The Men Who Knew Too Much

One of the many things to enjoy about movie nights with my friend Kyle is that he's just a big a fan of genre-jumping as I am. We'll watch an indie drama one night, an animated movie another, and maybe wrap the whole evening up with some Mystery Science Theater 3000 shorts. He's on a Hitchcock kick lately, and I jumped at the chance to go over and watch The Man Who Knew Too Much, as it's one of the few Hitchcock movies I'd never seen.

We settled in, and watched a perfectly serviceable black and white movie featuring Peter Lorre. It starred some unremarkable actors who portrayed an English couple who, while attending a shooting contest in Switzerland with their daughter, witnesses espionage and murder. A dying spy passes along the details of a planned assassination plot, and the bad guys kidnap the couple's daughter to keep them from informing the authorities about the upcoming attack.

After the end credits rolled, Kyle and I stared at each other, puzzled. I mean, it wasn't a bad movie by any stretch, but how on Earth did something so milquetoast become a classic suspense film? A few minutes of internet research provided the answer. We had just watched the 1934 British version. Hitchcock did direct it, but when people talk about The Man Who Knew Too Much, they mean the 1956 American version, which Hitchcock also directed. Whoops!

The next time movie night rolled around, what could we possibly want to watch other than the updated movie? Plenty had changed. The couple was now portrayed by names that we recognized (Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day). They were now American. They vacation in Marrakesh instead of Switzerland. The wife was a famous singer instead of a markswoman. Their kid was an annoying son instead of an annoying daughter. The more modern movie also wisely filled in a lot of backstory, including the addition of a villainous married couple that the dying spy first mistakes our heroes for.

Both movies climax at the assassination site, which is a concert at the Albert Hall in London. The gunman plans to pull the trigger at the loudest point of the music, and the build-up to the fateful cymbal crash was definitely the best, most suspenseful part of the 1934 film. The 1956 film has more suspense from beginning to end, so perhaps the climax doesn't distinguish itself as much, but it manages to wring almost as much anticipation out of the scene. The outcomes of both the assassination attempt and the kidnapping are quite different in the two movies, which again, the more recent film depicts better.

The 1956 movie won an Academy Award for Best Song, and I'm ashamed to admit that I had no idea that "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" originated with this movie. I just thought it was a classic song that I picked up from Heathers. In any event, both films were worth watching, but for those who only have time for one man with an overabundance of information, definitely go with 1956. I'd be remiss if I didn't close this entry out with Kyle's recent Facebook post, which puts a real capper on this recommendation:

"We finally watched the really good version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. We really, really liked it, but our favorite character was Helen, an actor/singer friend of one of the protagonists. When everyone else was freaking out or seeming worried or awkward, Helen was there in the background with a cocked eyebrow and throwing shade at everyone, right down to her homely actor friend from the Midwest. We kept wishing Helen would appear in every scene to take a drag off a cigarette or to generally look like she knew more than anyone else. In the end, however, Helen hung out with her musician friends, got drunk, and passed out in the hotel room of the protagonists for HALF OF THE FILM. At the end, when they return to their hotel room, after having rescued their kidnapped son and foiling a foreign assassination attempt, the friends all wake up and act like, 'Oh, you're back ALREADY?' Helen looked the least nonplussed by it all."

"I want to be Helen."

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934): B-
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): B+


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