Monday, July 5, 2010

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 & 1956)/The Man Who Knew Too Little

For our next installment of Hitchcock Month, I felt it would be fun to check out both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the only film he ever made and then decided to remake later in his career. As an additional bonus, I’ve also included the 1997 Bill Murray film The Man Who Knew Too Little. I briefly considered also including the classic Mario Bava film The Girl Who Knew Too Much, but that would have just been excessive.
The plot is pretty similar in both of Hitchcock’s films. A couple vacationing abroad (a British couple in Switzerland in the original, and an American couple in Casablanca in the remake) befriends a French traveler who winds up getting killed, but not before imparting info about a pending assassination to the couple. To keep the couple quiet, the assassins kidnap their child, inadvertently ensuring the couple gets much more involved in stopping the conspirators.

The original, in my opinion, is Hitchcock’s first film that I could unreservedly recommend to even the most casual fans of his. It’s the first one where we get the proper blend of humor and suspense that he was even then becoming famous for (in fairness, I’ve heard very good things about two of his silent films, The Ring and The Lodger, neither of which I’ve seen), along with his usual clever camerawork and twisted plotting. It’s also famous as being Peter Lorre’s first English language film, making this one of the earliest films to benefit from the mass exodus of the German film industry due to the rise of the Nazi party.

As Hitchcock himself felt, despite the quality of the original, the remake is clearly the superior film, though not without its flaws. For one, the assassination plot is much better fleshed out in the remake (this is probably in part due to the differences in length -- the original is a lean 75 minutes, while the remake is two hours), giving us more involved reasons for why they’re doing what they’re doing. Additionally, the locale change is a definite improvement. As nice as Switzerland may normally look for tourists, it’s somewhat less impressive when it’s constructed on a studio set, while Morocco looked frankly gorgeous. The big climax at Albert Hall was also improved, as he had more time to devote to making it as lavish and over the top as possible.

Which is not to say that the remake is an improvement in every way. First off, there’s the casting. While I have nothing bad to say about Jimmy Stewart or Doris Day, there’s a bit of a problem in how not a one of the remake’s villains had the overall charisma of Lorre, and the film absolutely suffers from it. There’s also a major problem that plagued quite a lot of Hollywood films from the 40s through the 60s, where little children weren’t allowed to act even vaguely like children from our planet, but must be some bizarre aliens that specialize in awful Precociousness, the end result of which means that every time their horrid little son was on screen (or on phone) I just wanted to grab him by the ankles and swing him into a wall a bunch of times. Seriously, there are stretches of the remake that I felt like giving the movie a full four stars for, but that brat kept popping back in and ruining all he touched.

While years of watching older movies has given me a pretty thick skin to racial insensitivity, I feel I should also note that Hitchcock spares no expense in mocking Arab culture during the first act. He has them flip out when the goddamn child accidentally rips off a lady’s veil, he has an extended dinner scene that seems to be 10% introducing them to the villains and 90% laughing at the way people in other countries eat dinner, and he even has a white character disguise himself as an Arab by putting on a turban and some face paint. This does stop about a third of the way in when they fly over to England and there aren’t any more non-whites to laugh at, but he does lay it on a bit strong at the beginning.

Then there’s the trouble with The Man Who Knew Too Little, which I hadn’t yet seen before, but which is a bit of a misfire, to put it nicely. It stars Bill Murray, ramping up his cluelessness as he goes to England to visit his brother and becomes embroiled in a vaguely Hitchcockian plot that he thinks is all staged for him to jump start his acting career. While I would have thought this would be an easy effort for Murray, it winds up being almost painfully unfunny at times, rushing through plot point after plot point, seemingly forgetting that its main intention is to make us laugh and not to wonder about the spy intrigue. Murray does get off some nice one-liners here and there, and there were plenty of moments where I had a pleasant smile on my face, but the laughs are very few and far between, and I’m now really wondering why I thought this would be good to include here, as its title seems to be almost all of its connection to Hitchcock. Director Jon Amiel, to his credit, makes sure to include a scene where a character watches his previous film Copycat on TV. Sadly this movie wasn’t a bit more recent, or we might have been treated to a character watching his film The Core instead.

Rating: 1934 -- ***/ 1956 -- *** ½/ The Man Who Knew Too Little -- * ½

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