‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’: The Thriller Master’s Only Remake

Alfred Hitchcock with Jimmy Stewart during production of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956. Still photographer: Ken Lobben. Courtesy of the John Kobal Foundation

The only remake Alfred Hitchcock ever made, the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is an exciting, highly suspenseful thriller carried to greatness on the shoulders of its superb cast. James Stewart, probably the best imaginable pick for all those ‘ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation’ projects, plays an American doctor who takes his wife, former successful singer, and young son on a trip to Morocco. There, the innocent and typically naïve family meet and befriend a mysterious man who soon dies in Stewart’s hands, not before telling him he’s a French agent and giving him details on an assassination plot. Worried the good doctor and his beautiful wife might thwart their plans, the assassins kidnap their 7-year-old son so as to keep their mouth shut, forcing Stewart and his partner Doris Day to give their all in a desperate attempt to save their son’s life. Hitchcock’s original film of the same name was made in 1934 and it could be said this was the thriller that jumpstarted his whole career. Three quarters of an hour longer, with a far more stellar cast and made with much more money, the American version of the story is definitely superior, as Hitchcock developed his unique style and, in the years that followed the first version, became a champion of making thrillers. It’s interesting to note that the story was partially inspired by Hitchcock’s own visit to Morocco, when he took his wife there to celebrate their 28th wedding anniversary. This journey inspired him enough to finally seriously consider retelling the story from 1934, having refused to do it earlier, when David O. Selznick’s wanted him to back in the early forties. The other source of inspiration was slightly more bizarre, as the crucial plot point in the film’s finale was developed from an old legend concerning Richard the Lionheart’s captivity upon his return from the Crusades.

The Man Who Knew Too Much was a box-office success, with one Oscar win in the best original song category. Indeed, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ song ‘Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)’ was a huge triumph, with Doris Day giving a wonderful version at the film’s close. It is exactly because of her musical skills that Hitchcock wanted her to star in the film, as screenwriter John Michael Hayes scripted Stewart’s wife to be a former musical star who put her career on hold in order to accommodate her beloved but inflexible and irritatingly traditional husband. The tension between the couple due to this sacrifice is palpable, very nicely scripted and adds an important extra dimension to the characters, burdening their marriage with another strain, as if the strength of their connection and love wasn’t challenged enough by their son’s kidnapping. The Man Who Knew Too Much might not be Hitchcock’s greatest work ever, but even with its small imperfections it towers above most of its competition in this genre.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read John Michael Hayes’ screenplay for The Man Who Knew Too Much [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

As you all know, most of the screenplays on C&B are among the most elusive and unattainable unicorns out there, just like The Man Who Knew Too Much’s script. It takes us a lot of blood, sweat and tears to find and digitize them so as to make them available to the general filmloving public. We’de be forever grateful if you could help us, however modestly, to buy the necessary equipment so we could continue our work. Thank you.

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT

In the book-length interview Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967), in response to fellow filmmaker François Truffaut’s assertion that aspects of the remake were by far superior, Hitchcock replied “Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.”

TRUFFAUT: The Man Who Knew Too Much was your greatest British success and I think it was a big hit in the United States as well. In the original version the story was about a couple of British tourists traveling in Switzerland with their daughter. They witness the assassination of a Frenchman who, before he dies, tells them about a plot to murder a foreign diplomat in London. To ensure the couple’s silence, the spy ring captures the little girl. The couple returns to London to track down the kidnappers, and the mother manages to save the ambassador’s life just as he’s about to be shot down during a concert at Albert Hall. The picture winds up with the police smoking the spy gang out of their hiding place and the saving of the little girl. In the American version of 1956, the picture opens in Marrakech, but in the original the action begins in Switzerland.

HITCHCOCK: The picture opens with a scene at St. Moritz, in Switzerland, because that’s where I spent my honeymoon with my wife. From our window I could see the skating rink. And it occurred to me that we might start the picture by showing an ice skater tracing numbers-eight-six-zero-two-on the rink. An espionage code, of course. But I dropped the idea.
TRUFFAUT: Because you couldn’t get the shot?
HITCHCOCK: No. It simply had no place in the story. But the point I was trying to make is that from the very outset the contrast between the snowy Alps and the congested streets of London was a decisive factor. That visual concept had to be embodied in the film.

 

THE MAKING OF ‘THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH’

Various members of the crew discuss the making of Hitchcock’s remake in 1956.


Open YouTube video

Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro finds comparing this earlier, British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much to Hitchcock’s later, American version to be like “comparing a miniature, a Vermeer—understated, beautiful in the stillness and the economy of all the artistic gestures—to a mural or a billboard, a very flashy, large billboard in the middle of a very populated avenue.” He concludes, “I prefer, in this instance, the Vermeer.” —10 Things I Learned: The Man Who Knew Too Much by Abbey Lustgarten

 

THE ILLUSTRATED ALFRED HITCHCOCK

In July 1972, Camera Three broadcast two 30 minute interviews with Alfred Hitchcock titled The Illustrated Alfred Hitchcock, which were conducted by Pia Lindström and William K. Everson. The interviews included footage from a variety of Hitchcock’s films. Courtesy of the Hitchcock Zone.

THE SOUND OF HITCHCOCK

Join Academy Award-winning sound designers as they reveal how Alfred Hitchcock employed sound to make audience members leap from their seats in fright or crawl under them from excruciating suspense.

IN THE MASTER’S SHADOW: HITCHCOCK’S LEGACY

Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, William Friedkin and many others celebrate the enduring legacy of the man many consider the greatest filmmaker the medium has yet produced. Discover why Alfred Hitchcock’s movies thrill audiences and inspire filmmakers, who continue to employ his cinematic techniques to this day.

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Still photographer: Ken Lobben. Courtesy of the John Kobal Foundation.


 

 
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