Last year I reviewed the Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) starring James Stewart and Doris Day. I wasn’t in love with it, but Day was solid and the sweeping cinematography captivated me. During the recent TCM Classic Film Festival I was able to watch the original installment of Hitchcock’s kidnapping thriller, from 1934, on nitrate (print courtesy of David O. Selznick!). This earlier iteration of The Man Who Knew Too Much was the film that reinvigorated Hitchcock’s career are a string of flops, and also gave us the cinematic debut of Peter Lorre. In comparison to its follow-up, this version is leaner and, I’d argue, an overall better version.
While vacationing in Switzerland, Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are thrown into an international intrigue when a friend is murdered before their eyes. Privy to information they shouldn’t have, their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) is kidnapped, and will be killed if they reveal what they know. As the couple struggles to get their daughter back, they’re soon involved in stopping an assassination attempt.
Hitchcock worked with the basic tenets of the story in the remake – a couple’s child is kidnapped and they’re forced to stop an assassination at the Royal Albert Hall. Small changes are made; the couple in this film lose a daughter, while in the remake it’s a son. But what Hitchcock does best here is present the story free of the flash and gimmickry that his work started to hinge on once he became “Alfred Hitchcock.” For starters, the film is pared down to a little over an hour of story, and it’s more than enough time to get audiences invested. The Lawrences’ are rich folks who wouldn’t seem out of place in a screwball comedy. They’re holidaying in Switzerland while Jill tries to win a skeet-shooting contest. (The only weapon Day would wield in a movie is sheet music.) Enter Peter Lorre, murder, and the kidnapping and you’re over halfway through to the climax. This is in contrast to the family in the remake who, though visiting the more exotic Morocco, are meant to be perceived as “just folks.”
Despite the brief runtime there’s nothing that feels lost or undefined. The Royal Albert Hall sequence is still visually stunning, if lacking in Technicolor. It’s not to say that the remake is bad because it’s longer, but it certainly suffers from more filler than this iteration. Hitchcock borrows the plot of this one verbatim that it’s very easy to see what he added and, for the most part, this version just seems cleaner.
This could be because the film has a very British sensibility. Banks and Best are great as the average rich people you don’t resent for their wealth. Banks is fine, but it’s really Best who steals the show as Jill. For starters, this is a woman who has no issue shooting things. We’re introduced to her trying to win this skeet shooting tournament, and when she loses – because of Lorre’s Abbott and his tinkling watch – she lets her irritation be known. (Don’t worry, Abbott and his watch get theirs in the end!) Best has no problem dropping the script’s flippant one-liners, joking about hating her kid and lightheartedly threatening to leave her husband. And, unlike Day whose character cried and generally played second fiddle, Best’s Jill actively participates right up until the end when she….saves the day! The remake proved to us that Day could act, but this version only makes you wish you could shake Day’s character! As for Lorre, he’s wonderful as the sensitive psycho pulling everyone’s strings.
I will say that the nitrate print I saw wasn’t too spectacular. It was certainly clean, but I think Laura and Lady in the Dark (1944) in nitrate were more impressive!
The Man Who Knew Too Much will never be my favorite Hitchcock feature, but this – as everyone told me when I reviewed the remake – is the version to hang your hat on.
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