This self-remake of Hitchcock's own 1934 thriller of the same name is, as the Master of Suspense claimed, a better take in all departments. There are elements of the original The Man Who Knew Too Much that are just as good - Peter Lorre, the dissolve from the teary-eyed view of the heroine to the steely gunbarrel of the assassin - but in general the story is a solid updating.
On vacation in Morocco, the McKenna family takes a very bad fall into international intrigue when Doctor Ben McKenna (James Stewart) is vouchsafed the dying words of a French secret agent. To insure their silence, counter-agents kidnap the McKenna's young son Hank (Christopher Olsen), the shock of which Ben thinks will throw his wife Jo, a semi-retired pop singer (Doris Day) into a nervous breakdown. But she's more than up to the task of going with Ben to England and tracking down the kidnappers without cooperating with the police, not knowing they are abetting a high-level assassination plot.
Frankly, in the 1970s we probably gave The Man Who Knew Too Much short shrift because at the time film students were averse to anything with Doris Day in it. Now Ms. Day's comedies don't seem so annoying and her performance in this film comes off as exceptionally good. Although the movie is another plot-driven spy chase, the identification with the McKenna's plight is very strong, with Jo's trauma over her missing son extremely believable. She is the afluent '50s American mother, for whom security and prosperity is a birthright, and any disruption of that is a psychic disaster. Ben's immediate solution for the shock is to dope Jo up with drugs, just one very telling '50s moment in this very bourgeois '50s movie.
Starting out as a typical Hollywood fake travelogue, we assess the McKennas a lot differently than audiences did in 1956. With the big stars rearscreened or matted into the locations, it's clear that Day and Stewart got nowhere near the real dirt and heat of Marrakech. The script has them making jokes and subtly belittling almost everything they see in the Arab country, from the food to the clothing to the manners of those around them. They aren't candidates for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, exactly, but they are overly concerned with manners and keeping appointments and mainly what they are owed in courtesy from strangers. This makes them easy prey for the sinister types who take advantage of them (no spoilers here, Savant guesses a lot of people haven't seen the movie), but still they're not stupid. Although they probably would have had equal success cooperating with Scotland Yard, the determination of Jo and Ben to find Hank on their own against cunning spies in an unfamiliar country is courageous and convincing.
Hitchcock again knows his central story is the star and doesn't gimmick up the film as much as he did the first time out. A sequence in a tiny church seems a bit more forced than the in the broad original. The sharpshooting talent of the mother in the 1934 version becomes Doris Day's singing celebrity, which is sometimes a benefit, and sometimes not. After being peeved that the "Lisa" song from Rear Window didn't give him the pop hit he was looking for, the composers of "Que será, será" really came through for Hitch on this one.
The concluding concert is given a lot of attention in the Laurent Bouzereau documentary included as a welcome extra on the disc. Letting the rising drama of a powerful piece of music help build the tension of a dramatic climax works even better here than in Hitchcock's first try, and the sequence has the epic feel of a huge theatrical situation held completely within the directorial control of a master. The recurring Hitchcock tension between a complacent mob and the emotionally distressed heroine pays off in unquestioning audience identification - we feel drawn in and involved, but without the aftertaste of manipulation which accompanies similar scenes by lesser talent.
One again, the baddies are a well-orchestrated lot. There's no wicked mother for the villain, but mother instincts stand out in strong relief in two of the kidnappers. The actual assassin is played by one of the most frightening actors ever to grace a mainstream movie - Reggie Nalder, whose face looks every bit as ravaged as Chaney's Phantom of the Opera. Just seeing him smile or narrow those eyes down the gunsight brought on chills when Savant was a child.
The Man Who Knew Too Much has some really fun casting for genre film fans. Whereas the main casting uses top-notch English talent, the bits are a who's who of Science Fiction and Horror names, making Savant think ol' Hitchy was a closet fan of monster movies. The little group in the hotel includes Hillary Brooke (Invaders from Mars), Richard Wattis (The Abominable Snowman), Alix Talton (The Deadly Mantis) and Carolyn Jones (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Ambrose Chappell is played by Hammer regular Richard Wordsworth, of The Quatermass Experiment and The Revenge of Frankenstein. And the IMDB identifies an embassy official as Wolf Preiss, presumably Wolfgang Preiss of The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse!
One of the most entertaining and colorful of the Hitchcock thrillers, The Man Who Knew Too Much has been made into a very handsome DVD by Universal. The 16:9 enhanced VistaVision image could hardly be improved, and the sound is strong and clear, especially in the grandiose Albert Hall climax. The informative docu has input from writing and technical personnel. The film has alternate French and Spanish tracks and Spanish subtitles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Man Who Knew Too Much rates:
Supplements: documentary, trailer, photo and info archives
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: February 18, 2001