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Is this film available for rent on Netflix Instant and Apple iTunes? This film is not available on Netflix Instant or Apple iTunes. However, I recommend you purchase the recently released Criterion Collection blu-ray edition of the movie. It is gorgeously restored and it contains wonderful supplements about the making of the film.

I am a bit reluctant to have my first Alfred Hitchcock review be about The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) because it does not rank among my favorite Hitchcock films. Also, as one who likes to turn my readers onto filmmakers with whose work they may not be familiar with, a review of this film might turn some readers off from seeing other Hitchcock movies. So it is with great emphasis that, despite my review, I urge you to not be discouraged from seeing any of Alfred Hitchcock’s many wonderful films. The Man Who Knew Too Much marks one of those rare films that was remade by its director many years later (the only two films that come to mind that were made twice by their directors are Evil Dead/Evil Dead 2 and El Mariachi/Desperado – feel free to provide other examples, which I’m sure exist). The remake was shot in 1956 and it starred James Stewart and Doris Day. The earlier version that I’m reviewing was made in 1934 and it starred Leslie Banks, Edna Best, and Peter Lorre.

The Man Who Knew Too Much was made during Alfred Hitchcock’s British years and it followed a period for the director in which he was not having a very successful career. Up until this point, Hitchcock had made quite a number of very expensive bombs and he was dangerously close to never being able to direct again. The Man Who Knew Too Much was an all-or-nothing attempt to resuscitate his career. Fortunately for him and for us, the film ended up being a huge success with audiences.

The film’s plot revolves around a British couple (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) and their daughter (Nova Pilbeam), who are vacationing in the Swiss Alps when they get involved in a plot to kill a diplomat. Jill, the wife, befriends a Frenchman who is staying at her hotel. One night, while she is dancing with the Frenchman, a bullet mysteriously kills the Frenchman. Before he dies, he reveals to Jill that there is a note in his hotel room and he asks her to deliver the note to the British embassy as soon as possible. Bob, Jill’s husband, finds the note, but before he can deliver it, he and Jill receive a note informing them that their daughter Betty has been taken hostage and she will be murdered if the couple deliver the note to the authorities. Feeling helpless and unable to seek help from the police, the couple instead decides to take matters into their own hands and find their daughters’ kidnappers. They discover that the kidnappers, led by a man named Abbott (Peter Lorre) intend to assassinate the head of a foreign country during a concert at Royal Albert Hall.

The plot of The Man Who Knew Too Much is loosely based on a real event that happened sometime in the early 1900’s in which a group of anarchists holed up in a building and took on the London’s police force in a shootout. A young Winston Churchill was a member of the police force at that time and was present at the event. The story begins very simply and very quickly. Within the film’s first few minutes, Hitchcock introduces us to the couple and their daughter as well as Abbott the villain. Not long after, the plot is set into motion when the Frenchman is killed, we learn about the note, and Betty is kidnapped. Hitchcock displays extreme economy in setting up his story. Once its set into motion, the story isn’t so much about the details of the bad guys plan to kill a diplomat. The film is really about an ordinary family dealing with a high-stakes situation involving the assassination of a foreign head of state. This is a recurrent Hitchcock motif that is a big reason why I respect the filmmaker so much. Hitchcock’s films regularly involve everyday normal people who get involved in extraordinary situations involving international or high-stakes plots (e.g. Vertigo, Saboteur, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Notorious).

This earlier version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is nowhere near as polished as its later 1956 successor starring James Stewart and Doris Day. In this film, you see Hitchcock beginning to play with the thematic, visual, and aural motifs that he mastered in later films. For example, Hitchcock makes great use of sound here, especially in the climatic shootout between the anarchists and the police. In that scene, there is no music except for the sounds of guns being fired back and forth. In contrast, the Royal Albert Hall concert scene makes wonderful use of music to heighten the film’s suspense as we wait for the musical cue to be played that will serve as a signal to the killer to murder the foreign diplomat. We also see Hitchcock’s fear of heights at play here (the rooftop scene) like we have seen in so many of his later films (e.g. Vertigo). Finally, Hitchcock employs the use of big locations (Royal Albert Hall) just like he does in his other movies (e.g. the house in Psycho, Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest). Finally, its also noteworthy that this version of the film is less conscious of its audience than the later version. What I mean by this is that Hitchcock had not yet developed his methods of intentionally manipulating his audiences’ emotions. He doesn’t concern himself with what the audience will think or feel. Consequently, you might come away from this version thinking of the film as cold and distant.

I suspect most viewers would prefer seeing Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day as Bob and Jill rather than the more melodramatic British actors Leslie Banks and Edna Best. As much as I also enjoy the American actors, I found a lot to be enjoyed by their British counterparts. Its true that both actors as well as Nova Pilbeam (Betty) evoke the melodramatic acting style prevalent in silent films and the British stage of that era. Hitchcock was known to dislike the staginess of British actors. He did not like his actors to be so theatrical or dramatic and this is why you see a more subdued and realistic acting style from his performers in his later films. I did not have as much of an issue as Hitchcock might have had with his actors’ performances. I suppose part of this is due to the fact that when you watch a film as old as The Man Who Knew Too Much, you half expect that some elements of the film will be outdated and cliché. Although Jill and Bob don’t really feel like a married couple (or at least a happily married couple), individually they are sufficiently fascinating to watch. Jill seems to have far less screen time than Bob and is the least developed of the main characters. Nevertheless, her character has one of the film’s most important tasks, which is to stop the assassin gunman from killing the foreign diplomat. Bob enjoys a lot of screen time in the film and along with his brother-in-law(?) (Hugh Wakefield), he and Peter Lorre provide the film’s gallows humor, for which Hitchcock also became known for in his later films. Finally, Nova Pilbeam as the kidnapped girl, Betty, does a fantastic job. She expresses strong emotions throughout the film that fits perfectly with what I would imagine a little girl like this would feel if she were kidnapped.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Man Who Knew Too Much is the gender reversal between Jill and Bob. Alfred Hitchcock was famously suspected to dislike women in general, but this film serves as an exception to that notion. Jill plays the more active hero role rather than Bob. She is the one who receives instructions from the dying Frenchman, she’s the one who is competing in a shooting competition at the beginning of the movie, and its she who shoots down one of the villains when he chases her daughter on a rooftop.

UnknownOf course, the centerpiece of the cast and the entire film really is Peter Lorre. Many of you have probably seen Peter Lorre even if you don’t know his name. Lorre is probably Having recently fled Nazi Germany, Lorre barely spoke English and so he had to learn his lines phonetically for this role. Its impossible not to immediately be drawn to Lorre’s unique physical features and characteristics. He’s at the same time charming and nefarious while being very laid back about the entire affair. Hitchcock does a commendable job creating a class A villain in this film and Lorre materializes the character exceptionally well with his buggy eyes, giant scar that runs up his forehead, and the white streak in his hair. He reminded me of a James Bond villain.

The Man Who Knew Too Much may not have the remake’s bigger budget, exotic Moroccan locale, Technicolor VistaVision look, and bigger star power, but it has a leaner story, its more fast-paced, and its worth watching it for Peter Lorre’s performance alone. The original is also darker, seedier, and more compelling overall. Furthermore, the film has some very bizarre and cool set pieces (e.g. the dentist scene and the church belonging to the cult of sun worshippers). For you Hitchcock cinephiles, if you have yet seen this film (which would thereby not make you a Hitchcock cinephile), then its required viewing not only to complete your Hitchcock experience, but to also see how the Master of Suspense developed his thematic and visual signatures.

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