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The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

October 19th, 2007 · 5 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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By Joe Valdez

On vacation in Griesalp, Switzerland with her parents, the adolescent Betty Lawrence (Nova Pilbeam) chases a dog onto a ski lane and almost kills a gregarious French skier named Louis Bernard, much to the amusement of her father Bob (Leslie Banks). Later, she distracts her mother Jill (Edna Best), causing her to lose a skeet shooting competition versus a German sharpshooter (Frank Vosper).

While Jill cuts a rug with Bernard, a sniper shoots him. His dying words direct her to retrieve a hairbrush in his room and to take it to the British Consulate. Bob retrieves a note from the hairbrush, but before he can turn it over to the Consulate, he and his wife receive another note, advising them to say nothing, or else they’ll never see their child again. The couple returns to London.

Instead of cooperating with British authorities and endangering his daughter, Bob follows clues on the note to the “Tabernacle of the Sun” church, where the nefarious Abbott (Peter Lorre) detains him. Abbott is ringleader of a den of assassins who plan to kill a foreign diplomat at the Royal Albert Hall. Bob manages to get word of this to Jill, who races to the symphony to avert the assassination and rescue her daughter.

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While working for British International Pictures in the late 1920s, director Alfred Hitchcock collaborated with screenwriter Charles Bennett on an adaptation of the “Bulldog” Drummond novels by Herman Cyril McNeile. Taking his cue from John Buchan, McNeile’s hero was a dashing World War I veteran turned private eye. B.I.P. owned the rights to the character, so when Hitchcock moved to Gaumont in 1933 and set about reviving the “Bulldog” Drummond project, it was without “Bulldog” Drummond.

Now titled The Man Who Knew Too Much, Bennett’s script was an action thriller about a father forced into duty as a spy when he’s warned of an assassination, and his daughter is kidnapped to keep him quiet. In world events, Adolf Hitler had just been appointed chancellor of Germany, while in America, Franklin Roosevelt had escaped an assassin in Miami. The script tapped into tension sweeping the globe, chiefly, paranoia in England over the threat of a resurgent Germany.

British humorist D.B. Wyndham-Lewis doctored Bennett’s script, while actor-writer Edwin Greenwood and playwright A.R. Rawlinson were hired to contribute dialogue. Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams also punched up a few scenes. Leslie Banks and Edna Best were cast as the protagonists, while Peter Lorre was chosen to play the criminal mastermind. Hitchcock was so enamored with Lorre that his role grew as filming commenced in June 1934.

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Many in Hitchcock’s crew – like Lorre – had fled Nazi Germany. Czech-born cameraman Curt Courant served as cinematographer. The art director was Alfred Junge, a German emigre. When Gaumont got a look at the movie, they found it more unsettling than entertaining, and booked it as a B-picture. But The Man Who Knew Too Much proved enormously popular with critics and audiences in England, and crossed over in the U.S. Hitchcock would later say that the film was the real start of his career.

The difference between the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much comes down to whether you prefer your Hitchcock bare bones with European moodiness, or glamorous with Hollywood stars. Both films climax at the Royal Albert Hall and both have fatal flaws. As rough as it is, I prefer the original in a head to head taste test, but not enough to really recommend it.

Hitchcock arranges evocative transitions; cutting to a speeding train when Jill reads the ransom, or cutting away from the symphony so we aren’t sure whether the assassination succeeded. Leslie Banks and Edna Best are hapless, but Peter Lorre does fine work as “the most cold blooded murderer in all the history of crime.” The Man Who Knew Too Much is almost entirely action at 75 minutes, and while it desperately needed character work, the surprise is how lacking in momentum the suspense is.

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Jonathan Coe at Sight & Sound writes, “The original version feels much more of a piece because it is quirky and surreal almost from the start. After a perfunctory prologue in Switzerland … we are plunged into a deliriously quickfire sequence of events, each one more dreamlike than the last.”

“With a brief, seventy-five minute running time, The Man Who Knew Too Much will likely leave contemporary audiences unsatisfied. Besides the stiff performances, occasionally awkward staging, and functional dialogue, Hitchcock and his battery of writers … barely tap into the potential inherent in the material,” writes Mel Valentin at Movie-Vault.

J.D. Dunn at 411mania writes, “Yes, the film does suffer from flaws, but they’re hardly fatal flaws. The Man Who Knew Too Much still stands as a must-see for any fan of Hitchcock or the spy genre.”

Tags: Concert · Shootout · Woman in jeopardy

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Damian // Oct 21, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    Yeah, neither version of Man Who Knew Too Much is a masterpiece, but as I’ve said before, I (like you, Joe) tend to prefer the original.

  • 2 Pat Evans // Oct 22, 2007 at 4:14 am

    Nearly anything with Peter Lorre is worth my time, but then again he can’t sing “Que sera, sera”. I do like both movies and each have various points in their favor (favour), but I’ll go with the earlier version too.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Oct 22, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    Damian: Thanks for your comments, as always. If someone had written 10 minutes worth of character into the picture, and anyone but Leslie Banks and Edna Best had been cast, I probably would’ve enjoyed this as much as The 39 Steps. The two movies are almost night and day though. Superior script, superior casting.

    Pat: Your comments carry a lot more weight with me than Francois Truffaut’s. So far, I haven’t heard from anyone else who prefers the remake except for Truffaut. And Peter Lorre is genius.

  • 4 James // Apr 4, 2008 at 9:25 am

    This is a classic not the best but did pave the way for many other spy movies and has hit cult status

  • 5 hp mini 210 review // Aug 27, 2011 at 1:34 pm

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