling her that their son has been kidnapped. Her reaction may be the best thing Day ever did on film.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is second-tier Hitchcock, made just before his incredible run of Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds. It follows his rules, though, of the audience knowing more than the characters. The whole assassination scene is one long stomach lurch, as we know who and what is going on, while those around do not. It just goes on a bit too long, as does the scene in which Day sings, fortissimo, to get the attention of her son. No one should be subject to more than two verses of “Que Sera Sera.”