A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1934)

The first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which he remade in 1956, was Alfred Hitchcock's breakthrough film, a critical and popular success that also established Peter Lorre as in international star. It was Lorre's first English-language film; in 1933 he had left Germany, where he had made his reputation in M (Fritz Lang, 1931), because of the rise of the Nazis. He is said to have learned his role in Hitchcock's film phonetically. His performance is perhaps the most memorable thing about The Man Who Knew Too Much, which sometimes feels slack and disjointed, as if Hitchcock hadn't yet mastered the technique of seeing the film as a whole. Hitchcock told François Truffaut, "The first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional." Lorre plays Abbott, the mastermind of a group of radicals who are plotting the assassination of the leader of a European country -- the politics are the film's MacGuffin, a vague motive that spurs the action. When Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) accidentally learns of the plot, his daughter (Nova Pilbeam) is kidnapped to prevent him from going to the police, but his wife (Edna Best) manages to foil the assassination by screaming when she spots the killer at the point in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall when a cymbal crash is supposed to cover the sound of the gun. Even so, there's a lot of action left as Lawrence frantically tries to rescue his daughter while the police shoot it out with the bad guys. Banks and Best are a rather pallid couple -- he's given to "stiff upper lip, old girl" exhortations, and although she's a champion sharpshooter who fires the shot that kills the assassin, she has little to do the rest of the time but dither and emit that crucial scream -- so it's no wonder that Lorre steals the film.