A man and his wife receive a clue to an imminent assassination attempt, only to learn that their daughter has been kidnapped to keep them quiet.
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Remakes are always touchy subjects for movie fans and directors. It is rare when a director will agree with a remake of their own film. It’s even rarer when a director remakes his own film. Alfred Hitchcock did this once in his career. He remade The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).
There are debates over which version is better, either the original or the remake done in 1956. Each has its high and low points. For me, the biggest differences are the role the mother plays in the story and the identity of the main bad guy.
In the 1934 version, we are brought to St. Moritz, where the Lawrence’s are on vacation. Jill Lawrence happens to be an expert skeet shooter, as opposed to Doris Day’s version of her in the remake who happens to only be adequate at singing. Anyways, Jill is about to meet a man at shooting, but gets distracted when her daughter shows up. She ends up losing, but offers to give the man a rematch.
After criticizing her daughter and telling her to go off and play with her father, Jill leaves the snow covered slopes with family friend, Louis Bernard. Later that night, the Lawrence family is at a party. Bernard asks Jill to dance. In the middle of all this revelry a shot is fired and Bernard is killed. Unlike the dramatic scene in the remake where the spy tells James Stewart about a plot to kill a foreign dignitary, here there is no face paint to create a nice image of the dying man. Bernard tells Jill about the plot and she, in turn, relays his message to her husband, Bob.
This is where the evil doers come in and take the child so the parents won’t go to the police about the plot. From here the vacation is over. It is back to London and a search for their missing child. This is all very similar to the remake, there is even a church scene and a scene in the Albert Hall where Jill and her shooting friend from the slopes meet up again.
The original version ends with Jill shooting the escaping captors as Bill saves their daughter. This is a lot better than Doris Day getting a solo so Warner Bros. could cash in on “Que Sera, Sera.”
The two movies have similar middles, but different beginnings and endings. Where the original is far worse than the remake is in the character of the father. It isn’t just that James Stewart is a much better actor than Leslie Banks, but his character was much more developed.
The character of Abbott, the mastermind behind the killing of the foreign dignitary and kidnapping of the Lawrence child, is much more developed in the original. German actor Peter Lorre was escaping Nazism in his home country. He had been a wonderful bad guy there in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Hitchcock remembered this and cast him in the role of the bad guy when he learned that Lorre had made it to England. Although he could speak little English, Lorre did a masterful job here. While he is going over the murder with his assassin, he is the perfect example of the cultured bad guy. He appreciates the symphony and tries to impart some of his knowledge to his feeble minded cohorts. This acting job probably helped get Lorre typecast as a cultured gangster when he got to Hollywood.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) is not a perfect movie, but its greater emphasis on the mother as a character, not just a singer, and Peter Lorre’s performance as Abbott make it superior to the 1956 version.