The Man Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock’s 1956 Remake
The 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much is the oft-neglected Alfred Hitchcock thriller in his shining career. Despite obvious criticisms and contrasts between the new version and the dark 1934 British production, the remake deserves recognition as a worthy adaptation.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is thrilling human drama that draws on the story and characters of the original British production filmed decades earlier. The American version focuses on Ben and Jo McKenna, American tourists and loving parents who are drawn into a web of foreign espionage when their son is kidnapped in Marrakech. Risking their own lives in the search, they uncover a ring of brutal criminals and a plotted assassination at Albert Hall.
James Stewart, in the role of Ben McKenna, is the average American tourist shepherding his family through Marrakech’s crowded streets. In place of Leslie Banks’ droll British charm as Bob Lawrence in the 1934 version, Stewart’s character is a decided change, but not a departure from Hitchcock’s original vision of paternal courage versus personal danger.
When Hitchcock selected from his impressive British film career The Man Who Knew Too Much as worthy of retelling, he crafted a polished piece from a production hailed by fans and foes as a dark and gritty tale. The 1956 remake shifted both characters and story to satisfy Hitchcock’s new vision.
Nova Pilbeam’s role as the missing daughter changed to that of a young boy; the sophisticated parents at ease in a luxury resort became tourists unfamiliar with their surroundings. Hitchcock recast accordingly, choosing a mix of actors both readily familiar to American audiences and a few notable performers, including Daniel Gelin and Belinda de Banzie. Reggie Nalder plays the assassin in the famous Albert Hall sequence.
Abbott, the duplicitous foreign agent with whom the Lawrences find themselves entangled, is replaced by the role of Edward Drayton, the mild-mannered English gentleman behind the kidnapping and the assassination plot. With large shoes to fill indeed, actor Bernard Miles replaced Peter Lorre as the face behind the villainy, banishing the arch-nemesis role of the original version. Lorre’s performance remains unrivalled, with Gelin’s part complimenting the new stars without endangering their spotlight.
The spotlight is focused, with good reason, on Doris Day’s portrayal of Jo McKenna, the former stage singer turned doting mother. Gone is the cool demeanor of Edna Best as Jill Lawrence in the original screenplay: Day is warm, emotional, and driven by motherly tenderness. In the 1934 version, Best’s sharpshooter’s skills save her daughter from a dire fate; in Hitchcock’s remake, it is Day’s voice drifting upwards in the form of a song, communicating with her concealed child. Despite different interpretations, the core of Hitchcock’s resourceful heroine remains intact as the soul of the story.
Hitchcock’s 1956 remake is not without criticism, fans and foes alike finding reasons to acknowledge the original film as a credit to Hitchcock’s career. The celebrated scene in Albert Hall is hailed for its tension and suspense — as was the original, infinitely complicated sequence mastered by Hitchcock’s ingenuity. The heartbreaking climax, where Day serenades her son with the same lullaby from earlier in the film, has emotional appeal, but not the intensity of the sniper’s aim of the 1934 version.
Despite the obvious comparisons between both versions, the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much is a testament to Hitchcock’s timing and brilliance. A crowning jewel in his American film career, it borrows much of the best from its over-the-waters counterpart while creating a rich landscape of tensions and characters all its own.