Don’t you just hate remakes? Yeah, everyone does.
Except me, actually. Many films held up to be untouchable classics are in fact already remakes or unfaithful adaptions of pre-existent source material. Nothing is sacred. And no one understood this better than Hitchcock. The majority of his films were adapted from novels or plays and he had no qualms about altering any details he felt stood in the way of a good story.
Now in his mid-fifties he decided to remake his own film. The one that pulled out of his career rut 22 years earlier: The Man Who Knew Too Much.
There are basic story similarities between the two. A man and wife (this time, James Stewart and Doris Day) hear the dying words of a spy while on holiday (this time, Morocco), but their child (this time, a small boy) is kidnapped by a gang of assassins to prevent them from revealing what they know to the police. With only the name “Ambrose Chapel” as a lead, they head to London to rescue their boy and stop the assassins’ nefarious scheme.
How does the remake compare to the original? Well, for my money I pick the 1934 version over the remake any day. That’s not to say that they don’t share common flaws (both plots hinge upon the bewildering belief that a clash of symbols would drown out the sound of a gunshot) or that the remake is in any way a bad film; actually it’s extremely good. But which you prefer over the other boils down to a matter of personal taste. Maybe it’s a British vs. American thing. Who knows?
But if I tally up either film and hold them side by side this is what I find: Peter Motherfuckin’ Lorre > Bernard Miles; evil dentist > suspicious taxidermist; a Sun-worshipping cult > pretty much any other evil gang; a tightly structured 75 minutes > a flabby 120 minutes; and, I’m gonna get stick for this one, Edna Best > Doris Day. Admittedly, James Stewart > Leslie Banks because James Stewart > Just About Everything. But still. My ultimate conclusion is The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) > The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). I’m so, so sorry Jimmy…
If The Man Who Knew Too Much was Hitchcock’s launching pad out of career stagnation, The 39 Steps was the rocket which blasted him into the stratosphere.
Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) meets a young lady at a variety show (Lucie Mannheim) who he shelters in his London flat from menacing goons who pursue her. She reveals herself as a spy on the run from a team of assassins lead by a man missing half his little finger. After she is murdered overnight Hannay is falsely suspected by the police. On the run from the law and the assassins, he flees to Scotland in search of the mysterious organisation “The 39 Steps”
That’s not how you do the Spock salute
The film is joyous entertainment from start to finish. The first half plays as one of his most suspenseful set-ups yet. Hitchcock’s self-confessed suspicion of the police comes into full play as the innocent Hannay runs through the Scottish heather with officers hot on his heels. But it’s not just the coppers who Hannay has to watch out for; time and time again supposed friends and allies turn against him. A farmer’s downtrodden wife (played with luminescent charisma by Peggy Ashcroft) proves to be one of the few he can trust.
This guy….not so much
While the suspense doesn’t lessen for the second half, more humour is introduced to keep things balanced. There’s a wonderful satire on crowd mentalities as Hannay darts into a political meeting to escape his pursuers where he delivers an improvised and incoherent motivation speech…met with rapturous applause.
But the wittiest scenes come after Hannay ends up handcuffed to a woman he met on the train (Madeleine Carroll). The two exchange gloriously sharp sexual banter.
“For God’s sake, cover your mouth when you yawn”
“Could I be of any assistance?” Donat asks Carroll as she struggles to take off her stockings. Believe it or not the line was considered so risqué Christian purity organisations tried to have the film banned.
The 39 Steps was Hitchcock’s biggest box office hit yet, both at home and in the US. It inspired The Sunday Times to declare “there is no doubt that Hitchcock is a genius. He is the real star of the film.” Dead right.
In terms of adventurous fun, could it get any better than this? Yes, as it turns out. The 39 Steps is a gem, but the crown jewel of Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood years was still to come…
How on earth did this happen? In the same year Hitchcock gave audiences the one of worst films of his career (so far) and one of the greatest: The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Why is it so good? Three words: Peter Motherfuckin’ Lorre. After displaying his phenomenal acting talent as a tormented child killer in Fritz Lang’s M three years earlier, Lorre came to Britain to escape the rise of the Nazi party. Hitchcock cast him almost immediately as the antagonist.
Here his character doesn’t have room for the kind of psychological complexity Lorre delivered in M, but he’s still entertaining as Hell to watch! Everything in his performance oozes creepy. He was, and always will be, a truly magnetic actor.
But maybe not babysitter material
Lorre plays the leader of a terrorist group who kill a secret agent in a hotel in Switzerland. The agent dies in possibly the most British way imaginable – apologizing for the inconvenience. With his last breath he tells Jill (Edna Best) and Bob (Leslie Banks), a couple in the wrong place at the wrong time, to pass on urgent information to the British Consulate.
Bob and Jill quickly learn that Lorre’s gang are planning to assassinate a foreign diplomat in London, but they’re forced into silence when their daughter is kidnapped as a hostage. Unable to speak to the police, they take it upon themselves – with the help of their bumbling friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) – to fight through devious dentists and creepy cults to get her back. The clock is ticking to find her before the diplomat is killed and Europe is thrust into a second World War. Wouldn’t it be terrible if that ever happened? Ahem.
Banks is compelling as the jaw-clenching father desperate to find his daughter, but Best is the wittier and more energetic of the pairing. She’s also responsible for the most euphoric “fuck yeah!” moment of the film. It really should be called The Couple Who Knew Two Much. But that sounds like it might be a Swinger movie.
Hitchcock remade The Man Who Knew Too Much two decades later starring James Stewart and Doris Day. With a larger budget and big name cast it’s probably the better remembered of the two. But his earlier version is tenser, classier, wittier and has 100% more Peter Lorre.