Wednesday, October 27, 2010

'The Man Who Knew Too Much' is an
exception among needless remakes

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1954)
Starring: James Stewart, Doris Day, Brenda de Banzie, Bernard Miles, and Christopher Olsen
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A vacation turns into a nightmare for Dr. Ben McKenna (Stewart) and his wife (Day) after a dying intelligence agent entrusts Ben with information to stop an assassination plot. Before they can notify the police, their son (Olsen) is kidnapped by members of the conspiracy and they are told that if they reveal anything, he will be killed. Not knowing who they can trust, the McKennas try to use the information they have to track the assassins and free their boy.

In my review of the original "The May Who Knew Too Much," (click here to read it at Shades of Gray), I commented that it wasn't Hitchcock's best, but that it was still very good. For that reason, I've avoided the remake, because, even though it was also done by Hitchcock, I assumed it would be a waste of time, because, like so many remakes, it was entirely unnecessary.

However, among the multitudes of unnecessary remakes, the 1954 version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" is one of the few films that has a number of improvements on the original.

First and foremost of these is the fact that the protagonists in this film are just a pair of ordinary people--well, as ordinary as a successful surgeon and a retired musical star can be--who truly are in way over their heads. In the original version, the couple had a bit of "adventurer" in them and were a little better equipped to deal with the enemy agents they chose to take on, where the McKennas are just an an ordinary couple. Further, where the original film jumped straight into the suspenseful adventure plot, the remake takes time to establish the McKennas as the Everycouple that they are, even to the point where we get to see them bicker about inconsequential things the way married couples will. It's also hard to imagine more perfect casting than James Stewart and Doris Day in these roles... they are the perfect "everyday American couple" in this picture.

The remake also expands on the use of music as a plot device. In both versions of the film, an assassination is performed in time with an orchestral performance where a crash of cymbols is to cover the gunshot. In the remake, however, music is also used to show the close, loving relationship between the McKenna's and their young son, as well as serving as the key to his rescue, in the form of the famous and Academy Award-winning song "What Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera Sera)."

Unfortunately, the remake comes up a little short in the villain department. While they are every bit as insidious as they were in the original--and perhaps even more powerful, as they have the clear backing on a nation in this version--they end up having less of a presence in the film. This is partly due to the fact that they receive less screen time in the remake, but it's mostly because none of them are portrayed by an actor of Peter Lorre's caliber, nor are any of them quite as quirky or as sinister as Lorre's character in the original.

I strongly recommend this film to any fan of James Stewart, Doris Day, and Alfred Hitchcock who hasn't seen it yet--especially if you were staying away from it for the reason I was. It's some of the finest work any of those three worthies did, and it manages to be a superior version of what was already a great movie.

As a little bonus, here are a couple of versions of "What Will Be, Will Be."

First up, is Doris Day's original single recording of the song, with a fan-made video using clips from "The Man Who Knew Too Much". If you've only heard covers, the original version will let you understand why it's still being re-recorded to this day.

And here's a mildly creepy cover of the song by Pink Martini. It was first heard in the pilot episode of "Dead Like Me".

Click here for downloadable MP3 versions at

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