May 17, 2019
The Man Who Knew Too Much – 1934, UK
I’m not sure what possesses a director to return to one of his earlier works and decide that it should be remade. In fact, I can think of only two credible possibilities to explain such a decision. Either he thought it was so good that a new generation of filmgoers would almost surely go for it, or the director has been beset by a nagging feeling that something went wrong and that if just this and that had been tinkered with a bit, it would have been much more effective at conveying its narrative. Mad Max: Fury Road, I suppose, is an example of the former, for the original Mad Max was already pretty well regarded when George Miller decided to remake it.
Yet what category does Hitchcock’s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much fall into? The more positive explanation would go something like this. Hitchcock merely loved the story and felt that a new generation would appreciate it as well. After all, it had been over twenty years - a generation, really - since its release. The original had also been a British film, and since Hitchcock was now working and prospering in the United States, perhaps he thought most American viewers would be experiencing it for the first time.
The less rosy rationale is that Hitchcock was haunted by recurring thought that he’d gotten something wrong the first time around and that he owed it to his conscience to go back and fix it. To believe this explanation would be to say that the original has defects, a sentiment that not everyone shares. Indeed, after its initial release, The New York Times declared it to be an “excellently performed bit of story-telling,” praised it for being “excellently written,” and proclaimed Hitchcock to be “one of England’s ablest and most imaginative film makers.” Hitchcock, however, according to Wikipedia, is said to have been less enthused with it. However, he could have said that bout a number of his early productions, and he did not appear to have any problems leaving them alone. So, what then makes the original The Man Who Knew Too Much such an outlier?
Perhaps it is the simplistic and naive way in which the plot moves along. Here again is yet another story of non-detectives attempting to solve a mystery on their own, and those only work if the audience can realistically accept the amateur sleuths’ sudden investigative prowess and enhanced powers of observation. In the 1934 film, the two lead characters are Bob and Jill Lawrence (played by Leslie Banks and Edna Best), a British couple on vacation with the daughter. The Lawrence’s are having a fine vacation until Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay), a Frenchman they’ve recently become acquainted with, is shot just hours before he is schedule to fly out of the county. In his dying breath, Bernard tells Jill that a note in his room is of vital importance and implores her to retrieve it and get it to the British consul as soon as possible. We soon learn that someone rather important internationally is going to be murdered.
You can see where this is going a mile away, for whenever amateurs are on the case, especially in a Hitchcock production, they are always the noble and capable sort, as if investigating and braving death were simply recessive genes that their DNA just needed the right trigger to activate. They are assisted on this mission by Clive, one of those standard comical characters so frequently found in films from this era. Case in point: Clive’s biggest joy up until then seems to have been playing with a rather complicated train set owned by the Lawrence’s daughter, Betty (Nova Pilbeam), one, I might add, he bought for her himself.
At just 75 minutes, The Man Who Knew Too Much has no time for complications, so every clue yields an additional clue, and the film’s villains have an interesting habit of blurting out key details of their plot without thoroughly verifying the identity of the other person in the room. And these particular rascals are more like precursors to early Bond-villains than Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, meaning they’re much more likely to invite the hero in for tea and crackers than they are to terminate him. At times, they’re so polite I have expected them to be hurt when Bob continues to be a thorn in their side. Doesn’t he understand they’re trying to be hospitable?
Fortunately, the head villain, Abbott is played by the great Peter Lorre. I say fortunately because Lorre lifts the film out of its somewhat mundane zombie-like reliance on happenstance and inserts an eerie combination of calm, unease, and soft-spoken peril. Abbott can be laughing one moment and a second later display one of those icy stares that instantly tells someone that he is alive simply because he had allowed it. And he does this all while standing just over 5 feet 2 inches tall. It’s really quite a performance.
To this reviewer, The Man Who Knew Too Much hits its peak early, with its humorous dialogue, its moments of open flirtation and the gentle rubbings the characters give each other. An interrogation scene is suspenseful, especially when it is revealed that talking will cost the Lawrence’s quite a lot. After that, the film is awkwardly paced for a bit, has some ill-timed humor, and requires a bit too much suspension of disbelief for my taste. Its climax is crowd-pleasing, even if I doubt Scotland Yard would allow a private citizen to take and use a police officer’s gun during a shoot out, and I like the fate that Hitchcock gives Abbott, sending him off on a whimper instead of a bang. Few films seems willing to do that these days.
So, did Hitchcock need to make a new version of The Man Who Knew Too Much? Of course not, but then again very few films truly demand one, far fewer than are being remade in the ultra-safe version of Hollywood we have presently. The first version was perfectly serviceable, and looking at it with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see Hitchcock’s growth as a director, his refinement of filmmaking techniques, and the origins of many of those Hitchcockian tropes his fans know so well. The film won’t rank among my favorites of his film, nor will it rank near the bottom. It is a good film that clearly had a chance to be great, and perhaps that is what brought Hitchcock back to it. It was like that great love of our life. You know, the one that got away – only Hitchcock got her back and didn’t waste the opportunity. (on DVD from the Criterion Collection)