The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934 – ★★★★

#39 in Reverse Hitchcock project.

A handful of Swiss maps. A slimy and snake-eyed Peter Lorre in fur coat and hat. Leslie Banks and Edna Best are the couple in the Alps (good use of back projection in the absence of location work), with their growing daughter, Nova Pilbeam.

You may know this film title better by its remake over twenty years later, and by Hitch’s remark that the earlier version was the work of ‘a talented amateur’ rather than the 1950s ‘professional. In that, Doris Day saved the day by singing ‘Que Sera Sera’ to locate her kidnapped child. This time, the corresponding character uses the skills she displays early on in sport to dispatch the bad guy, again using the iconic setting of the Royal Albert Hall.

Here, there’s a lighter touch from the start, with the dancers trapped by a wool thread leading quickly into something much darker (a dance rather than a market scene as in the remake). There’s more inventiveness, too, with a smashed window and a mysterious message.

Leslie Banks would work for Hitch once more, as the wild and violent smuggler in ‘Jamaica Inn’, and you may recall him from his pivotal role in ‘Went The Day Well’, directed by Cavalcanti, or as the police inspector in ‘The Arsenal Stadium Mystery’.

Here he is far more British and reserved than James Stewart was in the same role, hesitatingly requesting the presence of the British Consul, and getting flustered in a dinner jacket. He’s more convincing in the role of someone getting tied up in international problems than any American would be.

Edna Best (and what a sequence where she spins, faux faints, and pitches a vital clue into the fire is) was a fairly pretty girl who had an undistinguished career, better known these days as one of the wives of actor Herbert Marshall, who had also collaborated with the Master in films. She does well enough in her only Hitchcock appearance, and is perhaps the first of the classic blondes.

This film has such an array of interesting shots and flourishes – a model train set, camera angles looking down, looking up, smoke filled rooms, the sun-worshippers’ temple – but the stand-out performance is from Lorre, in his first English-language film following his emigration from Nazi Germany.

He is a skin-crawling, repellent, borderline evil character; from his work in Germany, especially in ‘M’ (1931), he demonstrates a wide range which was not always apparent away from the Continent, but here he is well-cast as the ringleader of a deadly murderous plot.

Even when speaking his lines phonetically, having little command of English, he dominates the sequences in which he appears. He would be far less restrained in his second Hitch film, ‘The Secret Agent’.

I prefer this film to its remake as it has less gloss and more intriguing plot, not to mention a particularly nasty dentist, many years before Laurence Olivier’s ‘Is it safe?’.

At seventy-five minutes, it is a lean example of a superior British thriller, and a good example of the Master of Suspense in embryonic form.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan. View all posts by Louise Penn

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