Friday, May 18, 2012

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

[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.


DavidEhrenstein said...

This and the The 39 Steps were Hitch's Big International breakthrough films. While I like the finale of this one a great deal the 1956 version is superior in very way -- including a great Herrmann score and an especially funny ending.

Sam Juliano said...

Yep David, you beat me to the punch. I was prepared to come in gangbusters here for Herrmann, but seconding the motion is just as satisfying. In any caase I'd also add the song "Que Sera Sera" to the musical mix appreciation, and would agree with Ed that the re-make boasts a stronger Albert Hall sequence.

However, I do feel the earlier film is on balance superior, and it's one of three films Hitch made in the 30's that wears the masterpiece label. The others of course are THE 39 STEPS and THE LADY VANISHES. Peter Lorre is legendary here, especially since at this point there were language difficulties that he ultimately concealed. And yes, a spectacular denouement.

Congratulations Ed on your spectacular run of Hitchcock reviews for this fabulous blogothon that ends today.

Grand Old Movies said...

I'm coming in on the side of the '34 version as against the '56 one (a whole blogathon could perhaps be devoted to these 2 films), which I find tighter and swifter-moving, which I think helps the Albert Hall sequence - plus there's Lorre's great performance as the terrorist-kidnapper, stirring up a potent cocktail of charm, ironic wit, and deadly intent; the doughy Bernard Miles in the 2nd film can't come close. The 2 films are quite different in their presentations of the central couple - Leslie Banks & Edna Best as upper-class English are flippant and cool, as if straight out of Evelyn Waugh, but resilient in the true Brit-stiff-upper-lip manner; James Stewart & Doris Day as the middle-class Americans present a surface of forced amiability hiding simmering tensions in their marriage (the scene in the restaurant, where Stewart becomes angry over a minor matter, is queasy to watch) - the Stewart/Day relationship reflects 1950s domestic dramas, in which everything is not quite right in the happy suburbs; the best part of the later film, I think, is how their domestic troubles inflect the political-thriller situation they're caught up in.

Tinky said...

I like the way you note that Lorre gets some of the film's most authentically emotional moments. I'd love to see a double feature of the two "Men."

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, everyone.

Personally, I slightly prefer the '56 version, which plays up the comedy and the emotional subtext much more than this version does - and as David and Sam point out, the later version has Bernard Herrmann! - but the original still has much to recommend it. Peter Lorre, for one big thing.

And as Grand Old Movies notes, the 2 films are ultimately very different, whichever one prefers, and are interesting for showing the master director approaching the same subject from very different angles.

Sam Juliano said...

I saw both versions again at the Film Forum as part of the Hitchcock Festival, and I am won over Ed and David.

I admit the error of my ways.

The 56 version is indeed superior.

Ed Howard said...

Hah, delayed reaction!

The Hitch fest must've been a blast, Sam, I'm jealous.