Wednesday, December 21, 2011

#492. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre

Tag line: "Public Enemy No. 1 of all the world"

Trivia:  The film's producer, C.M. Woolf, hated the film and only allowed it to be released as the bottom half of a double bill. Nevertheless, it won rave reviews

My first experience with Alfred Hitchcock's 1934 movie The Man Who Knew Too Much happened right around the time I was getting serious about film. I rescued a VHS copy of it from the bargain bin at the local K-Mart and, being somewhat familiar with it's director, immediately headed home to pop it into the VCR. 

A good many will argue that Hitchcock's 1956 remake is the superior work, but I'll always have a special place in my heart for this particular version of the story. 

Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best), along with their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam), are vacationing in Switzerland. While there, they befriend champion skier Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay), not realizing he is actually a secret agent. One evening, as he and Jill are dancing, Louis is shot in the chest, but before dying, he whispers to Jill the details of an intended political assassination, to be carried out in London in a few days' time. 

Unfortunately, the conspirators, led by a man named Abbott (Peter Lorre), witness this exchange. To ensure Jill remains silent, they kidnap Betty and whisk her off to London. Fearing for their daughter's safety, Bob and Jill pursue the kidnappers, and, to protect their daughter, they reveal nothing of what they know to the authorities.

Not only will the Lawrences take on the conspirators, but they'll also try to foil the assassination plot... all by themselves! 

The Man Who Knew Too Much was Peter Lorre's first English-language role, and he does a fine job playing the heavy, reminiscent of the kind of villain that would make him a fixture in Hollywood for years to come. Yet what makes this movie such a fascinating watch is Hitchcock himself, showing off a few of those skills that would eventually earn him the title “The Master of Suspense”. A taut thriller (clocking in at a mere 75 minutes) The Man Who Knew Too Much is the archetype Hitchcock story: an innocent man (or, in this case, family) pulled into a desperate situation by a string of events. There's a generous portion of humor as well, not to mention some clever camerawork and plenty of excitement, culminating in a tense sequence set at the Royal Albert Hall, where the assassination is to take place. 

Hitchcock himself preferred his 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much to the original, telling Francois Truffaut, “The first version was the work of a talented amateur, and the second was made by a professional”. Be that as it may, this earlier interpretation offers viewers an opportunity to check out the “Master” towards the beginning of his career, while he was still cutting his teeth. 

The fact that it's a fun film to boot is a nice bonus.

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