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The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934): A Review

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I realized upon watching The Man Who Knew Too Much again that the movie deserves more credit than I had originally given it. I had seen it twice before, both times on a cheap videocassette with muffled audio that made it difficult to pick up the dialogue. As a result, I had always dismissed the film rather unfairly, ranking it a distant third in comparison to other early Hitchcock efforts such as The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Lady Vanishes. Now having just watched it on a cheap DVD with much better audio, I still rate the film behind those other two, but the difference is a great deal closer.

The film begins in Switzerland, where British couple Bob and Jill Lawrence are vacationing with their daughter Betty amid the grandeur of the Alps. In this cosmopolitan environment that mixes people from all parts of Europe, the Lawrences appear urbane and relaxed. We see them mingling with German and Frenchman alike with unconscious ease, unperturbed by any issues of national identity. This benign cosmopolitanism comes to an abrupt end, however, when Frenchman Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) dies in Jill’s arms, the result of a gunshot received while dancing with her.

His dying words to Jill are to go to his room and find a brush and take it to the British Consul. Suddenly we are enmeshed in the treacherous world of international espionage that pits one country against another. Husband Bob finds the brush and an obscurely-worded message within it, but just as he is about to report it to the British consul, he receives another note. This one warns him that his daughter has been kidnapped and will be killed if gives his message to the Consul. The trick is that if he does not report his findings, a diplomat will be assassinated with international chaos to ensue.

So begins the suspense. The acting is very good: Leslie Banks and Edna Best are convincing as the debonair-turned-distraught British couple, while Peter Lorre is captivating as the sinister German, Abbot. Hitchcock displays a deft hand with his camera shots and pacing as well, a sign of his increasing confidence as film director. There is a wonderful scene at the Royal Albert Hall, in which Jill attends a performance of Arthur Benjamin’s The Storm Cloud Cantata, having been warned in advance that something terrible is about to take place. She surveys the concert-hall and gradually realizes with horror the method by which the assassination plot of an attending diplomat is to be enacted. Hitchcock manipulates the performance skillfully, so that the outward, contrived drama of the chorus singing the cantata begins to mirror Jill’s own, very real, internal drama: her conflicted anguish between her desire to save her daughter and her awareness of what will take place if she does not interfere. It is quite wonderful.

This is not a perfect film. There are a few clumsy moments throughout the film that one must do one’s best to overlook. There is a scene, for example, in which the kidnappers telephone the Lawrences warning them yet again to keep mum with the authorities. In the course of the conversation, they put daughter Betty on the phone with Jill to assure her that her daughter is still alive – for now. As they talk, husband Bob stands close by, urging his wife to ask Betty where she is being held. The reason for this I cannot quite fathom. Does Bob think that his daughter will simply tell them the location and the mystery will be solved? The result is quite the opposite, of course. Upon Jill asking the question, a shriek is heard on the other side and the line goes dead.

Moreover, the final shootout at Sydney Street is artfully done. Nonetheless, one would think that as the number of spies whittles down from the 7 to 6 to 2, Scotland Yard might swarm in and overwhelm their opponents. But no, this does not happen. Rather, the pesky spies manage to stave off seemingly hundreds of policemen, even as they dwindle down to their last gun. Oh well. At least, this implausible device serves to guide us to a very satisfying climax.

Anyway, these are minor flaws in a very good film, one of Hitchcock’s best from his days at British studios. I have two things to add. The Man Who Knew Too Much was Peter Lorre’s first English-speaking role, and I think that anyone who sees the film will concur that his debut in British cinema comes not a moment too soon. Also, if you happen to see the 1956 remake of the film, be prepared for a vastly inferior movie. I hate Doris Day (just as an actress, mind you), and the climax to that film features her singing “Que Sera, Sera.” Ah…if only I were joking.

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  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    You’re nuts. The 1956 version is vastly superior to the 1934 one; for one thing, it has an improved pace, the cinematography of Robert Burks, a score by Barnard Herrmann and a director who in the 1950s was working at the top of his game. Are you going to sit there and tell me you prefer a couple of vapid English twits like Leslie Banks and Edna Best over such true screen naturals as Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day? The early version isn’t even the best of Hitchcock’s British work. The later version ranks among his most sheerly entertaining films.

  • Brent McKee

    As I recall, the Sydney Street seige segment was based on the real life Siege of Sydney Street which was in fact just two Latvian anarchists in a house, but the authorities (chief among them Winston Churchill) called for 300 police and a detachment of Scots Guards, and did not swarm in and overwhelm the people inside. The worry of course was that the house might have been rigged with bombs.

  • http://www.sobriquetmagazine.com/public_html/edsblog.html Eyeless In Gaza

    Rodney, the 1956 version is a bloated, tedious, utterly boring ordeal. I would agree that just about everything that Hitchcock touched in the 1950s turned to gold, but not this film. It anticipates, rather, some of his more unfortunate productions of the 1960s (Topaz, Torn Curtain), particularly in its inability to maintain suspense. The pacing in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much may have been less frenetic than the original, but it was also considerably less taut.

    Besides, I wonder about your ability to judge a good actor, when you deem Edna Best a “vapid English twit” and Doris Day “a true screen natural.” About the only thing that DD ever mastered was a sort of dazed wholesomeness – a trait that might have been passable in comedies opposite Rock Hudson, but proved unwatchable in just about anything else.

    Thanks, Brent, for your explanation of the Sydney Street episode, I was not aware of the real-life background. I wish the film had been more explicit about the perceived threat of a bomb.

  • http://acrentropy.blogspot.com Alonzo Mosley (FBI)

    I admit to have never seen the original 1934 version. The 1956 version, however, I saw several times as a kid on TV and absolutely loved. When I saw it again recently, I wasn’t as impressed (anyway, how many films seen as a kid holdup as well), but I still think it a good film.

    There are still strong elements, though, with the whole assasination sequence near the end with that music buildup (the most memorable part for me). And I’m not afraid to admit that, darnit, I think the Que Sera Sera sequence works. She’s belting that song out for all its worth and letting the emotion of her tortured mother burn through.

    Seems they just released the Doris Day DVD set that includes “Young Man With a Horn”. That woman wasn’t all “Pilow Talk”, after all.

  • http://tinkertytonk.blogspot.com Rachel

    I saw the later version not too long ago and wasn’t too impressed. I’ve never seen the 1934 version, but I love early b&w Hitchcock.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/donfrancisco864/iblog/index.html francisco68

    I concur with you (but not Rodney Welch) thay “The Man Who Knew Too Much” 1034 was a great film. I also love “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes” one of my favorite films. I do not, however, leave “The Man who Knew Too Much” so far behind the others partly based on the closing shoot out scene which I consider quite well done. As for the Doris Day version with Jimmy Stewart…well, it was the ’50s and I do like Jimmy Stewart. Also the little girl in the ’34 version is so cute and brave-little-girlish you can’t help but like it. She later appears in “Young and Innocent” which should also be on your list.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Eyeless,

    I was confounded by your comment that the 1956 film is a “Bloated, tedious, utterly boring ordeal” until I saw your name. Yes, I suppose if you’re blind, it is rather a chore to sit through. Anyone with eyes will have a different experience; at any rate, anyone who says the film can’t “maintain suspense” has absolutely no business saying what suspense is, eyes or no eyes.

    Then again, you don’t know what a screen natural is either. Love her or hate her, Doris Day is an icon of pure, blissful American girlhood. She wasn’t merely photogenic, for millions of people she defined a whole era. God knows this is something no one will ever say about poor old Edna Best, whose name only pops up when this film is discussed.

    I love watching Day’s movies. She’s radiant and funny and has real emotional depth. My favorite movie of hers is Love Me or Leave Me, but I even love her bad movies; she gives them spark. I can get what you mean by wholesome, although I’ve never seen her dazed; to me she always looks perfectly chipper and alert — and flustered. I always like seeing her flustered, especially when she’s in some romantic situation or another. She’s the perfect 1950s wife for good old Jimmy Stewart — they’re such a solidly American couple in that movie, and Hitchcock by this stage of his career had become wonderfully adept at burrowing into the kind of Life Magazine stereotypes he put on the screen.

  • http://www.sobriquetmagazine.com/public_html/edsblog.html Eyeless In Gaza

    Rodney,
    I suppose I don’t know what a screen natural is. I did enjoy, though, your description of Doris Day as “an icon of pure, blissful American girlhood.” Does it not bother you that this icon of girlhood was in her mid-to-late 30s when she made most of her hit movies?

    Anyway, I don’t enjoy most of Doris Day’s work. I also find the remake of TMWKTM to be a bore. Obviously, you disagree. We’ll leave it at that.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Girlhood, womanhood, whatever. The sunny blonde idealized opposite sex at a certain time in this country’s history. Your mom’s best friend, your neighbor’s wife, your schoolteacher, the lady you see on a bus happily reading the Gardening section. She embodied everything. Worship her.

  • http://duckmafia.blogspot.com Quack Corleone

    Hitchcock didn’t really say which version he liked more, either. He merely distinguished the two by calling the first the work of a talented amateur and the second that of a professional.