By Adam Roche
Before Psycho, Rear Window and North By Northwest. Before Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Frenzy, Notorious, The Birds and Rope, Alfred Hitchcock was busy mastering his craft in Britain.
Having served an apprenticeship in Germany, and having honed it’s expressionist techniques in such films as The Lodger and Blackmail, Hitchcock directed six films in Britain, known as his British thriller cycle. They were ‘The Lady Vanishes’, ‘Young and Innocent’, ‘Sabotage’, ‘Secret Agent’, ‘The 39 Steps’ and the first in the series, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’.
These films were revolutionary in design and plotting, each a tightly structured, exciting lesson in the art of pure cinema. They caused a sensation around the world, and made a superstar of their director, who was soon to travel to America to indulge in the world of larger budgets and bigger stars.
‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ occupies a special place in the Hitchcock canon for not only being the first of this cycle, but also for being the only film Hitchcock ever made twice. In 1956 he remade this movie, but on a larger budget, and starring James Stewart and Doris Day. Hitchcock himself preferred the 1956 version, stating that “the 1934 version was the work of a talented amateur, the 1956 version the work of a professional”.
It is a shame he considered this so, for while the 1956 version does have it’s moments, and is indeed well plotted and infinitely more lavish, the 1934 version is my favourite of the two, simply because it’s lightning paced, cheap and cheerful and zings with it’s comedic, lighter touch.
The story is relatively simple. Whilst holidaying in Switzerland, Bob and Jill Lawrence, along with their daughter, Betty, befriend Louis Bernard. When he is murdered in front of them, it emerges that he was in fact a spy on the verge of uncovering a plot to assassinate a European ambassador at a concert at The Royal Albert Hall. As he lays dying, Bernard passes on vital information to Bob in the hope that he will be able to prevent the assasination. The assassins, learning of this information switch, kidnap Betty and tell Bob that they will kill her unless he remains quiet.
The film is full of Hitchcock’s touches and set pieces, notably a hilarious sequence involving a back-alley dentist in Wapping. The show piece of the movie though, is the Albert Hall assassination plan, and it’s carrying out. Without dialogue, and set to a rousing Storm Clouds cantata (composed especially for the film, and also featured in the remake) it is a masterful montage of tension, with not a second of footage out of place. Indeed, for a sequence made by a “talented amateur” it is telling that the scene is barely altered in the remake. The whole proceedings are enlivened further by the presence of Peter Lorre, hot from the success of ‘M‘ at the time, who plays the villain, Abbot, with sneering, yet charming cruelty.
Whilst ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ is not particularly indicative of Hitchcock’s later diversity, it is a valuable insight into the rise of a soon-to-be genius, full of early omens of his work to come. For those not yet initiated into the Hitchcock myth, it is a marvelous starting point, if a little light. To those already familiar with what Hitchcock’s legacy turned into, it is a warm glimpse at his formative years, which you can find and enjoy here.
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