Happily married Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are on a winter holiday at a European ski resort with their young daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). While there, they laugh and dance and intermingle with all kinds of interesting new people, from the suave Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) to the strange, funny Mr. Abbott (Peter Lorre). But their vacation suddenly turns into a living nightmare one night when Louis falls to the ground, shot by an unseen enemy. It turns out that Louis Bernard was in fact a government agent and before he dies, he passes on a vital secret to the Lawrences. The secret is an imminent assassination in London, one that threatens to start a second world war. But before the couple can act on the information, the assassins, led by the ever-smiling Abbott, kidnap young Betty. This forces the couple to keep their mouths shut, even as the danger draws closer. However, they refuse to give up and instead, choose to search for Betty on their own. Bob and his trusty brother-in-law Clive (Hugh Wakefield) take to the back alleys of England, hunting down leads that range from the weird to the truly bizarre. Still, Abbott is onto them and so are the rest of the assassins. The family will have to find the strength and courage to save Betty and somehow do it without betraying their own country. It's a battle of wits and wills and there's no telling what could happen...
For someone who likes to introduce herself as an Alfred Hitchcock super-fan, to the point that I wrote my college admissions essay on him, it's taken me an amazingly long time to catch up with this film. It's strange, but while the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was ridiculously easy for me to catch on TV during the periodic Hitchcock marathons, its older (and thoroughly British) sibling from 1934 has been elusive. The experience of finally seeing the original film however, gave me a renewed understanding for why both movies are so inextricably paired together in critical discussion. Comparing them is irresistible but deciding between them is very difficult. The two films are such a perfect encapsulation of their respective decades and countries, with all the attending strengths and weaknesses, that preferring one to the other seems to be less of an aesthetic judgment and more like an epicurean deciding which tickles his palate. They're equally delicious.
Both films tell the tale of a more-or-less ordinary married couple who stumble into a dangerous world of espionage and assassins. Despite their naivete and seeming helplessness, the couple find new reserves of strength and determination when their own child is kidnapped to keep their mouths shut about an impending assassination. In the 1934 film, the Lawrences are a sophisticated English couple vacationing at a Swiss ski resort with a young daughter. The husband is well-off and contented; the wife is flirtatious and happens to be a crack shot. In the 1956 film, the McKennas are a cheerful but sometimes hapless American couple traveling through Morocco with a freckle-faced son. The husband is a blunt, guy-next-door doctor who doesn't quite fit into his foreign surroundings any more than his long legs fit under Moroccan tables. His wife is a famous singer who gave up her career for the sake of her marriage. In both films, it's the husband that takes the active role in searching and fighting while it's up to the wife to use her great talent (sharpshooting and singing, respectively) to save the day. And in both films, it's the couple's very unassuming ordinariness that causes the ruthless villains to fatally underestimate them. The great dividing line between the 1934 film and the 1956 remake is the tone. In the brightly colored and much more expansive remake, Hitchcock gives us a fresh-faced American couple, so complacent that they can crack morbid jokes over the various patients whose ailments funded their vacation ("You know what's paying for this three days in Marrakesh--Mrs. Campbell's gall stone"). He then proceeds to torment them 'til they crack. The fact that all of this is happening to James Stewart and Doris Day, two beloved Hollywood superstars, puts the frantic emotions of the couple front and center. All of this even while Hitchcock dazzles the eye with exotic settings and amazing set pieces. Everything is so immense that even Stewart and Day can unravel without anyone noticing. The 1956 movie sort of takes the rotten-apple-core mentality of Shadow of a Doubt, in which another innocent American goes up against ruthless villainy and pairs it to the giddy visuals of something like To Catch a Thief.
The 1934 film on the other hand, is like the speedy little roadster next to the 1956 cruise ship. It's a much compacter version of the same tale, clocking in at a mere 75 minutes. It also is much sharper in the twists and turns of its moods, careening from lightweight comedy to tense thriller and back again. It doesn't linger nearly as much on the parents. To a large extent, Leslie Banks and Edna Best are just there to keep the story moving along. They keep the stereotypical stiff upper lip to the point that even when Banks reunites with his daughter, in the middle of a group of assassins, he tries to make light of the entire situation. The one government representative we meet is coolly annoyed with the couple's secretiveness, barking at them to put their country first. And in the end, the film's most memorable character is not the couple nor any of their friends. It's the villain.
For all those who like to harp on Hitchcock's onscreen infatuation with his blonde leading ladies, I say that Hitchcock was just as enamored (in a cinematic way) with his villains. Peter Lorre, playing the kidnapping assassin Abbott, sets a template for the charming villain that Hitchcock would repeat again and again with actors like James Mason, Ray Milland and Robert Walker.
The story goes that Peter Lorre had to learn his lines phonetically in order to play the mysterious Abbott. Not that anybody cared because, after his indelible performance in M, they were eager to get him. Lorre's acting here is really a marvel of assurance; it's a complete 180 degree turn from his cringing, desperate performance in M. Abbott is smooth and confident, with one of the most beautifully beaming smiles you could ever hope to see. When you put him up against the bluff, so-very British Leslie Banks, Lorre almost looks like the mischievous schoolboy tweaking the nose of the headmaster. He's the guy who tosses in a Shakespeare quote as a threat ("A long, long journey 'from which no traveler returns'") and then caps it off with the deadpan aside, "Great poet."
And yet, I think the key to Lorre's brilliance in the role is his unpredictability. Just when you think you've gotten used to Lorre as the impeccably polite villain, he turns the tables and gives you moments of sadistic menace or even, in a startling scene, genuine grief. When his creepy female accomplice dies in a shootout, Lorre holds her and looks, for a moment, like a brother holding the body of his sister. And then the moment's gone. We never learn what they were to each other. We never really understand Abbott, who smiles innocently in moments where he should threaten and looks angry in moments when everything's going his way. But Lorre is so good in the role that he eclipses everyone else. Because of him, the film ends up less as a tale of two ordinary people up against evil and instead, becomes a briskly unsentimental film which sets up scenes and knocks them over like dominoes. This is pure suspense, with no more character development than absolutely necessary.
In comparing the 1934 film and the 1956 remake, it's quite striking to see how the role of the wife evolved over the course of two decades. In the first film, Edna Best carries on in the tradition of the sprightly, sophisticated wives of '30s films. There's something a little Nora Charles-ish about her in the way she sails through rooms, cheerfully flirts with other men (in the full confidence that her husband is watching and smirking) and shoots down clay pigeons with cool panache.
However, once her child is kidnapped, Best is pushed to the side of the story. Her own grief at the loss of her child is relegated to one scene, in which Best staggering with the news of the kidnapping, turns glassy-eyed and spins into a faint, while Hitchcock briefly cuts to a whirling POV shot. From there, her husband's off to do the work of tracking down their child, with the brother-in-law along as the trusty sidekick. Best is benched for a good chunk of the movie from then on; she reappears for the famous Albert Hall sequence and then for a final shootout with the assassins. It's in those final moments that Best seizes her own action-hero moment, grabbing a rifle and delivering the shot that will save her daughter. Even if you could see it coming (Why else establish the wife as a crack shot?), it still comes off as an exhilarating bit of physical heroism, all the more so because none of the characters treat it as anything odd.
The 1956 film, by contrast, knows it's got Doris Day and a star gets a star part. Day's emotions are given much more depth and attention than Best's. The British film treats Best's motherly anguish as so much inconvenient baggage, with the government man basically snapping at her and husband for being so unpatriotic as to, you know, care more about the life of their child than the life of a statesman. The 1956 film by contrast has a prolonged, deeply uncomfortable scene of James Stewart drugging Day to calm her; the chin-up-old-girl spirit of the original has turned into cruelty. Day's torment during the Albert Hall concert scene is also drawn out much more than Best's. In addition to being a more openly emotional character, Day's housewife is a famous singer whose ambitions have been subtly snuffed out in favor of marriage. The irony is that, despite the fact that she seems, on the surface, like a much more retrograde archetype than the earlier Best character, Day does in fact use that same powerful voice to save both her child and the statesman. She's so much more repressed than Best's action hero and yet, because her film pays more attention to her, she comes off as much more heroic.
Now that I've finally crossed the 1934 film off my list, I can say with confidence that it's a sparkling, smart movie in its own right. It's the work of a young filmmaker just discovering the full range of what he can do and the mesmerizing shifts of tone, the charismatic villain, and the quirky bursts of humor all come together perfectly. Really, when I think about it, the experience of watching both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much is like visiting their respective locations. The 1956 film is a trip through a dazzlingly colorful, overcrowded marketplace. The 1934 original is like a trip down a snow-covered mountain. Cool, exhilarating and all over in a rush.
"You know, to a man with a heart as soft as mine, there's nothing sweeter than a touching scene. Such as a father saying goodbye to his child. Yeah, goodbye for the last time. What could be more touching than that?" Favorite Scene:
The scene in which Edna Best is dancing with the spy. Her husband, playfully pretending to be jealous, takes her knitting and turns it into a unraveling bit of thread that quickly entangles her and her dancing partner. It's all light and romantic. And then in one of those perfect bits of Hitchcock turning on a dime, her partner falls down, mortally wounded, and the light thread that entwined them together has suddenly become a trap. It's really the ultimate metaphor for the Hitchcock movie.