The Man Who Knew Too Much
Ah, the vicissitudes of time.
1935. England. Hitchcock makes The Man Who Knew Too Much. It gets great reviews ("exciting plot!....suspenseful pace!"). Soon, Selznick comes calling. Hitchcock moves to America to make Rebecca. The fifties arrive. He gets more stylistically ambitious, discovers color and widescreen.
1955. He remakes The Man Who Knew Too Much. It stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. The reviews are lukewarm. It turns out, they prefer the old English version ("literary quality", "plausibility, "restraint"). They don't like his casting choices (Doris Day? Singing in a Hitchcock movie? What's he going to do next, remake Mr. and Mrs. Smith?).
Time passes. It's the seventies. Twin missiles, psychoanalytical and feminist criticism, slam into film studies. Suddenly, the Jimmy Stewart-Doris Day version is rediscovered. It's really a film about the fragility of family, the balancing-act of marriage. And stylistically, it's operatic and gutsy — why couldn't they see that in the fifties? The casting of Doris Day is downright brilliant, she's a natural performer inside and outside the movie. And yet forbidden to perform for a living by her husband Jimmy Stewart. "Are we about to have our monthly fight?" she asks. In reply, he opens his medicine bag and gives her a stiff sedative.
Present day. We revisit them both. The 1935 original? It's not very literary after all (thank God, if literary means merely stuffed with clever dialogue). It's something rarer: a movie that tells its story visually. And with witty, jolting cuts.
But in the remake, quickly-drawn one-dimensional baddies from the original become complex, sympathetic figures. The Albert Hall sequence is mind-blowing. 12 minutes, 125 shots, not a single word spoken, concluding with a blood-curdling Doris Day scream and the mighty crash of a cymbal that saves a life. As for the above-mentioned feminist readings, it turns out they were sharp and prescient.
To sum up, no contest. "Let's say that the first version was the work of a talented amateur," Hitchcock told Truffaut, "and the second was made by a professional". Amen.
And now, over to you. Remakes you fancy? Duck into the comment cave below if you dare, or care.