Friday, May 27, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Alfred Hitchcock is on the short list of directors who remade their own movies. The second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is a globe-trotting adventure featuring a big star in James Stewart plus money and style to burn. It’s also one of the only Hitchcock films that I find boring.

The original is a full forty-five minutes shorter and a very British affair indeed. It shares the same basic plot as the remake. You’ve got a couple on holiday with their child. They befriend another man who is murdered – and with his dying breath reveals himself as a spy. The couple retrieve information the dead man was carrying about a planned assassination. The plotters kidnap the child in order to guarantee their silence. Can our heroes save their offspring and the day?

Hitchcock said the 1956 version was better, calling it the work of a professional while the first film was made by a gifted amateur. If that’s the case, give me the gifted amateur every time. The command Hitchcock demonstrates in the years since The Lodger is astonishing, never more so in the famous Albert Hall sequence. It’s to be the site of the assassination. The conspirators (led by Peter Lorre with a skunk stripe in his hair and speaking his lines phonetically) listen to the concert on the radio, waiting for the fatal gunshot. Jill Lawrence (Edna Best) has slipped into the hall, desperate to foil the scheme but fearful that her daughter and husband will be killed if she does. Hitchcock briefly lets the film go out of focus as tears of frustration fill her eyes. Then Jill finds a suitably Hitchcockian way to prevail.

There are terrific set pieces prior to this. Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) showing resourcefulness at the office of the dentist who’s one of the villains, an extended sequence at a church where Bob and his pal Clive (Hugh Wakefield, bearing the stiffest of upper lips) try to blend in with the baddies. When the Lawrences resist entreaties to help the authorities they’re asked if they would have shown similar indifference toward the prospect of averting the death of Archduke Ferdinand, a speech given extra teeth considering that the events of Sarajevo were only twenty years earlier. The climactic shootout, modeled on a famous London showdown between police and anarchists in 1911, drags a bit and seems to be headed toward a grim outcome until you realize that Hitch is going to make every detail count. This was the first of the remarkable run of 1930s films that would bring Hitchcock to Hollywood’s attention, and it’s easy to see why.