Top positive review
Hitchcock begins his career as the master of suspense.
Reviewed in the United States on August 4, 2019
Hitchcock is not the only director who remade his own film even though it’s a rare thing. His is the most famous example though both Frank Capra and Howard Hawks did so with “Lady for a Day” (1933) and “Ball of Fire” (1941) respectively. Though they were given new titles Hitchcock retained his original title, perhaps to point out that he remade it. The original version of“The Man Who Knew Too Much” was an important film in Hitchcock’s career. Up to this point he had made the usual mixed bag that any director of the period would have, both silent and with sound. Both “The Lodger” and “Blackmail” were set in the world of suspense thrillers that became his specialty, but they were two among many. His immediately previous film, “Waltzes From Vienna” had been such a bomb that his future as a director was in doubt.
Fortunately Gaumont Films stuck with him. With “The Man Who Knew Too Much” he found his calling and began his singularly illustrious career. In the famous series of interviews with Francois Truffaut he described it as “The work of a talented amateur” with both directors agreeing that the second film was superior. Overall I have to agree with Hitchcock’s own assessment, though the 1934 film remains a must for any Hitchcock fan. Besides, it’s not a bad film by any standard and has fans who prefer it to the glossy 1956 remake.
Each film is a product of its era. In the 1930s films were generally short (and this is only 78 minutes), black and white, and of course, reflected the mores and assumptions of their times. In the early thirties they were also limited by tinny sound, high contrast black and white and the usual lack of a background score, all of which affect “The Man Who Knew Too Much”. The length, big American stars, sometimes slow plot development and sumptuousness of the remake were all hallmarks of mid to late 1950s films, a time when movies had to present something bigger than television in order to sell tickets.
The problems of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” go beyond its time period, however, and are simply the results of a less-experienced director, something obvious to Hitchcock at a later date. The opening, while clever, is really too short for a first time viewer to know just who these people are and what their relationship is to one another. There are problems with tone as well. The director loved to mix humor and suspense but here it frequently lurches back and forth between the two awkwardly. At times the hero seems to be in risk of his life with the villains but at other times they are having drinks together as if they are at some club. Some sections, including two major confrontations go on far too long. Other areas full of potential horror, such as a scene in a dentist’s office are not exploited but instead are played for laughs. The editing is rough in places.
It does still have much to recommend it, of course. The economy of the film’s length keeps it fast paced and moving forward. The period allows the man and wife to be sophisticated and indulge in witty repartee that is totally absent in the remake. The presence of Peter Lorre as the villain, especially this early when not everyone was familiar with him, is a real plus. He’s mesmerizing in every scene he’s in. This was so early, in fact, that he learned his lines phonetically as he didn’t yet speak English. His co-conspirator, Nurse Agnes, is as chilling as Lorre and played by Cicely Oates, whom I have never seen in another film. (She reminds me of Nancy Kulp, who played Miss Hathaway in “The Beverly Hillbillies”, but sinister rather than comic).
In both films the mother plays a direct part in bringing about the conclusion. Also in both films the climax takes place in a major hall in London featuring the same piece, a cantata for soprano, orchestra and chorus by classical composer Arthur Benjamin. Here we get but a snatch of it and in the remake nearly all of it. Still, the sequences are nearly identical in many ways. Hitchcock also knew when he was really good.
This film shows Hitchcock still learning his craft. He was a fast-learner. His next film was “The 39 Steps”, a true masterpiece. Nevertheless, don’t miss this one. In fact both films together make an excellent double feature. As an added recommendation, look at the beginning after watching the film. The conversation between Jill and Ramon foreshadows much of what will occur.
EXTRA NOTE: This film was allowed to fall into public domain and so there do not seem to be any good copies around. It is in dire need of restoration and doesn’t look nearly as good as “The 39 Steps” which stayed under copyright.