I may have mentioned that being in New York had some perks. Top among them is the ability to see virtually any movie as it comes out. I say virtually because it turns out that the movies I see for the first time were screened in Toronto about a year ago. I bet if I were in Toronto I’d complain that Cannes screens movies before that. Well, maybe I wouldn’t complain because that’s France and France is where the French live and is, therefore, to be avoided. In any case, the perks of NYC also includes its people (so long as you don’t cross them). I’m here at the IFC Center at 11 am to see Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and there are about twenty people here. True, I’m pretty sure the people behind me fell asleep, but their intentions were rock-solid. The lined film has begun to roll, the censor’s certification let’s us know it’s all kosher, and here we go.
Switzerland. We know that because of the brochures some disembodied arm-hand combo shows to us. Bob (Leslie Banks) and Jill (Edna Best) are in town with their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) and friend Louis (Pierre Fresnay). Louis is doing a ski jump and Jill is in a clay pigeon shoot against Ramon (Frank Vosper, looking incredibly like Nicholas Palliser). It’s all fun and only slightly competitive. Betty ruins Louis’s jump by letting their dog run out in front of him and ruins Jill’s chances at victory by talking loudly with her father. Later that night, Jill and Louis are dancing when the window nearby smashes. “Oh look,” Louis says as he opens his jacket, revealing a dark bloodstain. As he dies, he tells Jill to get to his room and get his brush. Jill tells Bob and Bob runs up to perform the duty. After a quick rumage through the varied brushes, Bob finds a note on the inside of a shaving brush. He sneaks out of the room, but is first discovered by Ramon who demands the note. Luckily, however, the police arrive and take Bob into questioning. During questioning, a note arrives saying that Bob must remain silent or his daughter will die. Bob does as asked. Once home, however, clues are noticed that allow Bob, with the aid of friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) to track down a group of assassins who hold his daughter and save her without speaking to the police.
This contains roughly all the major elements of the later Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) starring James Stewart and Doris Day as the parents vacationing in Morocco or some such place. However, the tone and menace is far different here as are the many personalities concerned (which is to say nothing of the obvious technological improvements available to Hitchcock in 1956). The 1934 film is grittier, funnier, and darker than the 1956 version. That is, it’s more British and less 50’s American.
The performances are incredibly different. Banks and Best are incredibly similar to Nick and Nora from The Thin Man (1934) which came out a month later. They’re playful with each other, take dangerous things less seriously than they ought to, but there’s always a hint of anxiety behind them. They understand the stakes, but by force of personality they will smile in the face of danger. They are also both incredibly capable. Stewart and Day, on the other hand, are almost humorless and their capacity comes from the need to save their child rather than upper-class awesomeness. Pilbeam, as little Betty, was just annoying while the little boy Hank (Christopher Olsen) was cute and less of a wimp.
The menace from the baddie, played by Peter Lorre, was strong. They went a bit over the top with the abrupt close-ups of him smoking or whatever, but for a man sounding out the English, it is masterful. This is also a major difference between the 1934 and 1956 films. Peter Lorre has a character with depth and motivation while the 1956 baddies were purposeless menace. The 1934 film called upon the memory of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the beginning of World War I in a time of considerable international tension–incidentally Lorre was in Britain because he had fled Nazi Germany–while the 1956 version is mere intrigue unconnected with the immense international tension of the Cold War.
The plot itself underwent serious changes. The script from Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis (scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlinson with additional dialogue from Emlyn Williams) ends in a gritty seige at the assassins’ hold out. Doris Day’s Que Sera, Sera brings about the end of the film while Jill’s marksmanship does so for the 1934 version. That says it all, really. There’s also an almost comic fight scene where Bob fights off the assassins by throwing chairs at them. They take up these same chairs and start throwing them at Bob. It’s an incredible scene of relentless action (paralleling that of the seige) in a movie that is mostly understated.
There’s something about the film style (encouraged by the poorish film/camera quality) that reminds me of the artsier movies I’ve seen from the sixties. There are scene changes that are stark and loud–Bob is talking to the police and then BAM cut to a train rushing loudly by which turns out to be a toy train up in Betty’s room to start of a conversation between Jill and Clive–and some slow zooms that heighten tension. It’s quite good and would be infinitely better with a better camera and easier movement. Then there are more common (and less improving) comparisons to art-house films like odd non sequitor details and over-slow movement by characters. I put that in the ‘common old movie problems’ category along with the frankly bad matte backgrounds of Switzerland.
On the whole, however, this is a very watchable movie. It’s quite short, an hour-fifteen, and has me thinking “faithful remake needed” throughout. Furthermore, it’s easy to find cheap, like in this $5 collection of 20 Hitchcock movies.
I admit that I missed the Hitchcock cameo.