[This post is a contribution to the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which will be running from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work "The White Shadow" will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event. Be sure to donate!]
The 1934 version of Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much is very different from the 1956 Hollywood remake he made with James Stewart and Doris Day. The original film is a punchy, economical little thriller that deftly juggles its conflicting tones, with a generally lighter, more comedic tone than the later film. Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) and his wife Jill (Edna Best) go vacationing in the Alps with their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam), and get accidentally tied up in an international incident when their friend, who turns out to be a spy, is killed. Before he dies, though, he points the couple towards a clue that leads to a plot to assassinate a diplomat, and as a result Betty is kidnapped to prevent the Lawrences from giving their information to the British Foreign Office.
The early scenes of the film strike a jaunty tone, and strangely for a film that centers around a child kidnapping, it starts with a pretty cynical attitude about kids. In her first few scenes, Betty blithely skips onto the ski slope to scoop up her puppy, tripping up the skier coming down the hill and nearly injuring him badly, then snottily interrupts her mother at a skeet-shooting competition, prompting Jill to remark, as she misses her shot, "this is what happens when you have kids." It's all pitched in a ha-ha-just-kidding ironic tone that seems to hide at least a little genuine bitterness — which might be understandable, since after all this is a kid who obliviously blunders onto a ski slope, nearly kills a guy, and then laughs about it afterwards. The Lawrences are blithely ironic with one another as well, jesting and flirting — though mostly not with each other. As Jill dances with another man, Bob mischievously ties a piece of knitting thread to the back of the man's coat, so that as they dance the string winds around the legs of all the dancers. The climax of this comic set piece, when the man discovers the thread, cleverly dovetails with the introduction of the film's serious plot, as Hitchcock chooses this exact moment to have the man get shot.
Throughout the film, the comic is tightly interwoven with the dramatic, especially when Bob and his friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) go hunting for Betty, trying to track down the kidnappers. The unfortunate Clive keeps getting a raw deal, serving as a guinea pig for an underworld dentist, then getting arrested himself when he tries to inform the police about the kidnappers' plot. Best of all is the strangely goofy scene when Bob discovers the kidnappers hiding in a church and confronts them: the villains can't simply shoot Bob or risk attracting police attention, so the showdown devolves into a wonderfully sloppy battle of throwing wooden chairs, Bob facing off against the bad guys as they hurl chairs at one another, all while a nun plays the organ to mask the racket they're making. It's almost childlike, a game with deadly serious stakes.
Of course, on a more serious note, there's the famous Albert Hall sequence, in which Jill sits in the audience, knowing that an assassin is going to shoot a diplomat when the music gets loud enough, but vacillating about what she should do. Hitchcock drastically expanded and refined this sequence for the 1956 remake, and it plays out much better in the later film, but here the essence of the suspense is already apparent, slowly building as the gun edges out from behind a curtain. Less successful is the protracted and lackluster shootout between the cops and the bad guys that concludes the film, with Hitchcock's usually precise sense of staging and action here degenerating into a flat, static mise en scène with constant pop-pop gun sounds coming from everywhere.
This extended sequence stands out as plodding because so much of the rest of the film rushes by at a clipped, no-nonsense pace, communicating everything in shorthand. When Jill first finds out that her daughter has been kidnapped, she stares off into space, walks a few zombie-like steps, and promptly collapses, and this is virtually the entirety of the film's depiction of parental grief. Everything is compressed and moves with a choppy, jittery rhythm that leaps from one scene to another. As a result, there's very little fat, but also very little characterization, and neither of the two lead performances stand out. Thankfully Hitchcock at least got a scenery-chewing villain in Peter Lorre, who plays the creepy kidnapper Abbott. He's a sleazy, slimy character, defined by the oddly skunk-like white streak running down the center of his hair. Curiously, Hitchcock gives Abbott some of the film's most subtle emotional beats, like the closeup of him looking down — with guilt? sadness? — while thinking about what he'll eventually have to do to Betty when this plot is over. Later, during the final shootout, when Abbott's female partner is shot by a stray bullet, he pulls her close to him, genuinely upset that she's dying. The film rarely pauses for such sentimental moments, so it's striking that the villainous Abbott is the focus of these brief diversions.
The Man Who Knew Too Much mostly speeds by, giving it a jumpy feel; it's bursting with the nervous energy of a rough, low-budget work. The film suffers at times from this economy, mostly in the clipped emotional subtext that the director would build upon when he remade the film, but it's still a fine early Hitchcock thriller with some enjoyable quirks.