The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

by Paul on January 23, 2013

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Being a perfectionist has its upsides, but as a film director it must be difficult to watch one of your movies and see so many ways to improve your own film. The funny thing about Alfred Hitchcock’s two film versions of “The Man Who Knew TooThe Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) Much” (1934 & 1956) is that they are both excellent films, and because all they share is the same basic plot and were filmed 22 years apart, they can both be enjoyed without the overwhelming feeling that you are seeing the same movie.

The 1934 film stars Leslie Banks and Edna Best as British couple Bob and Jill Lawrence, who are vacationing in Switzerland with their young daughter Betty (Nova Pibeam). During their stay they meet a delightful Frenchman named Louis (Pierre Fresnay). While Louis is dancing with Jill he is shot and killed, but before dying he tells Jill that he is a spy and he reveals  the location of a secret The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)note for her and Bob to get to the British consul. Bob tries to deliver the message, but before he gets the chance, he receives a note from a mysterious man named Abbott (Peter Lorre) explaining that Betty has been kidnapped and if he ever wants to see her again he can’t tell anyone about the note.

Hitchcock’s 1956 film version of The Man Who Knew Too Much” is more of a drama film, whereas this earlier version leans towards being an action film. The climactic scene in this original film takes place on a small street in Wapping, London, and entails a shootout between the gang of villains and the police. The action scenes give the film a good feel, but overall itThe Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) lacks the suspense that we, as movie lovers, have grown to expect with the Hitchcock name. The other aspect where the earlier film lacked was with the role of the wife/mother character. Doris Day played the leading lady in the 1956 film and was a more active part of the film, whereas in this film Bob brings his brother along for the action and leaves his wife at home. Of course Doris Day also added a musical element to the remake with her Academy Award winning song, “Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be)”. In fact the original film contains only source music (apart from the credits), including the famous “Storm Clouds Cantina” written for the dramatic climax in Royal Albert Hall by Arthur Benjamin. When Hitchcock remade this film, composer Bernard Herrmann chose not to write a new concerto, but instead used Arthur Benjamin’s piece of music, proving that everyone involved knew that some things had been done perfectly the first time.

Of course this earlier film does excel in one significant area: the main villain. Peter Lorre, in his first English speaking role, played the part of conniving political murderer, Abbott, with a masterful maturity that goes beyond his experience. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)He is a formidable adversary, and long after the film’s finale he is the character that you remember. (Reminiscent of his 1931 breakthrough performance in Fritz Lang’s “M”.) What makes it even more interesting and enjoyable is that when Lorre was hired by Hitchcock he barely spoke any English and had to learn the pronunciations phonetically in order to read the script for his performance.

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” might not be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most loved or remembered films, but there is something undeniably captivating about the simplicity of the story and the moral conflict of the parents, who are forced to choose between saving their child and helping their country.

For more from Alfred Hitchcock:

“The 39 Steps” (1935)

“Strangers on a Train” (1951)

“Dial M For Murder” (1954)

“Rear Window” (1954)

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956)

“Vertigo” (1958)

“North By Northwest” (1959)

“Psycho” (1960)

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