Saturday, December 25, 2010

Remaking One's Self: Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much

Hitchcock's 1956 remake of his own British thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) is one of the few cinematic examples on record of a director literally remaking their own film -- Leo McCarey's Love Affair (1939) and his remake An Affair to Remember (1957) is another notable example.  It is also one of the most fascinating projects in the director's oueuvre for many reasons.

There is the use of rich technicolor to identify different locales based on their emotional and geographic climate.  The use of dramatic fades to black to create an atmosphere of sinister foreboding.  The fluidity of the moving camera.  In the 56' version, Hitchcock uses the elegant mechanics of the original plot as a jumping off point to punctuate the humor and suspense (which he retains from the original) with a pointed look at the American nuclear family.  As part of this vision, he subverts the wholesome personas of stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, by engaging them in a power struggle that aptly reflects the gender politics of the day.  She is a famous singer.  He is an Indianapolis doctor.  For reasons undisclosed, she gave up her career for him and now does nothing to conceal her bitterness over that fact.

We witness the mature Hitchcock working at the height of his powers; fascinated as much by the behavior of his characters as he is by his virtuoso set-pieces.  The clash between one's vocation and one's loyalty to family is used as both a theme and a device in the story.  Doris' song, the expression of her professional acumen, is ultimately the mechanism that restores the family unit and helps them to conquer an assassination plot.  It is easy to miss the intricacy with which Hitchcock interweaves his themes and thrills, but The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) has always been one of his most watchable films for me.  Hitchcock was hailed as a master technician and his critics used this to dismiss his interest in actors.  This remake proves that as he grew older, he also grew more preoccupied with the social ambiguities between people.  This ambiguity is the principal value he adds to his re-telling.  There are dozens of small details that transcend enrich and deepen the message of the original picture.

For those who don't know: The Man Who Knew Too Much is the story of a young couple whose child is kidnapped to prevent them from trying to stop an assassination plot.   Watch it back-to-back with the (also entertaining) original version and delight in the work of a master storyteller, as he uncovers different layers of meaning within the same material.