PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
U. K.: Alfred Hitchcock, 1934 (Criterion)
Peter Lorre. He had the face of a chubby little morphine addict (which he was), the lush lips of a child looking for a lollipop, a languorous voice seething with malicious amusement or fright, and eyes that swam in pools of depravity. His birth name was Laszlo Lowenstein.
Peter Lorre, who had become world-famous playing the compulsive child-killer in Fritz Lang’s 1931 movie classic M, was one of the genius actors of the German cinema, but in 1934 he was in one of the worst situations possible. He was a Jew in Nazi Germany. Lorre was about to escape to the West though: thanks to a chubby London-born master filmmaker who greatly admired German cinema, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock had cast Lorre in The Man Who Knew Too Much in the plum role of the evil, whimsical spy-master Abbott, the role that would make the one-time Lowenstein an immortal English-speaking screen villain — though, when Lorre played the part, he barely spoke English at all. No matter. He had the clever young Hitchcock to guide him. He learned his lines phonetically. And evil is a universal language.
I1 was also on The Man Who Knew Too Much that director Hitchcock really became “Alfred Hitchcock, The Master of Suspense.” The movie, a spy thriller for aficionados, was a world wide box office and critical hit that pleased audiences everywhere, rescuing Hitch from a string of box-office failures that included Hitchcock’s least favorite film, Waltzes from Vienna, if not quite freeing him yet from the enmity of studio nemeses like the pretentious and idiotic distribution head C. M. Woolf, who had pronounced Hitchcock’s early films, including the classic The Lodger, as “unreleasable,“ and would say the same about Man Who Knew Too Much. Yet Hitch’s new thriller established the formula that Hitchcock would follow, at least in part, for the rest of his career: He showed ordinary people — in this case the witty but steadfast English couple Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) — caught up in extraordinary and dangerous circumstances, with deadly companions entrapping or urging them on.
The film — which boasted among its writers novelist D. B. Wyndham Lewis, playwright Emlyn Williams and Hitchcock regular Charles Bennett (and of course, Hitch’s indispensable wife Alma Reville) — was inspired by Alfred and Alma‘s own honeymoon trip to St. Moritz. (Another celebrated writer on thr film — he contributed the title — was G. K. Chesterton.)
It begins when Bob and Jill (and their daughter Betty, played by Nova Pilbaum), who are at St. Moritz hemselves, meet some peculiar characters — including Lorre’s Abbott, his “nurse” (Cicely Oates) and suave Frenchman Louis Bernard (played by Pierre Fresnay, the de Boldieu of Renoir’s Grand Illusion) — at a Swiss ski competition, and Betty’s little dachshund nearly causes a bone-breaking accident.
The plot continues, violently, when Bernard is killed and Betty kidnapped and the Lawrences find themselves enmeshed in what will prove probably the screen‘s most musical assassination attempt, the famous Albert Hall orchestral scene — a murder which the Lawrences, threatened by their daughter’ captivity, seem powerless to prevent. (Famously, the shot-sound of the assassin’s bullet will be covered by the clash of cymbals as the orchestra plays Arthur Benjamin’s “Storm Cloud Toccata.”)
The ending, an unusual one for Hitchcock, explodes into war in the streets: a police battle reminiscent of the real life Sidney Street Siege, in which the young Winston Churchill had figured. It’s not the tidiest of thrillers, and one can understand why the punctilious Graham Greene, who was a spy in real life, deprecated Hitchcock’s work all his life. But it’s a fantastically entertaining movie, and no small part of its rich and strange pleasure comes from the insanely playful villainy of Lorre’s Abbott and his crew, and their repertoire of menace, which includes assault by dentist drill.
Bob and Jill are the straight-upper-lipped Britishers we‘re supposed to like and root for (and we do). But Lorre’s Abbott is the first in a long line of seductively malevolent Hitchcock villains whose company we enjoy (however much we disapprove of them) — a gallery of offbeat sin and wickedness that includes Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, George Sanders in Rebecca, Claude Rains in Notorious, Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, James Mason in North by Northwest and “Mrs. Bates” in Psycho.
There’s something ineffably English about all this, even though Hitchcock was far from a British nationalist himself. But his sense of humor was British, and it’s that dark-and-light comedy — sometimes juxtaposed with annihilating despair — that is one of Hitchcock’s most characteristic trumps. That humor and biting wit is something he shared with Lorre. Hitch was an artist who knew his murderers and spies mostly from his library, but like Lorre, he could recreate or imagine them with genius. Genius and hilarity and masterly economy (the film is only 75 minutes long) simmer throughout The Man Who Knew Too Much, which is like a magnificent, darkly humorous and beautifully tense yarn being spun to us by a stranger on a train.
As you probably know, there are two films called The Man Who Knew Too Much. The second, also directed by Hitchcock, came out in 1956, starring James Stewart and Doris Day (singing an excruciating loud version of the hit “Que Sera Sera”) as the married travelers (in Morocco this time), and Bernard Miles and Brenda de Banzie among the villains — and it’s long been a film buff/auteurist parlor game of sorts to compare the two, and often to find the 1956 remake superior, despite the early high reputation of its predecessor.
The presence of Jimmy Stewart, an actor who starred in many masterpieces (at least two, Vertigo and Rear Window, for Hitchcock), may be deceiving some of the 1956 film‘s strong admirers, like the younger Robin Wood. The 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much is a good movie, but it lacks the high, light-hearted brilliance of the earlier film. Either version though is an entertainment (as Graham Greene used to call his thrillers), to treasure even if, for me, the first film is more entertaining.
Especially when that great childlike heavy with the languorous voice and the bad morphine habit, is on screen. Peter Lorre.
SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Philip Kemp; Interview with Guillermo del Toro; The Illustrated Hitchcock (1972), Hitchock interviewed by Pia Lindstrom and William Everson; Audio excerpts from Francois Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock; New digital rstoration, with restoration demonstration; Booklet with essay by Farran Smith Nehme.