Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, 1934 & 1956

I have assigned myself an Alfred Hitchcock task. That is, to compare the two versions of the only picture the legendary director ever remade, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). This is part of The Master of Suspense Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV Corner to commemorate the anniversary of Hitchcock’s death on April 29, 1980. After watching both films for this discussion I can say without reservation that both are distinctively Hitchcock and I do not prefer one over the other. Each has merits and I enjoy them immensely.

“When making a picture, my ambition is to present a story that never stands still.” 

It is the early-to-mid 1930s and Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation as a filmmaker could use some help. Fortunately, as he stated himself, he was blissfully unaware of this. No one except producer Michael Balcon would give him the go-ahead to direct a picture despite Hitchcock’s early success. Balcon headed Gaumont British Studios and had signed Hitchcock to a multi-picture deal starting with Waltzes from Vienna (1934) and followed by four movies that would become part of the director’s ‘thriller sextet.’ The first of these was The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), a story Hitchcock had wanted to film for over two years, the last was The Lady Vanishes (1938), which was filmed at Gainsborough Studios thanks in large part to the huge success of The Man Who Knew Too Much. After that Alfred Hitchcock was off and running established as a thriller/mystery director with a unique brand of humor in his first international success.

The general overarching story of both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much is similar. An average couple is on vacation abroad with their child. They befriend a Frenchman, Louis Bernard, who is soon murdered. The couple is inadvertently told a secret by the dying man, which results in their child being kidnapped to avoid them divulging a plot to assassinate a head of state. The story follows as the couple encounters various criminals while trying to find their child and thwart the shooting of a public figure at Royal Albert Hall. What differs between the 1934 version of the film and the 1956 version is how Alfred Hitchcock tells the story.

The cast

Leslie Banks and Edna Best are Bob and Jill Lawrence who are vacationing in Switzerland with their daughter Betty when the action starts in the 1934 film. Both Banks and Best are fine in the picture, believable as grieved parents hoping for their daughter’s safe return. Nova Pilbeam is terrific as Betty, bringing lots of emotion to the role of the terrorized kidnapped child. The standout in this, however, is Peter Lorre, who as the Variety reviewer stated is “the gang chief.” As far as Hitchcock villains go Lorre’s Abbott stands at the top of the heap. Lorre, who learned his part phonetically, manages a slimy bad guy with gaiety, which makes this viewer wonder if he’s on the brink of sanity. Abbot laughs a lot, he’s often detached from the action, but one never doubts his power or his menace. One beautiful shot of Peter Lorre in close-up has all the feels, as they say. Having just learned that the assassination attempt he ordered flopped, he gestures to his goons to tear the child from her father again and it costs him. As Lorre so memorably illustrated in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), his talents for the emotional go deep. There is an informative and entertaining article included in the Criterion The Man Who Knew Too Much written by critic Farran Nehme that’s worth your while. The film was beautifully restored for that release as well.

Hitchcock and Lorre during the making of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

By 1956 Alfred Hitchcock was not only an established, popular director, he was one of the top directors in the world, amid his most radiant period by everyone’s estimation. His name above the title guaranteed success. Hitchcock had thought about remaking The Man Who Knew Too Much since 1941, when David O. Selznick bought the property for him, but he did not consider tackling the remake until he purchased the right from Selznick in 1954. At the time he owed Paramount a picture or two and decided this was the right film to make putting together a stellar cast and the genius of maestro Bernard Herrmann.

The 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much features James Stewart and Doris Day as Dr. Benjamin McKenna and ex-popular singer Mrs. Jo (Conway) McKenna who are on vacation in French Morocco with their son, Hank (Christopher Olsen). The family is traveling to Marrakesh by bus when they meet Frenchman Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin). The casual meeting on the bus turns out to be consequential when Bernard is stabbed to death and dies in the hands of Dr. McKenna to whom the dying man tells his secret, about the plot to assassinate a foreign statesman. To keep McKenna from divulging that secret Hank is kidnapped and the real action in the story ensues.

Doris Day, Christopher Olsen, and James Stewart as the McKenna family on their way to Marrakesh

The Man Who Knew Too Much is the third of four pictures James Stewart made with Alfred Hitchcock and he delivers as a man desperate to save his son’s life. Stewart excels at the close-up reaction shots he used so effectively in Rear Window (1954), but his physicality here is superb particularly in the two scenes featuring signature Hitchcock humor: Stewart’s inability to find comfort in the low seats at the restaurant and when a scuffle ensues at the taxidermist place as he mistakenly searches for a person named Ambrose Chapel.

Doris Day is terrific in a dramatic role that requires lots of emotion. Two standout scenes are when Ben tells her that Hank has been kidnapped and later at Albert Hall, her desperation is palpable as she awaits the planned shooting of the diplomat while the fear for her son’s life is building to a boiling point. It is also lucky indeed for this story that Day could sing the heck out of a song, giving her the opportunity to introduce her signature song, the Oscar-winning “Que Sera, Sera” written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans.

While the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much lacks the memorable villain on scale with Peter Lorre, a shout out is due Brenda de Banzie who plays Lucy Drayton. Lucy, along with her husband Edward (Bernard Miles) kidnap Hank after befriending the McKennas. After numerous viewings of this picture, de Banzie always surprises as her character goes from hard to soft, scary to soothing, as the thrill advances. Also memorable is Christopher Olsen as Hank McKenna. The charming young actor gets to sing with Doris Day and delivers on the emotional front as well.

The Murder

For this fan one of the cinematic standouts in the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is the murder of Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay). The 1956 movie shows a stabbed Bernard walk across a busy marketplace toward the McKennas in glorious Technicolor. As the man falls, the face paint he wears as a disguise rubs away onto the hands of Dr. McKenna who tries to help Bernard. The expansive set and busy goings on are taken full advantage of and the scene is satisfying. But I much prefer the nonchalance of Bernard’s death in 1934, the slow burn and quiet realization a bullet has pierced his chest is somehow thrilling. We hear a slight pop as the bullet hits the window of the dance hall, the man casually looks down, under his jacket as the blood stain grows ever more prominent. Music plays as people dance around him, he falls to his knees as he gives Jill the key to his room where a brush holds the secret that is to be taken to the British Consulate. “Don’t breathe a word to anyone,” Bernard says before he slumps over dead. The anticlimactic albeit important event is purely cinematic and utterly enjoyable.

Royal Albert Hall

During his famous 1962 interview with François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock said that it had been a talented amateur who had directed The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934, and a professional who directed the remake in 1956. Although one cannot be sure if Hitchcock was serious, there is truth in that statement in one aspect – the director knew his audience a lot better in 1956. This is evident in the set-up to the nail-biting sequence that takes place in Royal Albert Hall, proof positive that Alfred Hitchcock is never better than when his cinema is silent.

In 1934, “at such a moment your shot will not be heard” follows the moment when a recording is played for the assassin illustrating when he should shoot the diplomat at Royal Albert Hall. It is important, but the thrill is not as alive as it is in 1956. In this version the kidnapper, Edward Drayton, plays the recording more than once – deliberately, repeatedly, and for the audience. Prominent is the “Listen for the crash of the cymbal.” Enough is made of it so that it is imprinted in the viewer’s mind. Then we go to Royal Albert Hall along with Jo McKenna. We are all privy to the shooting that is about to take place, but it is glorious torture getting there.

Bernard Herrmann in his only screen appearance leads the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Arthur Benjamin’s “Storm Clouds Cantata,” written for the 1934 film. Having worked with Herrmann on The Trouble with Harry (1955), Hitchcock gave the composer free reign on the music for The Man Who Knew Too Much. Herrmann decided to keep Benjamin’s music making it come alive as if the music itself was Technicolor. Herrmann dictates a long, drawn-out thrill that builds upon itself until the deed is done.

We see Jo McKenna visibly shaken as she searches for the killer from the rear of the music hall. Her breathing is increasingly labored, tears stream as her helplessness is unbearable. We see Ben McKenna rush into the music hall and rush around in silence trying to get to the shooter as the music swells all while we are served constant visual reminders of those cymbals. They will clash loudly, and a man will lose his life. The brilliant, torturous, 12-minute silent sequence causes palpitations that are not soon quelled.

With palpitations this recounting ends. It may be the easy way out to say both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much are equally impressive, but they are. If you are a Hitchcock fan, then you cannot do without either of these films. The 1934 film is tighter, better paced, establishes signature Hitchcock shots, and has a superior villain. From 1956 we have beautiful Technicolor, bigger stars, memorable chase scenes, and a much-improved use of cymbals. Both versions feature blonde leading ladies and neither film stands still.


Be sure to visit Classic Movie and TV Corner for much more about Alfred Hitchcock (August 13, 1899 – April 29, 1980)

8 thoughts

  1. I was looking at my DVD of this movie just before I read this post. This is one of my very favorite movies. I also look forward to hearing Doris Day sing “We’ll Love Again” in the final scene. I never get tired of it.

  2. Good review and comparison! As someone who has obsessed over Hitchcock films since I was a teenager, I really enjoyed it. I’ve never been able to definitively pick one version over the other myself. As you note, they both have their strengths. A clear sign that Hitchcock was a director without peer, in my book. 🙂

  3. Wonderful piece, Aurora. Both are very good films and have much to offer, but the 1956 version will always be my favourite. I think it’s the better version in terms of acting and visuals. The suspense and epic feel of its Albert Hall sequence is unmatched.

    I’ve always found it interesting to see how Hitch’s approach to the same material changed so much in twenty years.

    Thanks so much for joining.


  4. I’m so glad you directly compared both of these magnificent films. I love how different they feel even though they tell the same story. The 1956 film has more subtext regarding the marriage between Stewart and Day, and the Albert Hall climax is definitely more polished.

    However, my heart belongs to the 1934 movie. I love Peter Lorre as the villain and Leslie Banks has this wonderfully sardonic sense of humor that never fails to make me smile (I love when he and his friend are “singing” their conversation in the church). In fact, Banks is a truly underrated performer in general (he played one of the best movie villains ever in The Most Dangerous Game– a shame he never got to play a proper Hitchcock villain, the urbane type). I also prefer the mother’s characterization in the older movie and how she plays an active role in the chase at the end.

    Great write-up!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s