Alfred Hitchcock Meets “The Man Who Knew Too Much”

16 05 2010

“Let’s say that the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” – Alfred Hitchcock

After the very strange movie “Waltzes from Vienna,” Alfred Hitchcock returned in 1934 with “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” which started a run of his final seven British movie productions, nearly all of which are very well regarded. “The Man Who Knew Too Much” made an excellent start to this run; it is Hitch’s first real thriller in years, and the first with a story that’s as strong as Hitch’s filmmaking skills.

Starring Leslie Banks and Edna Best, and featuring Nova Pilbeam and Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role, “TMWKTM” opens in St. Moritz (one of Hitch’s favorite vacation spots), where the Lawrence family are on a sports holiday – Jill Lawrence is taking part in a shooting competition. Although she loses to a German shooter, Jill spends the evening dancing while her husband, Bob, and daughter, Betty, relax over dinner. But when Jill’s dance partner is shot, the Lawrences are introduced into a world of danger.

The dying man tells Jill to deliver a message to someone; she sends her husband to retrieve it. It’s a clue, written on a slip of paper, and it seems that enemy agents quickly find out that Bob and Jill have it. They kidnap Betty, threatening her parents that they will kill her if they tell anyone about the clue.

Back in England, the Lawrences are contacted by Scotland Yard, who say they know that this spy ring plans to assassinate a diplomat and plunge Europe into war. The Lawrences refuse to admit anything, and when they’re left alone, Bob and a family friend begin their own investigation. They find the place where Betty is being held – a strange sort of church, of which Peter Lorre is the minister. They capture Bob, but the friend escapes and gets word to Jill that the assassination will take place during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

Jill reaches the concert hall in time and spots the gunman, who happens to be her competitor from the start of the film; she screams, throwing off his aim, then puts the police on his trail as he flees the scene. The police surround the church, and a shootout begins. One by one Peter Lorre’s gang is picked off, until only the sharpshooter and Lorre are left. The shooter is sent to fetch Betty, but with her father’s help she escapes to the roof, although he is wounded by the gunman.

On the roof, the gunman tries to grab Betty, but from the street, Jill grabs a rifle and shoots her daughter’s attacker. The police pull Betty back inside, then find Lorre and shoot him dead.

It’s a riveting movie from start to finish, and despite the suspense, there is a lot of humor in it. Peter Lorre is particularly charming; he laughs at everything, leading to one chilling moment during the siege when he’s laughing, unaware that his comrade has been shot right next to him.

This was Peter Lorre’s first English language film; he had just fled Germany, and had to learn his part phonetically. Nonetheless, he is very charistmatic, and Hitch became very fond of him, so much so that they worked together again in “Secret Agent” in 1936. Hitch also enjoyed working with young Nova Pilbeam, who played Betty; Hitch said that she lacked the artifice of most British actresses, making her a natural and believable performer. She would star in Hitch’s “Young and Innocent” in 1937.

Aside from being a strong story, the film also has several well choreographed fight scenes, in particular the shootout at the end. Hitchcock builds up our empathy with the police (an unusual move for him); the moments when one officer is shot at the church door, and another when one is shot while getting ready for the siege are both shocking.

Up next, we’ll look at “The 39 Steps,” probably the best-loved movie from Hitchcock’s British years, and of course the one I’ve been circling around all through my ongoing “39 Steps Fest.” We’ll save comparisons between Hitch’s two versions of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” for later this year, when I get to the 1956 version.




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