3/10/10

Hitch on the Hump:The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Remakes are a touchy subject with film fans. Very seldom does one find a remake that stacks up to the original, and it is rarer that such a feat would come from the same director. In 1956, Alfred Hitchcock remade The Man Who Knew Too Much, the film that first garnered him success in America, with James Stewart and Doris Day taking on the lead roles. It was a grand success, but in the years since the argument over which version was best has been a source of bickering among Hitchcock fans. Hitch once told Francois Truffaut that his 1934 film was the product of a “talented amateur and the second made by a professional.” I’ve previously reviewed the 1956 version, and I thought it was high time I turned my eye toward the original film. While neither seems like an amateur work, there are surely plusses and minuses to each of the versions.

The kernel of the idea that would become The Man Who Knew Too Much originally stemmed from a script by Michael Balcon and playwright Charles Bennett. Based off the popular Bulldog Drummond books, the script was then entitled Bulldog Drummond’s Baby. It followed the daring English detective on vacation in Switzerland where he stumbles on a ring of spies who kidnap his titular baby to ensure his silence. Balcon, who was now the head of British studio Gaumont, asked Hitchcock to retrieve the rights to the script, then owned by British International Pictures, and the director did so selling it back to Balcon at a hefty profit. After going through a groupthink process where Hitchcock seemingly consulted every writer he knew, the story that emerged lost the detective, changed the hero to a heroine, and the baby became a precocious twelve year old. In the wake of his last film, the Johann Strauss biopic Waltzes from Vienna, the most important thing to Hitchcock was returning to the kind of suspense film he relished making.

The story begins in Switzerland where Bob Laurence (Leslie Banks) and his daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) watch Bob’s wife Jill (Edna Best) participate in a skeet shooting competition. Jill gets distracted by the chime of a watch and loses the match, but later that evening she’s having a lovely time dancing with her friend Louis (Pierre Fresnay) until he is suddenly gunned down. With his last breath, he tells Jill where to find information that must be taken to the British consulate to prevent an assassination. Bob recovers the clue from Louis’ room, but the assassins, lead by the villainous Abbott (Peter Lorre), have taken Betty hostage. The Laurences have no choice but to return to England, and while Bob tries to save Betty, Jill must find a way to prevent the diplomat from being killed.

I guess right off the bat I should discuss where the 1934 and 1956 versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much deviate. In the 1956 version, the hero of the picture is James Stewart’s affable dad while the 1934 version gives the most heroic moments to Edna Best as the mother, Jill. Leslie Banks’ Bob gets to do his share of investigating, but he, along with his pal Clive (Hugh Wakefield), generally stumble around and bungle things while Jill is the linchpin that both foils the radical’s plot and ultimately saves their daughter. Edna Best might have been lacking the glamour (and singing voice) of Doris Day, but it’s interesting to see a woman portrayed in a Hitchcock film as cunning and strong without the flaws that so many women in his films seem to have. The other major changes have to do with the location of opening scene, Morocco in 1956 and Switzerland in 1934, and the presence of the villain, much more an integral part of the 1934 film. The Swiss setting gave Hitchcock a chance to mentally return to the city of St. Moritz where he had honeymooned with his wife Alma.

The lead actors are all very entertaining to watch, and I was especially impressed by Nova Pilbeam as the young girl Betty. Pilbeam had caught Hitchcock’s eye (as well as the eye of most of England) when she starred in 1934 film Little Friend as a young girl driven to suicide after her parents divorce. Hitchcock remembered her as having “the intelligence of a fully grown woman.”, and her performance, while brief, is very impressive. Three years later he would call on the actress again for his 1937 film Young and Innocent. Leslie Banks gives a light performance that encompasses much of the humor Hitchcock injected into his films. His shining moment is a comically tense scene in a dentist’s office originally intended to be a barber until Hitch saw a similar scene in the Paul Muni film I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. (Years later, John Schlesinger's Marathon Man would borrow heavily from the dentist scene, but with rather more intensity.) I also rather enjoyed Bob and Clive’s run in with a faux-sun cult that fronts for the anarchists. Banks would also re-team with Hitchcock in the 1939 film Jamaica Inn. Some have described Edna Best as one of the icy, cool “Hitchcock blondes”, but while her hair color certainly fits, she is much too true blue to fit in with many of Hitch’s other ladies. Best did not appear again in another Hitchcock film, but she did have memorable roles in the 1940 version of Swiss Family Robinson and 1947’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

The family at the center of the plot should surely be the focus of the film, but the real star here is Peter Lorre. Having fled Germany in the wake of the rise of Adolf Hitler, Lorre spoke almost no English. As the story goes, he shrewdly just answered yes to anything the director asked, and when he thought that Hitch might have hit the punch line of one of his famously ribald stories, the actor, “broke out in such laughter that I almost fell off my chair.” Lorre learned all his lines phonetically, but from the performance he turned in you would never know. He had first caught Hitchcock’s eye with the Fritz Lang film M, and the film even contains an allusion to that film in the form or Lorre’s character’s chiming watch. Originally Lorre was considered for the role of the assassin, Ramon, but after the first meeting, Hitchcock considered that the script called for the character of Abbott to be “unctuous but deadly”. Lorre definitely could embody all of that and more. With his bug eyes, skunk striped hair, and leering looks, Lorre projects an air of malevolence. Yet, strangely, in the last act, Lorre still manages to infuse the character with a pathos that you would not expect. Before Norman Bates and Bruno Anthony, Lorre’s Abbott was surely the first of Hitchcock’s great villains.

When Hitchcock previewed the films for executives at Gaumont, they rushed out when the credits rolled without a single word for the director. They thought the film was “too artistic” and when screened for film critic C.M Woolf he declared it a travesty. Thankfully, Michael Balcon overruled everyone and the film got its release. It would be widely hailed as the best British film of the year, and it even garnered a fair bit of attention in the United States. In some ways, The Man Who Knew Too Much paved the director’s way to Hollywood in only a few short years. Not only was the story of the film appealing to audiences, but Hitchcock made great use of visuals to impress. From the Swiss Alps to the climax in the Albert Hall, which was really a set on a soundstage with most of the audience made up of a reflected painting, Hitch stretched his budget to create a film that was as visually appealing as it was suspenseful.

The film benefited by all the German immigrants entering the British film industry, and the cinematography was handled by Curt Courant, who had worked with Fritz Lang, and art director Alfred Junge, who also worked with Hitch on Waltzes from Vienna. The Man Who Knew Too Much is also notable for two other collaborators. First was composer Arthur Benjamin who wrote the Storm Cloud Cantata which was used in the climax of both versions of the film. While Hitchcock preferred the recording by Bernard Hermann in the ‘56 version, it would not have been possible if Benjamin hadn’t written the piece. The second notable collaborator was Joan Harrison who was hired on as a script girl for this film. She would remain a trusted confidant to the director for years. She would go on to becoming a writer of scripts for Hitchcock films such as Jamaica Inn, Suspicion, Saboteur, and Foreign Correspondent before rising to the level of producer working on films and the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series.

The success of The Man Who Knew Too Much not only gained Hitchcock his first overtones from the Hollywood studios; it also gave him enough clout to get his next film, The 39 Steps, made when the studio again thought it an incomprehensible mess. Nearly from the time he came to America, he considered remaking the film, most likely because it contained so many elements that Hitch so loved. The Man Who Knew Too Much is funny, action filled, and incredibly suspenseful. So no matter what version you choose to watch, you’re in the hands of a master, but the best thing to do is watch them both and you’ll surely appreciate the “talented amateur” and the “professional”.



Bugg Rating


The Man Who Knew Too Much is one of the few Hitchcock pictures in the public domain, and so I am very happy to bring you the complete film for your viewing pleasure.

2 comments:

  1. I like the 1934 version very much. One of two great performances Peter Lorre gave for Hitchcock. The 1956 remake is one of the very few Hitchcock movies I don't much care for.

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