Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Man Who Knew Too Much

1934, UK, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The first of the half-dozen breezy thrillers that Hitchcock made in the 1930s, the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much clocks in at just over 70 minutes. Hitchcock found an extra 50 minutes of material for his 1956 remake, a very different kind of film, as much a study of a family under pressure as it is a thriller, but the snappy pacing and memorably ghoulish touches are more to my taste than the expansive 1950s take on the material.

Hitchcock wastes no time plunging us into the action, with the film's precipitating crime - a shooting death in Switzerland - taking place just a couple of minutes' in, before we've really learned much about protagonists Bob and Jill Lawrence, who manage to become embroiled in international intrigue without knowing why. Before we know it, we're back in London on the trail of the criminals, who've kidnapped the Lawrences' daughter, and it's here that the film really comes alive, as the pursuit takes us to the studio streets of Wapping.

While the film is best remembered for the scenes in the Albert Hall, it's the earlier sequences, in a bizarre revival hall and a creepy dentist's office, that give the film a darker twist; while both sequences have comic touches, they both ultimately descend into often brutal violence. The film's latter sequences, centered on a lengthy shootout with the police (which did not make it into the remake) could have been lifted from a Warner Brothers gangster picture of the period, except that the key shot is fired here by a woman (Edna Best), helping prove that crime certainly doesn't pay.

The film was Peter Lorre's first English-language role; he didn't spend long in England, appearing the following year in Karl Freund's wonderful Mad Love for MGM, before shuttling back for Hitchcock's Secret Agent. Hitchcock seems to have felt the need to up the ante on Lorre's already unusual appearance by giving him a skunk-like hair stripe, though no-one dares to mention this unusual feature to the sinister mastermind.

I was amused to note that David Cairns and I picked the same shot when choosing screen captures to illustrate the film; his shadowplay write-up is highly recommended. The shot in question, with half-a-dozen fingers pointing at a bullet hole, has a mate in Hitchcock's 1936 Sabotage.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States