The McKenna family - doctor Ben (James Stewart), ex-singer Jo (Doris Day) and their son Hank (Christopher Olsen) - are on holiday, travelling through Europe and North Africa. By this time they are on a bus to Marrakesh, where they are chatting about the scenery when Hank gets restless and starts investigating the vehicle, then is suddenly thrown backwards as the bus jolts awkwardly, accidentally grabbing the veil of a local woman. Her husband is furious, but a French stranger (Daniel Gélin) intervenes, and they strike up a friendship - but what do the McKennas really know about him?
Not much, and by the end you'll be none too sure what he was up to yourself as the whole mystery Frenchman character, Mr Bernard, remains an enigma even when you have an idea of what the whole plot was about. Nevertheless, why he picked on the McKennas is murky, and makes the opening act look like an excuse for a spot of exotic location footage, though given director Alfred Hitchcock's predeliction for shooting his cast in the studio and projecting that footage on an obvious screen behind them you may be wondering why he took them all to Morocco at all. That said, if you're watching a Hitchcock you have to be prepared for some degree of artificiality.
This was a remake of his 1934 thriller, reputedly his most successful film in Britain, which he felt the need to return to in a far more glossy fashion, in his words, "professional" rather than "amateur", though funnily enough when looking back he preferred his first version. Plenty of people would sympathise with that, and for a long time if this remake wasn't considered a mistake, the lack of that quirkiness which so distinguished the original was missed by many who gave this variation a go. But then there were the dissenting voices who began to make themselves heard, telling us the 1956 movie was actually the better one, with more accomplished setpieces and an example of Hitch at the top of his game, subverting the cosy American nuclear family with dangerous espionage when they dare outside their comfort zone.
The truth of that is very much a matter of personal taste, but if the second telling was slicker, there was much to appreciate even if for all its supposed achievements in method and style the more ramshackle thirties effort had a charm this lacked. But the setpieces were there to be impressed by: the scene in the market where the Arab being pursued stumbles up to Ben with a knife in his back, falling into his arms and leaving his brown face makeup on Ben's hands is among the most famous, in spite of that image lasting mere seconds. As the man dies, he is revealed to be Bernard, and gives Ben some whispered information about an assassination plot in London, which is where the McKennas head for - but not together, as Hank is kidnapped as a way to prevent them from going to the police.
The police are well aware something is up, but allow Ben and Jo to get on with their rescue bid; Day was especially fine in her scenes where she gets emotional about the fate of her son, and indeed offered the best performance in the film, proving herself dramatically when it's all too simple to remember her as a light comedienne with a big singing voice. There is a plot reason for Jo being an ex-stage crooner, and that became her signature song Que Sera, Sera: oddly it's a tune bellowed by Day at the top of her lungs in the tense finale, not heard to its best effect but becoming inescapable anyway. There were two grand finales as it turned out, one before that where the action is moved to The Albert Hall for an assassination attempt courtesy of the baddies (Reggie Nalder is the man holding the gun) as composer Bernard Herrmann shows up to conduct the orchestra, but the humour was restricted to a couple of bits, one in a taxidermist's: this was a more serious relating of the story, which had its moments but wasn't top flight Hitchcock.
The sixties started strongly with groundbreaking horror Psycho, and The Birds was just as successful, but then Hitchcock went into decline with uninspired thrillers like Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. The seventies saw a return to form with Frenzy, but his last film Family Plot was disappointing. Still, a great career, and his mixture of romance, black comedy, thrills and elaborate set pieces will always entertain. Watch out for his cameo appearances in most of his films.