An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…
Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
A couple’s young daughter is kidnapped to prevent them from revealing some dangerous information…
Alfred Hitchcock made two movies with the same title, but while they share the same basic storyline, they’re told in extremely different ways. In fact, the more you watch the more the contrasts pile up: British vs American… pre-war vs post-war… black-and-white vs colour… the nearly square Academy aspect ratio vs widescreen VistaVision… mostly forgotten actors vs Hollywood star power… a bombastic orchestra vs Que Sera, Sera. In this blog post and the next, I’ll be watching these two films and seeing how they compare.
The 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much – produced when Alfred Hitchcock was the star director of the UK film industry – came about after an aborted attempt at filming a Bulldog Drummond story. Tickled by the subject matter but unable to get the project going, Hitch concocted an original plotline about international intrigue and topped it off with a title taken from an unrelated GK Chesterton book.
The action begins in Switzerland. Married English couple Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks – who later grimed himself down to play a bad guy in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn – and Edna Best) are on holiday with their precocious young daughter, Betty (Nova Pilbeam). They’re a frightfully clipped and proper family, one where the mother tells her nagging daughter that she’ll be with her presently. They watch the ski-jumping and Jill enjoys taking part in a clay-pigeon shoot. But the lightness ends when, later that night, fellow hotel guest Louis (Pierre Fresnay) is shot by a sniper. Before he expires he has just enough time to tell Jill to collect a shaving brush from his room and take it to the British consulate. In its handle, the brush contains a secret note: ‘Make contact A. Hall 21st March’.
The Lawrences then learn the shock news that Betty has been kidnapped, and are warned by the bad guys to keep quiet about the note. Jill is so overcome she faints, dramatised by Hitch cutting to some jarring, spinning camera shots to convey her dizziness. The notion of innocent characters getting caught up in dangerous, criminal or espionage-related events was a favourite of Hitch’s, appearing in various movies and reaching its zenith in 1959’s North By Northwest. The idea drives The Man Who Knew Too Much, with the gag being that the man didn’t *want* to know too much; he’s just lumbered with it. (The title’s misleading, by the way: both parents know too much.)
The Lawrences return to London – what else can they do? – and pretend that nothing’s amiss. Jill lingers round Betty’s room holding her toys and drinking, while Bob glibly pretends to the police that Betty has gone to stay with friends. Then a man from the Foreign Office shows up. He knows what’s really going on, in the way that silky spymasters from Whitehall always do, and tells them that a man called Ropa is about to be assassinated. Louis had uncovered this so was killed by the bad guys. Bob asks why the death of an obscure foreign dignitary should matter, so the mandarin makes a direct analogy to the assassination of Serbia’s Archduke Ferdinand (an event then just 20 years in the past).
To modern eyes, the biggest problem with the story is the parents’ calmness. The emotion’s not strong enough; the situation lacks punch. Bob and Jill should be devastated with worry yet seem to be coping reasonably well. Lawrence and his friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) start to investigate, but it’s not driven by a father’s desperate need to find his daughter. It feels more like a mild curiosity. Their quest takes them to Wapping in east London and into contact with a peculiar man called Abbott, who we recognise as a guest from the ski resort. They tail him to the Tabernacle of the Sun, a religious order in a ramshackle building, and now the film picks up intensity thanks to a scene-stealing performance.
Abbott is played by Hungarian-born Peter Lorre. Hitchcock knew the actor from Fritz Lang’s German classic M (1931), in which he had played an oddly sympathetic child murderer. Initially cast here as another character – the assassin Ramon – Lorre was soon promoted to the main villain role after impressing Hitchcock in person. He reportedly didn’t speak English at the time of filming, but this is a well-trodden anecdote that we should take with a pinch of salt. Not only does Abbott have *reams* of dialogue in uninterrupted takes, which would be near impossible to learn rote, but Lorre had actually already performed a movie role in English – the English-language version of M, which had been filmed alongside the original.
In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Lorre’s unforgettable bearing – that smirk, that bulk, those eyes that seem both evil and lovable at the same time – is used to create the first truly great bad guy in Hitchcock’s cinema. Abbott is a clever man with charm, a calm confidence and a gaggle of grotesque underlings. In fact, he’s more or less a precursor of a James Bond villain. Aptly, Lorre later played a Bond villain – the first ever seen on screen – in a 1950s TV adaptation of Casino Royale. After moving to Hollywood he also gave enjoyably baroque performances in films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). It’s a real shame that he only worked for Hitchcock once more, in 1936’s Secret Agent. Actor and director feel made for each other.
The religious order turns out to be a front for Abbott’s criminal operation: he is arranging the assassination of Ropa, for unspecified reasons, during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. (That’s what A. Hall meant in the note.) Bob manages to get word to Jill and she attends the concert. As well as hearing Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds Cantata, which was specifically written for the film, she manages to distract the would-be killer by screaming at the apposite moment. It’s one of the film’s best scenes: tense and edgy.
But it’s not the end of the story. Betty and Bob are still being held prisoner by Abbott and his cronies, so armed police surround the Tabernacle of the Sun and an epic, Wild West-style shootout develops. The 15-minute sequence was influenced by the Siege of Sidney Street, a violent confrontation between police and Latvian revolutionaries that took place in east London in January 1911. Alfred Hitchcock had been 11 years old at the time and lived nearby, so would have remembered it well. The harum-scarum scale doesn’t especially match the rest of the film, which mostly takes place in paranoid shadows, but at least Jill’s sharpshooting skills come in handy.
Ultimately, though, you get the feeling that the film’s not as good as it could be. It’s a story about the assassination of a man we don’t care about; about a couple who don’t seem unduly worried about their missing daughter. Thirty years after the release of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock said it had been the ‘work of a talented amateur’. The 1956 movie with the same title, he said, ‘was made by a professional.’ In the next blog, let’s see if he was right…
Six men in trenchcoats out of 10