Movie Review: THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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Classic Movie Review

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring James Stewart, Doris Day
Review by Steven Painter


Dr. Ben McKenna, his wife Jo and their son Hank are on a touring holiday of Africa when they meet the mysterious Louis Bernard on a bus. The next day Bernard is murdered in the local marketplace, but before he dies he manages to reveal details of an assassination about to take place in London. Fearing that their plot will be revealed, the assassins kidnap Hank in order to keep the McKenna’s silent. Ben and Jo go to London and take matters into their own hands.


Remakes are a part of Hollywood. So are projects that are announced, but then scrapped. A remake that has been announced, but hopefully won’t be made is The Birds (1963). From what I have read the people involved with the project totally miss the point of the movie. It isn’t about birds attacking people, but families. Anyways, The Birds is a movie that will be talked about sometime in the future. For now, I’ll go back to remakes and those trendy remakes of Alfred Hitchcock movies. Psycho (1998) is a good example of a poor Hitchcock remake. Hitchcock himself even traversed in the remake universe when he remade his own The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) in 1956.

Being the most popular director in the world, Hitchcock movies were always in demand. Because of this demand, producers pressured him to come up with stories quickly. It wasn’t his style to rush into anything so at certain points in his career he would take on an easy project just to “recharge the batteries” as he called it. One such project was Dial M for Murder (1953), another The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Universal came to Hitch and asked him to remake one of his earlier British movies. After much deliberation, Hitch and his associates decided on The Man Who Knew Too Much. The original is fairly good, but could definitely be improved. The remake is in color, which makes it more acceptable to modern audiences and it does feature James Stewart and Doris Day in order to better market the picture. Other than that, though, there isn’t much that makes this remake special.

Besides asking Hitch to remake one of his films, Universal requested that a catchy song be put in so that they could sell records on top of movie tickets. Bernard Herrmann, who composed the score and played the role of the Albert Hall conductor in the movie, was not known for catchy lyrical music. So some songwriters were brought in and wrote “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)” for Doris Day to sing. Her singing is about the only bright spot of her time on screen. The title of the song was derived from a line in the Ava Gardner movie The Barefoot Contessa (1954). The song, of course, has become a hit and associated with Doris Day more so than with the movie.Hitch and Stewart made a good team and Stewart performs well here. His performance is superior to Leslie Banks’ in the original. This might be because Stewart’s character is better developed here. He is Dr. McKenna. Not only a doctor, but a father. The man who is supposed to have all the answers and protect his family. So when his son, Hank is kidnapped, Dr. McKenna has to find the answers. He struggles to do this. Stewart does a great job, as he did throughout his career, as the everyman looking for answers. He is a big reason why this movie is worth watching.

The biggest defect of the remake, other than Doris Day, is the absence of Peter Lorre as Abbott. In the original, Abbott is a suave bad guy who is extremely cultured. The epitome of the white-collar criminal. There is not hint of a cultured villain in this one. Mr. and Mrs. Drayton who capture Hank, are not good substitutes. This is odd, as like most of the movie, the characters are stronger. As great as Peter Lorre’s performance in the original was — his character was rather limited. Had Lorre been asked to play Mr. Drayton I can only imagine how great this movie would have been. But he was not asked to play the part and the actors who replaced him are not in his league.For the most part, the original and the remake follow the same storyline — once arrived in London that is. The beginning of the remake in Morocco is interesting, especially the scene in the restaurant where Stewart and another family from America have difficulty with the local customs. Here we see Hitchcock’s wonderful sense humor.

There is also the famous scene where the black make-up comes off of the murdered Louis Bernard, onto the hands of Dr. McKenna. This murder is shot well and is the catalyst for the rest of the story. Because Dr. McKenna has learned Bernard’s secret, his son is captured in order to silence him.

The McKennas arrive in London and begin their search for Hank, but are conveniently stopped from being able to find him. These suspense methods were employed in the first movie and have been kept for the most part intact here.

There is an interesting scene in a taxidermy store, which will echo a similar scene in the parlor of the Bates Motel four years later in Psycho (1960). Hitch had a fascination with birds and taxidermy. The scene itself is not great and probably didn’t need to be added. It was just a directorial splurge.

The Albert Hall performance is longer in the remake, probably to give Herrmann some more screen time. It is great to see the Albert Hall in color for the first time in a Hitchcock picture. The old performance hall had been a staple of Hitch’s British pictures. The famous image of the gun coming out from behind the curtain to murder the foreign dignitary during the cymbal crash during the symphony is still intact from the first movie.Doris Day screams and saves the day for the foreign dignitary. This is all nice, but it is only Hitchcock’s MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is basically a plot point in the story that doesn’t matter. There is a great joke that Hitch used to tell about the meaning of the word MacGuffin, but that will be saved for another day. Since the overt plot points are basically MacGuffins, I’ll sum up the story by saying that the McKennas work hard trying to find their son somewhere in London. They are unable to and are about to give up when Day prevents the murder of the foreign ambassador at the Albert Hall. The smitten ambassador invites the McKennas back to his embassy to say thanks.

Lo and behold Hank happens to be in the embassy. The McKennas find this out when he whistles “Whatever Will Be, Will Be.” This gives Day another chance to showcase the song. The extra screen time was also beneficial to the pocketbooks of the Universal board of directors.

I guess you could say, like all remakes, this one was done for purely commercial reasons. Perhaps that is why it does not really build as much on the original as it could have.

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