Alfred Hitchcock was asked once about the differences between his two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much. He replied that the first was the work of a talented amateur, and the second was the work of a professional. I would argue that he’s being a bit modest calling himself an amateur. By 1934, Hitchcock had been in the movie industry for over a decade, and had directed a dozen movies. I think that qualifies for slightly better than amateur status.
While both versions of this movie are good, sometimes for very different reasons, when watching them back-to-back I find the original to be much more engaging and fresh. Both versions feature a penultimate scene that takes place in the Royal Albert Hall. (As far as the final scene is concerned, the original movie wins by a mile, in my opinion. Would you rather watch Edna Best take a rifle from a policeman and shoot the villain off the roof, or would you rather hear Doris Day sing “Que Sera Sera”? That’s an easy choice for me.) I thought it would be interesting to compare the two Albert Hall sequences. The set-up of both scenes is the same: The heroine arrives at the Albert Hall as her child is being held hostage. She knows that an assassination is planned at the Hall, and will attempt to stop it, with no clear idea how to do so without risking her child.
In the earlier version, the sequence runs around 6 minutes and 10 seconds, with approximately 91 editorial cuts, which averages one cut every 4.1 seconds.
In the remake, the sequence is much longer, running around 14 minutes and 20 seconds, with approximately 193 editorial cuts. This averages out to one cut every 4.5 seconds. So even though the scene is considerably longer, Hitchcock’s cutting overall is very similar. So let’s look at where the scenes are similar, and where they differ. (The reason for the difference in frame size is because the first film was shot in a 1.33:1 ratio, which was the standard at the time, and the remake was shot in VistaVision and shown in a 1.85:1 ratio).
Both scenes begin with an establishing shot of the Royal Albert Hall exterior, advertising the concert about to take place.
We now have similar shots of Edna Best and Doris Day in the Albert Hall lobby, not quite sure what they are looking for.
Next, we get subjective POV shots, as they both recognize the assassin.
At this point in both films, after the heroine speaks to the assassin, she makes her way into the Hall. One difference is that Edna Best actually takes a seat, whereas Doris Day stands in an aisle way.
The later movie begins to stretch out just a little bit here, taking more time to set the scene before the music begins.
We get these POV shots, as Doris Day locates both the dignitaries’ box, and the assassin’s box. So the geography of the scene is already established for the viewer.
Next, the music begins, with a series of similar establishing shots.
The remake again takes a little more time here, with a greater variety of shots, from a variety of angles. The older, more established Hitchcock does a better job of building suspense, even making sure to point out both the cymbalist and his instruments early in the sequence.
In the remake, Alfred Hitchcock has a VistaVision camera and he intends to make the most of it, giving us almost every conceivable camera angle of the musicians in the Albert Hall. From the left:
From the right:
Even from above, in strange angles like this one:
After this both films follow a similar pattern. We see our heroine looking, then we see what she is looking at. This is textbook subjective POV.
Now the original film does something clever, out of necessity. The camera pans along a wire, stopping on a radio transmitter. Hitchcock uses this as a means to cut to the conspirators’ hideout, so we can see their reactions as they listen on the radio. This is important because this is where both father and daughter are still being held captive.
Just as this sequence is unique to the original, the remake has a new sequence here. Whereas the male lead was still a prisoner in the first film, in the remake Jimmy Stewart has broken free and comes to the Albert Hall. So the camera breaks away from Doris Day to show his arrival.
Next, Jimmy Stewart finds Doris Day and they exchange information. Hitchcock made the wise decision to play this scene without dialogue. It is rather like a scene in a silent movie. We see their mouths moving, we see their arms gesticulating, but we hear only the sweeping music. Of course, we don’t need to hear the dialogue, because we know as much as the characters do.
So the second movie’s sequence will find much of its greater length here, as Hitchcock cuts away to Jimmy Stewart several times while he rushes upstairs in an attempt to find the assassin.
But in the first movie, Edna Best has no assistance. She is all alone. The cutting increases as she continues to look from assassin to target. Edna Best gives such a heartfelt performance here. Another brilliant Hitchcock touch: we see Edna Best crying, then we see a “blurred vision” POV shot, as if we are seeing through her tears.
As the cymbal crash approaches, the cutting comes even faster, with many shots averaging less than a second. In the second film, Hitchcock really relishes the buildup, with many more shots in the sequence. Both films have the nearly-identical iconic shot of the gun slowly coming around the curtain.
Again, the build-up is much lengthier in the remake. Hitchcock has many shots of conductor Bernard Herrmann, even cutting to extreme close-ups of the musical notes that indicate the moment when the shot will come.
We even get this bizarre shot, just before the climax, taken from the point-of-view of the cymbalist! This seems to break Hitchcock’s rule of “camera logic”, and yet as part of the montage, it adds to the emotional tension. As a shot that is onscreen for less than a second, it registers emotionally before the mind can question it. (If you look closely, you can see there are no hands holding the cymbals. They seem to float in the air!)
When the moment for the assassination arrives, we get the scream of Edna Best and Doris Day. The original film shows Edna stand to scream, then cuts to the hideout, where we hear the scream over the radio. This adds to the suspense of the moment. Was the assassin successful? (We learn over the radio that he was not).
In the later film, Hitchcock gives Doris Day a close-up for her scream, which registers much more powerfully (and effectively) on the soundtrack.
In this case, Hitchcock stays at the Albert Hall. We see firsthand that the assassin’s bullet causes only a flesh wound, and we see the dramatic moment of Jimmy Stewart bursting in his box, and the assassin’s fall, presumably to his death.
So, the final analysis:
The original film has a much shorter sequence, but still does an excellent job of building suspense. Hitchcock employed many clever moments (the “blurred vision” POV, the cut from the radio transmitter to the actual radio in the conspirators’ hideaway) to tell the story.
When he did the remake, the changes in story structure (Jimmy Stewart’s arrival at the Albert Hall) necessitated changes in shot composition. But more importantly, Hitchcock used many more shots, from many different angles, to increase the suspense of the moment. While he was no amateur in the early film, it is clear that his mastery of the film medium had increased by the time of the remake, and he used that mastery to make a more powerful, and memorable sequence.