The (other) Man Who Knew Too Much

While it’s too much to say that the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is “better” than the better-known 1956 version, there are areas where the original is a substantially better work.

The biggest tonal shift is the married couple.  In 1956 they are middle-class Americans, Christian, uptight and oblivious to their surroundings, blundering around foreign countries at a loss.  In 1934 they are wealthy, white-tie sophisticates, world-travelers who drink, trade bon mots with celebrities and joke about sleeping around.  The shift makes the 1934 version both more giddy and more exotic — this couple seems to take the kidnapping of their child in stride, a simple problem to be solved with reserve, pluck and stiff upper lips, and there is plenty of time for banter and hijinx, and instead of recognizing the couple as people we know, we wonder what their private life must be like when they’re not dashing about Europe and participating in skeet-shooting competitions.

The staging, for its budget, is rich and sophisticated.  The frame is constantly overstuffed with movement, often from behind the camera to far off in the distance with an impressive use of depth.  It makes everything feel crowded and vaguely vertiginous.  Hitchcock will stage important dialogue scenes in hallways with waiters carrying tables through the foreground or characters with their backs turned to the camera.

Strangely, in the 1934 version the husband doesn’t go off hunting for the child with his wife; rather, he is given a sad-sack sidekick who serves as comic relief while the wife waits back at the hotel.  Score one for the 1956 version.

The simple humble chapel of the 1956 version here is a bizarre “sun-worshipping” cult that sings traditional hymns, then recites odd incantations and hypnotises devotees as an initiation.  And instead of simply hitting Jimmy Stewart on the head, the bad guys here start a colossal, thrilling chair-throwing fight.  Honestly, I’ve been watching movies now for forty years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fight consist solely of men in suits throwing chairs at each other, across a sun-worshippers’ temple, no less.

Then there are the bad guys.  In 1956, we have the conflicted, ill-prepared priest and his grumpy, panicky, depressed gang of ne’er-do-wells.  Here, we’ve got Peter freaking Lorre in his first English-speaking role as the head bad guy.  In 1956 we knew that nothing bad was going to happen to the child, but in 1934 they cast the German, fish-eyed, pasty faced, louche, giggling, slouching, smoking, demented child-killing psycho “M” himself.  And in case we don’t think he’s degenerate enough, Hitchcock puts a blond streak in his greasy comb-over and a big garish scar on his forehead.  By the time Lorre’s presence fully registers in this movie we’re hoping he stops at killing the child; who knows what this leering creep is capable of?  The rest of his team thinks he’s a little too creepy, for Christ’s sake.

The big scene at the Albert Hall, although not as elaborate as the 1956 version (it could hardly be else) still works just fine, but the real plus is that the narrative actually picks up afterward, the stakes rising dramatically instead of slacking off as they do in 1956, where Doris Day has already saved the day from the ice-water-veined assassin and we know the dumpy, conflicted spy ring doesn’t stand a chance.  In 1934, the spy ring learn the assassination has failed and immediately decide to kill the child and head out of town.  The only thing that stops them is the police showing up and surrounding the place, leading to a dramatic shootout.  All of this is better plotting than the 1956 version. 

To give you a fair indication of the differences in the two movies, in 1956 Doris Day plays a one-time singing star who gets to use her voice to help save her child, and in 1934 the mother gets to nail the assassin with a rifle (while wearing a silk ball gown and a mink stole, no less) as he tries to flee across the rooftops with her daughter.

Hitchcock told Truffaut that he considered the 1934 movie the work of a talented amateur and the 1956 movie the work of a professional.  I know what he means, but the language he used is telling.  The 1934 movie is made with a great deal of passion and invention, and while the 1956 version is definitely the smoother, more polished offering it feels more like mere entertainment.

The Laserlight DVD edition, for some reason, features an introduction by the great Hitchcockian actor Tony Curtis.  He looks old, baffled and unfamiliar with his surroundings, as though affronted by the camera pointed at him.  He also describes The Man Who Knew Too Much as a treasure from “the Golden Age of Hollywood,” a sad bit of cultural imperialism for this gem of early British talking cinema.
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29 Responses to “The (other) Man Who Knew Too Much”
  1. teamwak says:

    At least he didnt say The Man Who Knew Too Little was a Hollywood treasure. Bill Murray would never live it down.

    This is not the first of Hitchcocks movies that he re-made, is it?. Is it Rope that he also re-made? How much sucess did he enjoy with these. Was it the larger budget that Hollywood gave him that made his want to re-address them, or did he feel he didnt do a good enough job last time?

    • rennameeks says:

      This was the only movie Hitchcock directed that he remade. It’s interesting that he chose to revisit this particular film, as opposed to something like The 39 Steps (one of his British successes). Perhaps he thought it was worth updating for the times. Movies made in the 30s were vastly different in tone and attitude than those made in the 50s.

      I’m with Todd, though – I find the rifle-wielding wife more interesting than the singing version of the Pied Piper. Perhaps there’s more suspense in not using weaponry, but there’s a lot to be said for a film that doesn’t screech to a halt for an inserted musical number.

      • Todd says:

        Hitchcock says that he only did the later Man because he owed Universal a picture and didn’t want to be bothered with thinking up a new idea. That said, the product is still a masterful creation.

        I think the rifle-wielding socialite wife is a more interesting character, or she would be, if she had the screen-time relegated to the male lead’s goofy friend. In any case, Doris Day is complex enough playing the once-sophisticated world traveler who’s now stuck in Indiana with the middle-class doctor.

        I also think that the third-act “musical number” in the remake works just fine, both dramatically and as a suspense piece. It just doesn’t hold a candle to the full-throttle shoot-out in the original.

        • rennameeks says:

          The Doris Day character is complex in her own right, but I find her to be more of a traditional sort of female lead, simply because a singing talent is far less unique than a *woman* sharpshooter. (Of course, I’m completely biased, since I’m generally tired of the old concepts of filmic femininity….)

          Oh yes, the Que Sera Sera sequence works…it’s just exciting in a completely different way.

          • Todd says:

            She is definitely more traditional sort of female lead. What surprised me watching the movie this time around is how well Day performs the role. I used to watch the movie and think “Sheesh, what’s her problem?” and now I watch it and think “Her problem is obvious, she’s stuck in a passionless, dead-end marriage she would kill to get out of and if not for the boy she would be a mere Doris-Day-shaped dust cloud.”

            • rennameeks says:

              That’s one of the reasons that the remake is more fascinating in some ways. Did the harrowing experience of nearly losing their son save their marriage? Or did things go right back to normal after the credits rolled?

              Rather than working as a team, like the original couple (even though the wife stayed behind in favor of the comic relief), this couple is constantly at odds. They never present a united front, even though they have a common goal. This contributes to the underlying conflict, though the possibility of Doris Day actually leaving her husband never enters the picture (thank you, 1950s society).

              The original couple seemed better equipped to cope with action sequences. Doris Day and James Stewart were ordinary people thrown into the same sorts of situations and had to work that much harder to get through them.

              • Todd says:

                Or did things go right back to normal after the credits rolled?

                The last line, “Sorry we’re late, we had to go pick up Hank!” especially as it’s delivered by Stewart, very much implies that everything is back to normal now. Besides which, Hitchcock’s deep hatred of his blondes is legendary.

                The “ordinary people” aspect of the remake is no doubt the main source of its charm, but the original has almost a Thin Man level of domestic sophistication; you get the idea that they don’t just joke about having affairs, they actually go out and have them, all the time. And check out the way mom treats her daughter in the first reel, handing her her new gift as an afterthought as she prepares to murder a clay pigeon. “Here, here’s that broach you wanted” she says, not even looking at her. And yet we don’t doubt that mom loves her kid; especially after we see she’s willing to kill for her. Hard to imagine Doris Day having a former career as a sniper.

                ps Where have you been? I’ve not seen your comments around recently.

                • rennameeks says:

                  Ah, yes, quite right – it’s been ages since I’ve seen either version of this film, and I’d forgotten that line. On the subject of Jimmy Stewart, it’s rather amusing how typecast he got from movies like It’s a Wonderful Life. He took on some of Hitchcock’s most complicated male leads, but he still retained his “nice guy” image years after the fact. We’ve discussed this character in-depth already, of course. Scottie in Vertigo was a control freak of the worst order, completely remaking his woman in the image he wanted her (one wonders just how personal that story was for Hitchcock, beyond the obvious directorial comparisons). In Rope, his character is the source of inspiration for the grisly murder committed; though he himself would not have committed the murder, his words did everything but the actual act of killing the “inferior.” And these are the protagonists! Pretty amazing, really.

                  I would have loved to see Myrna Loy as the sniper wife in the original version. She thrived in those sorts of situations, both with the banter and with expressing affection for her family without outrightly saying it – it just oozes off the screen. Nothing against the original actress, of course; I just like Myrna Loy. I wish that there were more situations that would call for her sort of skills these days, but I’m afraid that her type of character just isn’t needed at this stage in time. There are no Thin Man movies being made currently. Instead, we get Date Movie. Awesome tradeoff.


                  As to my whereabouts, I disappeared into the depths of reality (gasp! shock! horror!) and have only recently gotten more settled back into my favorite timeslot: the dead of night. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d be missed.

                  • Todd says:

                    Stewart could get plenty dark — hell, he gets plenty dark in Act III of It’s a Wonderful Life — but he’s cast as Mr. Ordinary Man in Man. But even then he cheerfully trades his wife’s stage career for a handful of losers he despises in Indianapolis and forces drugs into her “for her own good.”

                    Hitchcock’s various pathologies are detailed in Donald Spoto’s highly informative and entertaining Dark Side of Genius.

                    There is, as it happens, a marksman heroine available at the cinema today — the champion archer in The Host. So, of course she’s from Korea and of course she’s a neurotic fuckup and of course she’s unmarried; a married female marksman would be too suspicious. In so many ways I regret living in the time we do.

                    Good to know there’s at least one other nightowl in LA; sometimes this town feels like freaking Ohio.

                    • rennameeks says:

                      What’s fascinating is that Stewart had originally been considered for the lead in North by Northwest, which would have been his “lightest” role for Hitchcock by comparison.

                      I haven’t read that one; will have to check it out.

                      Filmmakers in general have trouble handling female marksmen (markswomen?)/assassin-types on the romantic front. Because they’re women, their personal lives must be considered and commented on, whereas men in the same position are more easily considered loners who are allowed to “get away with” living such a lifestyle. If a woman’s married, she instantly becomes perceived as weak. Her husband and her family suddenly take a higher priority than her work, so it is assumed that she chooses them over it. A man in the same position would be given an actual choice.

                      Mind you, I loved Kill Bill, mostly because QT had the Bride make a willing transition from assassin to mother, showing in the process that it wasn’t a bad choice. However, at no point in the film was the Bride anything but a badass waiting to strike; even when reunited with her daughter, they watched Shogun Assassin together. Of course, no man could ever be her equal, and the only one who came close tried to kill her, so she was never married either.

                      On that note, however, many of the true loner male heroes in the same vein end up unmarried. But because they’re men, it’s not a big deal that they remain single. But even those that do settle down are more likely to have a woman that they’re perceived as stronger than. To marry off a loner female to a man would emasculate him.

                      Of course, marksmen are a subtype of the larger “loner” group as it is. Other than the wife in the original Man, I can’t think of any sharpshooters who were married – male or female.

                      Nightowl writers unite against the oppression of the rolled up sidewalks! Seriously, the city felt dead around 10-11 pm last Friday night. That’s just not right. I’d believe that in the valley, but on the westside? WTF?

                    • craigjclark says:

                      What’s fascinating is that Stewart had originally been considered for the lead in North by Northwest, which would have been his “lightest” role for Hitchcock by comparison.

                      Yeah, too bad Vertigo flopped so badly. Then again, if it hadn’t, we might have been denied what is arguably the quintessential Cary Grant performance.

                    • urbaniak says:

                      I beg to differ. Now, I love Cary Grant. Cary Grant is fantastic. Cary Grant’s performances are original, spontaneous, truthful, irreverent and hilarious. To emply the vulgate, Cary Grant is the shit.

                      HOWEVER, Cary Grant is totally miscast in North by Northwest. The wryly befuddled Roger Thornhill is a James Stewart role from the ground up. Cast Cary Grant as a cocky alpha male and he will bring nuance and subtlety to the role. His suave, super-privileged C.K. Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story is informed throughout by a melancholy wisdom borne of heartbreak and recovering alcoholism. But when that character walks into a room, he still has the upper hand.

                      James Stewart’s genius is the electrifying humanity he brings to unassuming, vulnerable characters. I’m sorry, but the story of a 1950s gray-flannel ad man thrust into an insane world of unpredictable espionage is tailor made for the regular guy, not the chiseled swaggerer.

                      That said, I love the movie.

                    • rennameeks says:

                      The reason I’d heard given for the casting change was age (Stewart was “too old” for Thornhill).

                      Thank you for putting into words what’s always bothered me about North by Northwest. I hadn’t gone that extra step to try reading Thornhill as a Stewart character before and it makes a hell of a lot more sense that way. The banter with his mother certainly would have played out differently, among other things!

                      Grant was much better suited for Devlin in Notorious or the former Cat in To Catch a Thief.

                    • Todd says:

                      It’s funny, I was just watching North by Northwest a couple of weeks ago and I was struck by how Grant seems to be kidding his way through the whole picture. We buy him as the smoothie who gets into Eva Marie Saint’s train compartment (and pants) in record time, but yeah, the idea of him being a hen-pecked son or a gray-flannel suit doesn’t, er, suit. And I can totally see Stewart doing the comedy bit at the auction. I never thought about it before because it was probably the first thing I ever saw Grant in.

  2. mikeyed says:

    I haven’t read anything of your post yet, but i know what I want to say already and that is: Arsenic and Oldlace.

    • Todd says:

      It took me many years to realize just how funny — and how meta — Arsenic is. To have Peter Lorre doing his shtick next to Raymond Massey is funny enough, but to realize that on stage the part was played by Boris Karloff, that is, the guy everyone keeps describing as looking like Boris Karloff, is priceless.

      (Cary Grant used this meta-joke at least twice more, describing Ralph Bellamy once as looking like Ralph Bellamy, and himself as Archie Leech, which was, of course, his real name.)

  3. craigjclark says:

    Another thing this film has over its remake is the feeling that everything that is taking place is really happening before the camera. In the remake, I lost count of how many times I saw actors in a studio playing against background plates that had been shot on location. I know that’s how they made them back then, but the seams show a bit too much in this instance.

    • Todd says:

      Everything is happening in front of the camera in the original, but that often means that “in front of the camera” is a painted backdrop instead of, say, a Swiss Alp.

      I think in the instance of the remake, who wants to shoot a crowded marketplace scene in 140 degree heat? I give Hitchcock credit for shooting the chase scene there.

      • craigjclark says:

        Oh, I understand that. But the artificiality of a painted backdrop doesn’t jerk me out of a film the way superimposing the actors over a moving background does.

        Take The Trouble with Harry, for example, which Hitchcock made just the year before. That film alternates between scenes shot on location and those shot in the studio (often in front of painted backdrops) and the effect isn’t nearly as jarring.

        • Todd says:

          There are plenty of painted backdrops in Man, too. DVD can be cruel that way. There’s a scene half-way through The Birds, an exterior during the birthday party, where Rod and Tippi are up on a hill and the backdrop suddenly looks as fake as it could be.

          Although, for bad effects, nothing beats the fight on the moon in Superman IV: The Quest For Peace where Superman fights some asshole with big hair on the surface of the moon and the “deep space” in the background is unmistakably a black curtain.

          • craigjclark says:

            DVD can be the harshest mistress of all. As a reference medium, it’s fantastic. As a means of film preservation, it’s pretty sub-par.

            • Todd says:

              It’s still the best we have. Have you seen any HD DVD?

              • craigjclark says:

                No, I haven’t. Of course, what are the chances of a film like the original Man coming out on such a high-end medium?

                • Todd says:

                  As long as it’s in the public domain, the chances are pretty slim. On the other hand, It’s a Wonderful Life looked pretty crappy in its public domain years and has bounced back nicely. The current Republic DVD is stunning.

                  • craigjclark says:

                    The way I see it, nothing is really going to supplant DVD, at least not for the foreseeable future. It’s been around for close to a decade and the studios are still finding major films (or minor films by major filmmakers) to put out.

                    • rennameeks says:

                      And how long did VHS last before being pushed aside for DVD? Roughly two decades. The vaults will empty soon enough and the format will have to change so the studios can profit from the films again.

                      Even if the quality stays pretty much the same, the discs themselves might become smaller or cease to exist in that form entirely.

                      Of course, that all depends on how you define the “forseeable future.” 🙂

                    • Todd says:

                      I think the “next thing” is downloading movies straight onto your hard drive, which a couple of companies are already experimenting with.

                    • rennameeks says:

                      And on that note, add this to the mix.

                      Not that IMDb is the most reputable source for anything anymore. Interesting to note that they added a disclaimer at the bottom of the WENN feed: The WENN items do not represent IMDb’s opinions nor can we guarantee that WENN’s reporting is completely factual. Hooray for rumor mongering.

  4. Anonymous says:

    First of all – Tony Curtis ALWAYS looks baffled after one of the last of his facial updates.

    A few thoughts to tag as I am late to the party here (warning: I actually want to write something about Peter Lorre): Take Hitchcock’s film based on Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” – part of that British film period – everything seems to visually imply a kind of …unfriendly, dusty aging British culture. And an amazing choice of novel that got lost somewhere in the transition to script – and right at the bomb carried within. The anarchist’s meaning (blow up Greenwhich Means Observatory, or “0” and historical, imperialist time) left to become just random terror (an innocent child is knowingly blown up on a bus).

    I write on that film, to mention that Hitchcock’s Hollywood reconsideration of his British period is tricky – it appears even more straightened out and well-lit but essentially in order to dwell on that bomb that got lost in “The Secret Agent” transition to film. It is that incident of timing, intention and meaning that works so well within THE imperialist system Hitchock loved – Hollywood. It is reconstituted in parts – part Maguffin in script, partly the handling of HOllywood Stars, and in a way time and space are played with through the love of Stars to provide fetishistic details – the surrealist, Bunuel loving Hitchcock side – within. It all allows him to compose even more uncomfortable resonances within the story on a new, modern level, that his realism in the English period could not.

    With that, I want to cut to the chase and say Peter Lorre is a perfect example of an actor who MADE the transition excellently, from European realism incarnate, from variations of cultural baggage to the Hollywood system, and indeed would not have fit in Hitchcock’s new world view because he still contains traces of the first phase, the English period. Lorre has so many incarnations – the “M” Lorre, the “Maltese Falcon” thin Lorre, the parody “Arsenic and Old Lace” Lorre, the later Hollywood fat Lorre.
    He brought something untamed while fully professional to the roles, an accent and background that is not discernable (not simply “German” at all for those who know German, he sounds and locates from further East somewhere – there’s a film on him around that subject) that makes you wonder how he became so well-known in the U.S., but no one knew really who he was. He stood for being able to move in directions funny AND creepy, safe and dangerous – extremely – and able to do parody and straight.

    In the British period, it really is Lorre who is a central point to the casting of that film – Hitchcock knew who he had then, and in those films, many characters held down the film as this wasn’t a “Hollywood” Star in it. So it would be curious to consider who took that role in the new film, and what occurs, but of course, the point is, “Star-power” was amped up (with more observations on details as character) and other roles receded to the level of chair-throwing henchman and the like.

    As for Doris, well, she is really a misfit – and not in a good way – in the Hitchcockian Universe of Blondes. This is someone who is empty, empty smile, barely registering voice color, body curves just enough to be all perfect fodder for 1950s libidinal projection. But success is in comedy, in tongue-in-cheek wit with Rock Hudson and so on, not someone carrying any dark secrets, or a degree of lust within. Of course the saran-wrap came later…