Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956)

"The first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional." So said director Alfred Hitchcock in 1962 when interviewed by French New Wave filmmaker Francois Truffaut in his book Hitchcock about THE MAN WHO MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) and its remake 22 years later in 1956. Only Hitchcock would have the audacity to remake one of his own films. Certainly the latter version is more slick and Hollywood with James Stewart and Doris Day in the lead roles. You would think with Hitchcock having two decades to sharpen his considerable cinematic skills that the 1956 version would be better. Yet, the original 1934 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is in my humble opinion and many others (including HELLBOY director Guillermo del Toro) the better of the two films. The original is Hitchcock starting to find his stride as a young filmmaker, taking chances, and finding his visual and thematic style.

The original THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH succeeds because it has a better villain (Peter Lorre in his first English speaking film), better chemistry between the husband and wife ( although Leslie Banks and Edna Best are not as famous as Stewart and Day), and more sympathy for the kidnapped child. This isn't to say that the 1956 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH doesn't have its moments. Hitchcock was at the top of his game in the 1950's. The newer version has some excellent sequences not to mention a more prolonged Royal Albert Hall assassination attempt set piece.

So why would Hitchcock choose to remake THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH instead of one of his other early films? SABOTAGE (1936) to me is a much more flawed film that could have been updated nicely to the 1950's. THE 39 STEPS (1935) and THE LADY VANISHES (1938) are too perfect so don't mess with them. SABOTEUR (1942) could have been redone with a better leading man than Robert Cummings but Hitchcock perfected that story with a similar cross country chase, famous landmarks, and the ultimate leading man in Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959).

Two reasons that come to mind are the original MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH was made in  England and American audiences may not have had a chance to see it (although Truffaut in his book Hitchcock says that it was a hit in America). A more reasonable explanation is that Hitchcock wanted to retry the famous assassination attempt sequence at the Royal Albert Hall a second time, perhaps not happy with his first attempt (it turns out Hitchcock owed Paramount one more movie as well and picked TMWKTM to be that film). The newer MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH has a lengthier version of the Albert Hall scene with no dialogue this time, just visuals and stirring music to build the suspense. It is technically better and a bravura piece of filmmaking but I find the 1934 version with some cutting back to the spies listening to the concert on the radio just as suspenseful.

The original 1934 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH was written by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham Lewis. The title only comes from a book by G.K Chesterton. The tale begins in St. Moritz, Switzerland where a British family, the Lawrence's, are on holiday. The Lawrence family become embroiled in international intrigue when a Frenchman they befriend named Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) is fatally shot while dancing with Jill Lawrence (Edna Best) at dinner. Louis turns out to be a secret agent. Before Louis dies, he hands Jill a key and whispers to her that a foreign dignitary is to be assassinated in London and to look for a message in his shaving brush to take to the British Consulate. Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) retrieves the message before the assassin Ramon (Frank Vosper) can find it. The police detain Bob and question him. Ramon and the leader of the spy ring, the cheerfully creepy Abbott (Peter Lorre) kidnap the Lawrence's daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) to keep Bob and Jill silent about the assassination plot.

The Lawrence's return to London. Gibson (George Curzon) with the Foreign Office informs them that Louis was an agent with Special Services who had uncovered a plot to kill Roper, a foreign politician visiting London. With continued phone threats to kill their daughter Betty, the Lawrence's remain steadfast to reveal nothing to the authorities. But that doesn't stop Bob along with family friend "Uncle" Clive (Hugh Wakefield) from tracking down some leads from Louis's secret message starting with a visit to George Barbor (Henry Oscar), a dentist mentioned in the note. Barbor's office is a safe house for the spy ring. Bob catches sight of Abbott and Ramon while fending off the suspicious dentist and his gas mask. Bob and Clive follow the two men to the Tabernacle of the Sun, a sun worshipping chapel whose sun symbol is drawn on Louis's note.

Bob and Clive try to assimilate unnoticed in the chapel but all the other sun worshippers are women. Agnes (Cicely Oates), Abbott's personal nurse, notices them. Once the women exit, Abbott and Ramon attempt to block the men from leaving. Bob notices a Royal Albert Hall ticket in Ramon's pocket and tells Clive to warn the police. Clive manages to escape but Bob is knocked unconscious. When Clive returns with the police, Abbott calmly explains Clive was the troublemaker and the police take Clive away. Bob is briefly united with Betty before they're separated again. Abbott plays for Ramon a record with the music cue to show Ramon when he must shoot the foreign ambassador at the Royal Albert Hall.

Clive tells Jill to go to Albert Hall per her husband's instructions. Jill sees Ramon in the lobby. Ramon hands her Betty's skier pin, warning her to keep quiet. As the orchestra plays, Abbott and his den of spies listen on the radio. Ramon prepares to shoot the ambassador from a private box on the second level. But Jill screams right before the cymbals clash, and Ramon misses his mark. Ramon races back to the kidnappers hideout followed by Jill and the police. The kidnappers have guns but the police force a local gunsmith to loan them rifles. A climactic gunfight erupts (maybe the only one in a Hitchcock film) between the spies and the police as Bob helps Betty flee to the rooftop to escape Ramon who has been ordered by Abbott to kill young Betty.

The original THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is Hitchcock's break through hit, establishing him as the master of suspense. Hitchcock begins to establish his themes, design his visual vocabulary, and create set pieces that would shape and define his cinematic career. Hitchcock preferred to show rather than tell the audience by using symbols or motifs. Giant teeth to establish the sinister dentist office. A chiming watch to identify the spy ringleader Abbott. The skier pin to represent kidnapped Betty. He even uses cymbals as a symbol, winking to the audience as we nervously await the crashing of cymbals at the concert, signifying someone might be murdered.

Hitchcock gives us four good set pieces in MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, the beginning of many more to follow in his career. Obviously, the assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall is the penultimate, Hitchcock mixing visuals and music for suspenseful, cinematic effect in a famous location no less. The dentist sequence plays on everyone's fear of dentists which in this film proves to be true. The shootout between the villains and the cops is something rare for Hitchcock (taken from a real life gun battle called the Sidney Street siege in London in 1911 between Russian anarchists and the London police supervised by Winston Churchill) but it provides a great payoff when mother Jill seizes her chance to repay an earlier St. Moritz target practice challenge she lost to the assassin Ramon and save her daughter from him. But over looked is the fight scene in the church with Bob Lawrence throwing chairs at his assailants, fighting to rescue his daughter.

Hitchcock's 1956 remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is a longer version of the original film with some plot changes, alterations, and enhancements.  Written by one of Hitchcock's favorite screenwriters John Michael Hayes (who would pen four Hitchcock films including 1954's REAR WINDOW and 1955's TO CATCH A THIEF), Hitchcock switches the opening location from Switzerland to Morocco and the family from English to American. All of Hitchcock's collaborators during his golden period of filmmaking in the 1950s are on the picture: composer Bernard Herrmann, Director of Photography Robert Burks, screenwriter Hayes, Editor George Tomasini, Art Directors Henry Bumstead and Hal Peirera, and Costumes by Edith Head.

Dr. Benjamin McKenna (James Stewart), his wife Josephine aka Jo (Doris Day), and their young son Hank (Christopher Olsen) are on vacation in the North Africa country of Morocco. While on a bus to Marrakech, they meet a friendly Frenchman Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin) who joins them for drinks later that night. The next day at the Marrakech market, police chase a robed man. He's stabbed by an assailant. He stumbles into Ben's arms. It's Louis, disguised as an Arab, his face painted dark. Louis whispers to Ben a foreign statesman will be assassinated in London before dying. Ben jots down Louis's cryptic message. While Ben and Jo are questioned by the police and discover Louis was an intelligence agent, another English couple, Edward Drayton (Bernard Miles) and his wife Lucy Drayton (Brenda de Banzie) offer to watch Hank. But the Drayton's are part of the assassination plot and kidnap Hank to keep the McKenna's quiet about the assassination plot.

Back in London, the McKenna's meet with Inspector Buchanan (Ralph Truman) who wants to help them but the McKenna's stay mum, not wanting to jeopardize Hank's life. Back at their hotel, theater friends of Jo's (including Carolyn Jones who would later play Morticia in TV's THE ADDAMS FAMILY) stop by unexpectedly. Ben goes to check out Ambrose Chappel, a name Louis mentioned in his dying breath. Ben thinks it's a person. After looking him up in the phone book and calling him, Ben goes to visit Ambrose Chappel (George Howe) at his taxidermy shop. Everyone acts suspicious in the shop but it's a red herring that Hitchcock throws us. Jo figures out that Ambrose Chappel is a place not a person. She tells her theater friends to have Ben meet her at a church called Ambrose Chapel when he returns.

The conspirators are hiding out at the chapel. Drayton plays Storm Cloud Cantata on a record for the assassin Rien (Reggie Nalder), pointing out the musical cue where Rien will shoot the Foreign Prime Minister (Alexis Bobrinskoy). Drayton, dressed as a vicar, prepares for a service downstairs. Mrs. Drayton spots the McKenna's hiding amongst the parishioners. Jo sneaks out to call Inspector Buchanan. Ben scuffles with Drayton's men before he's knocked out. The Drayton's flee with Hank, hiding out in the embassy of the man they wish to kill.  Jo can't reach Buchanan who's attending the concert at the Royal Albert Hall. The chapel is locked when Jo and the police return. Ben's unconscious on the altar floor. Jo takes a taxi to the Royal Albert Hall to find Buchanan. She runs into Rien (who Jo recognizes from an encounter earlier at their Morocco hotel room). Rien warns her to do nothing if she wants to see Hank alive again.

Hitchcock recreates his original famous Royal Albert Hall assassination attempt (with a nice cameo by composer Bernard Herrmann as the symphony conductor) but shoots it entirely with music and no dialogue. Ben manages to escape from the chapel and joins Jo at Albert Hall. They spot Rien hiding behind curtains on the second balcony. Jo screams just as Rien shoots, wounding the Prime Minister. Ben tussles with Rien who falls to his death from the balcony (sort John Wilkes Booth style). Buchanan learns the Drayton's have been spotted at the embassy. Ben and Jo ask to see the Prime Minister (who thanked them earlier in the evening for saving his life). While Jo sings Que Sera Sera, Ben sneaks off and rescues Hank from the Draytons.

I enjoyed the newer version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH more upon a second viewing after watching the original first. The newer version has more layers to it. Hitchcock clearly wants this film to be American and not English. Ben is a doctor from Indianapolis. Jo is a former theater star who put her career on hold when she had Hank. Hitchcock and screenwriter Hayes add more psychological depth to the McKenna's marriage which appears strained at times. Jo giving up her music career. Ben not willing to move his practice to New York. Ben has a bit of a temper. Jo was taking too many pills until recently. Hank's kidnapping will help to strengthen their marriage.

The opening Morocco vacation scene is longer as Hitchcock establishes Louis's role more clearly (Jo doesn't trust Louis in this version) and hides the Drayton's fiendish intent until the right moment. Hitchcock throws out the dentist scene from the original and dazzles with the taxidermy set piece, building suspense in broad daylight. Notice how Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks frame fierce looking stuffed animals like tigers and lions at odd angles, as if the creatures might come alive and leap at them. The before mentioned Royal Albert Hall set piece is lengthier and better than the original, the music acting as another character, representing Jo's psychological state of mind, turbulent, emotional. She's frantic to find her son but now involved with an international murder plot too.

The finale for the 1956 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH seems drawn out and far-fetched, the result of Hitchcock already stretching out the story to perhaps its limits. He throws out the original shootout between good and bad guys, going for political intrigue as the Drayton's hide in the very embassy that the wounded Prime Minister represents. It appears the Ambassador (Mogens Wieth)ordered the assassination but it doesn't matter. We don't really care. At least the original had elements of the 30's political climate, echoes of another World War igniting much like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Sarajevo assassin started World War I. And Doris Day's singing Que Sera Sera smacks of the studio trying to stuff a hit single into a dramatic film.

I like the 1934 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH better for several reasons. Peter Lorre as the charming spy leader Abbott nearly steals the original film.  Lorre was an international star after Fritz Lang's M (1932). This is his first English speaking film and what an introduction playing the charismatic heavy in an Alfred Hitchcock film (with a scar and streak of white in his hair for good measure). Lorre would also make THE SECRET AGENT (1936) with Hitchcock. Hitchcock introduced villains in his films as charming, well dressed, and lethally polite although Lorre's gang is fond of padded doors, the better to muffle screams one presumes. The Drayton's in the newer version are more restrained, less flashy. Mrs. Drayton does have an icy stare and Mr. Drayton shows his ferocity at the end but they don't command the screen like Lorre. Hitchcock does know how to pick villainous faces in both films. The assassin Rien in the 1956 film resembles a vulture.

I also prefer the English Lawrence couple in the original to the American couple the McKenna's in the latter version. The Lawrence's are a bit like Nick and Nora Charles from THE THIN MAN (1934), a 1930's couple, having fun on vacation, teasing each other, even flirting with other people. Leslie Banks is self-deprecating as Bob Lawrence while Jimmy Stewart's Ben McKenna is probably Stewart's least interesting performance in a Hitchcock film. Hitchcock has some fun early in the original when Lawrence ties a string of yarn to Louis as he dances with his wife Jill, tangling up everyone on the dance floor. But both couples are deadly serious about rescuing their stolen children. The McKenna's show much more outward emotion to the kidnapping than their reserved English counterparts. Both versions are fun to watch as married couples involved in international intrigue try to unravel the mystery. The 1934 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH introduces two more themes that reappear over and over in Hitchcock films. One is the fear or lack of trust in the police. In this film, the couple's cannot go to the police for fear of endangering their child. The other theme is the accidental hero or in this case accidental heroes. Neither couple is extraordinary but circumstances beyond their control will force them to behave heroically.

The last element that makes the original THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH a better film is we are invested more in the kidnapping of Betty than we are Hank. Both kids are precocious but Betty is older and more mature. Her love for her parents and theirs for her is more genuine. When Betty is kidnapped, taken away on a horse drawn sleigh by Ramon, Hitchcock opens with a close up of her eyes before pulling back. The terror on her face is palpable. Young English actress Nova Pilbeam is marvelous in the original as Betty. Hank played by American Christopher Olsen in the remake is younger, a typical 1950's child actor, blonde and too cute. We never really identify with Hank. Even his kidnapping happens off screen. We don't care about Hank like we do Betty.

But in no way is the original perfect, making it understandable that Hitchcock would want to remake THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. In the first version, Hitchcock  introduces the characters fast and furious and it takes us a little time to figure out who's who. Characters appear and then disappear like "Uncle" Clive. An example of Hitchcock as a talented amateur is the scene where Abbott plays the music for Ramon, pointing out when to shoot the ambassador during the performance, right in front of our hero Bob Lawrence. It's too obvious. Hitchcock will tighten up the characters introductions and plot points with his 1956 version.

Hitchcock's use of Rear Projection process shots detracts from THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH remake. Rear Projection is where a previously filmed background is projected behind actors to make them appear to be driving on the French Rivera or skiing down a mountain when they're really on a soundstage. Filmmakers used it to save money and better control the sound and location. Hitchcock did film in Morocco but his back and forth use of Rear Projection in the Morocco (and some London) scenes is jarring and ruins the believability that the McKenna's are in Marrakech. Rear Projection was used extensively from the 30's through even the 70's (new technology like green screen today has replaced Rear Projection). Rear Projection always looks more realistic in black and white than color. In the 1934 film, Hitchcock uses Rear Projection sparingly during the opening St. Moritz ski sequence and it's fairly believable. But in the 1956 version (shot in color), it just looks fake. Hitchcock used Rear Projection to better effect in TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) and VERTIGO (1958) but horribly in MARNIE (1964) and in the newer THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH.

One of the things I never put much thought into when watching THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is the title. Who is the man who knew too much? Do you know? It's clearly Louis Bernard, the secret agent doomed when recognized by Abbott in the original and Rien in the remake. Louis knows the players, the plot, and the location of their nefarious plan. But when he's murdered, he transfers his knowledge to our protagonists.  Suddenly, Bob Lawrence and Ben McKenna become the man who knew too much. They have the clues but it takes them the rest of the film to piece it together (with their wives participation and ability to scream at the right moment). I think the title is intriguing and one of Hitchcock's most interesting.

Both versions of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH play a significant role in director Alfred Hitchcock's career. After a couple of flops early on, Hitchcock started making films for British Gaumont Studio. The 1934 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH would kick start his career again and attract the attention of American studios looking for new talent. TMWKTM began a successful run of English thrillers for Hitchcock. Following TMWKTM, Hitchcock would make the 39 STEPS, THE SECRET AGENT, SABOTAGE, and THE LADY VANISHES. Hitchcock's English period is often overlooked by his later American movies but it was one of his most productive stages of his early career as he made a name for himself. Hitchcock would make his first film in the United States in 1940 with REBECCA.

The 1956 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH was made at the peak of Hitchcock's career -- the 1950's. It follows after REAR WINDOW and TO CATCH A THIEF but before VERTIGO and NORTH BY NORTHWEST. It's my least favorite of all those films but TMWKTM did provide Hitchcock with his first attempt at a big studio, Technicolor suspense thriller about an innocent man mixed up in international intrigue that he would make again with greater success in 1959 with NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Both films have great leading men, famous landmarks, and the innocent protagonist involved with spies. Hitchcock had made this kind of film before with THE 39 STEPS, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, and SABOTEUR but they were in black and white. The newer THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH was his first color foray into that familiar suspense world.

So judge for yourself which THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH you want to see. Is it the black and white original with a star turn by villain Peter Lorre. Or is it the Technicolor remake with big Hollywood stars James Stewart and Doris Day. My suggestion is watch the original 1934 version first and the 1956 remake after that. Then, go out to the dinner and discuss the pros and cons of both versions as only Alfred Hitchcock would dare to remake one of his own successful films a second time.

No comments:

Post a Comment