Alfred HitchcockLeslie BanksEdna BestPeter Lorre
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
Medium: film
Year: 1934
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Charles Bennett, D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, Edwin Greenwood, A.R. Rawlinson, Emlyn Williams
Country: UK
Actor: Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, Frank Vosper, Hugh Wakefield, Nova Pilbeam, Pierre Fresnay, Cicely Oates, D.A. Clarke-Smith, George Curzon
Format: 75 minutes
Website category: Hitchcock
Review date: 22 July 2009
It's from Hitchcock's British Primitive period and it looks it, too. I'm a big fan of this film, but it's not exactly hiding its age. The beginning is downright crude. You've got back-projection, stock footage, a studio set of a ski slope at St Moritz and clumsy cutting between the actors and close-ups of objects. This is all normal for its era, but unfortunately the obvious point of comparison for this film is Hitchcock's 1956 remake of it. That was a glossy Hollywood production with two of the biggest stars in the business, but back in 1934 he couldn't even go on location.
That said, I love the film's 1934-ness. Hitchcock gets in all his dodgiest filmmaking early, while by the time we reach the climactic siege he's become groundbreaking (for the time). Better still are the film's heroes. Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) could hardly be further removed from James Stewart and Doris Day. There are probably Americans out there today who regard the cast of this film as some kind of Martian. It's stiff upper lip time, old man. Their friend Clive wears a monocle. They don't agonise about what to do or indeed let the kidnapping of their daughter stop them enjoying a good dinner. Their manners are impeccable, even to assassins.
Put them together with Peter Lorre and you've got yourself a scream. Lorre is of course the best thing in either version of the film, despite at the time having just fled from Nazi Germany without knowing much English and having to learn his part phonetically. Nonetheless despite this, he creates what I've seen called the greatest of Hitchcock's sympathetic villains. I love his smile and his "good evening". He's a purring, oily villain, often genuinely amused and yet also fully capable of being sinister. "Take a look." Him and Leslie Banks are a right pair. The latter is always deliciously proper with his "thank you very much", even to Lorre and his thugs.
Meanwhile his wife Edna Best is a championship marksman who ends up shooting an assassin off a roof, while on a personal level she'll pretend to flirt with other men in front of her husband. That's still startling today. "I'm just going off with another man," she announces, leading her supposed lover away. Meanwhile Leslie Banks has fun pretending (not very hard) to take her seriously, only to be just as childish shortly afterwards with what had been a perfectly good sweater. Their relationship is adult, witty and unlike any other screen couple I can remember. If this were a Hollywood movie then you'd have said it was pre-Hays Code, for instance with Leslie's quip about a bunch of churchgoers being naked sun worshippers. They're a terrific duo, although Edna Best is slightly chunky compared with movie stars today. Leslie Banks isn't anywhere near as big a star as James Stewart, but he's playing a funnier character.
That's not to say that the acting's perfect, mind you. George Curzon is awful as Gibson, although even our heroes become rubbish during their scene with him. No one dares to pause and the performances don't breathe. I also prefer Reggie Nalder's hitman to Frank Vosper's, although they're both good.
Another thing about the film is its pace. A lot of this feels as if Hitchcock and his actors simply haven't worked out how to slow down. Nevertheless at 75 minutes this thing scorches along, with scenes like the shooting of Pierre Fresnay startling you in how casually they happen. Banks and Best don't agonise about what to do on hearing that their daughter's been kidnapped, but smoothly start lying to the police like a couple of pros.
There are also things that are simply better in the 1934 version. Doris Day's scream to distract the marksman never really convinced me in 1956, but here it works because of the foreshadowing back in St Moritz, with Edna Best having been thrown off her aim by something as trivial as being approached by her daughter. What's more, it takes Lorre and Vosper a little longer to realise that the assassination didn't go as planned, after which the penny-dropping moment made me laugh. Then we have a more sinister church, populated by cultists and with a shrivelled old bat guarding the iron gates. It's practically a fortress. The scene which to me feels most characteristic of Hitchcock is the tension of the twin telephone calls. However best of all though is the evil dentist! You can't go wrong with an evil dentist. How long did he take to remove that tooth, by the way? Clive can hardly have been in the chair for more than thirty seconds.
The film has a problem though. The police do their best to wreck this film whenever they show up, which is mainly in the ten-minute gun battle at the end. I don't actually hate the gun battle, but the gunshots sound rubbish, the whole thing's boring and there's a solid five-minute chunk in which our heroes don't even appear on screen. Famously it's based on the Sidney Street Siege, a real incident from London's East End in 1911, but no one ever said real life had to be interesting. A gang of Latvian anarchists tried to shoot their way out of a confrontation with the police after trying to rob a jeweller's shop. Their leader later became deputy head of the Cheka after the October Revolution and wound up dead in the Great Purge of 1938. Churchill managed to make people cross with him by showing up at the siege and getting a bullet through his hat, while this wasn't even the first attempted armed robbery and murder by Latvian anarchists in London at this time. See also the Tottenham Outrage of 1909.
I love the build-up for the gunfight, though. You can see the tension mounting.
I'd been expecting to hear lots of French, by the way, as in the remake. The Swiss setting seemed to go with this, but nope. Instead we hear German, some of it from poor Leslie Banks in a scene of (intentional) comedy. This film is a little less remarkable than I'd remembered. The filmmaking is creaky at the beginning, although it improves, and the acting has its dodgy spots. However the gun battle is only a bit dull and I think this is probably the more exciting of the two versions, not just due to pace. However the biggest reasons to watch this film are Peter Lorre, Leslie Banks and Edna Best.
Have I raved enough yet about Lorre?