MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

 

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.

 

One Response to “Wilmington on DVDs: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)”

  1. Mike says:

    Your review is 100% wrong. The first version is a sloppy, careless mess.

Wilmington

awesome stuff. OK I would like to contribute as well by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to modify. check it out at scarab13.com. All custom premade files, many of them totally free to get. Also, check out Dow on: Wilmington on DVDs: How to Train Your Dragon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Darjeeling Limited, The Films of Nikita Mikhalkov, The Hangover, The Human Centipede and more ...

cool post. OK I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to customize. check it out at scarab13.com. All custom templates, many of them dirt cheap or free to get. Also, check out Downlo on: Wilmington on Movies: I'm Still Here, Soul Kitchen and Bran Nue Dae

awesome post. Now I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some beautiful and easy to modify. take a look at scarab13.com. All custom premade files, many of them free to get. Also, check out DownloadSoho.c on: MW on Movies: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Paranormal Activity 2, and CIFF Wrap-Up

Carrie Mulligan on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Great Gatsby

isa50 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Gladiator; Hell's Half Acre; The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Rory on: Wilmington on Movies: Snow White and the Huntsman

Andrew Coyle on: Wilmington On Movies: Paterson

tamzap on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Magnificent Seven, Date Night, Little Women, Chicago and more …

rdecker5 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Ivan's Childhood

Ray Pride on: Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year

Quote Unquotesee all »

“BATTLE OF THE SEXES: Politics and queerness as spectacle/spectacle as politics and queerness. Pretty delightful, lovely, erotic. A-

“Not since EASY A and CABARET have I seen Emma Stone give a real sense of her range. Here, she has pathos and interiority and desire. I love the cinematography and the ways in which the images of the tennis icons are refracted and manipulated via various surfaces/mediators. Also, wild how a haircut is one of the most erotic scenes in cinema this year. Spine tinglingly tactile that feels refreshing. Proof that *cough* you don’t need to be ~graphic/explicit~ to be erotic *cough*. Also, it made me want to get into tennis. Watching it, at least.

“There are interesting touches and intimations as to the cinematic nature of sports, & unpacking the formal approach of broadcasting sports.Also, I was here for Sarah Silverman smoking. And also, hi Mickey Sumner!! It’s a really interesting film about the ways in which public spectacle is never apolitical, and how spectacle is prone to assignation.

“There’s this one other scene from BATTLE OF THE SEXES that I love, and it’s the one in the bar. You see Billie looking after Marilyn as she dances. Through a crowd. There’s a paradoxical closeness and distance between them. In the purple light, and the kitschy decor, everything is distorted. But Billie catches a glance and you can feel the nervous swell inside.”
~ Kyle Turner

“Our business is complicated because intimacy is part and parcel of our profession; as actors we are paid to do very intimate things in public. That’s why someone can have the audacity to invite you to their home or hotel and you show up. Precisely because of this we must stay vigilant and ensure that the professional intimacy is not abused. I hope we are in a pivotal moment where a sisterhood — and brotherhood of allies — is being formed in our industry. I hope we can form a community where a woman can speak up about abuse and not suffer another abuse by not being believed and instead being ridiculed. That’s why we don’t speak up — for fear of suffering twice, and for fear of being labeled and characterized by our moment of powerlessness. Though we may have endured powerlessness at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, by speaking up, speaking out and speaking together, we regain that power. And we hopefully ensure that this kind of rampant predatory behavior as an accepted feature of our industry dies here and now. Now that we are speaking, let us never shut up about this kind of thing. I speak up to make certain that this is not the kind of misconduct that deserves a second chance. I speak up to contribute to the end of the conspiracy of silence.”
Lupita Nyong’o