Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
“Let’s say that the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.”
So says Alfred Hitchcock himself when talking about the distinction between the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hitch made the rare choice to completely remake one of his own films, the original in 1934 and the second version in 1956. This has happened more than you might think, but often it’s a director reworking ideas from an earlier film (as Howard Hawks did with Ball of Fire and A Song is Born), or a foreign director remaking an international hit for Hollywood (as Michael Haneke did with Funny Games). The situation where a director, unprompted, looks back and decides to remake their previous work, under the same title and same plot, is rare indeed. Both films even include a bravura (and nearly identical) sequence at the Royal Albert Hall.
I’ll talk more about the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much next week, but for now it’s interesting to think about why Hitchcock would be drawn to revisit his work. By his own account he felt like he was just starting to come into his own when he made The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and he had the desire to do better. This is something we see again and again with Hitchcock, and it’s a reason I love him; that restless desire to innovate and improve. To come up with a shot no one’s ever seen, to give people something they’ve never seen, or a thrill they’ve never experienced before.
And Hitchcock shouldn’t belittle The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). It was a massive hit when released (despite opposition from his own studio) and it cemented what we think of as a “Hitchcock film.” If we wanted to define those qualities in broad strokes, to my mind they would be:
- A wrong-man scenario: The father (Leslie Banks) & mother (Edna Best) accidentally get drawn into a web of suspense when the wife happens to be dancing with a friend who turns out to be a spy. The spy tells her his secret as he dies from a bullet wound, leading a gang of bloodthirsty criminals to kidnap their daughter to keep the couple quiet.
- A series of setpieces strung together by an often inconsequential plot: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) actually has a pretty strong plot device (the parent’s desire to save their child) but many of Hitchcock’s films would skirt the edges of plausibility or abandon them completely (Hitch was famously fond of saying Must a picture be logical, when life is not?”). Here the setpieces abound, from an excellently-staged opening sequence in Switzerland, the expressionistic abduction of the couple’s daughter Betty, a fight in a dentist’s office, a comedic interlude in a church than turns deadly, the Albert Hall climax, and a shootout finale.
- The MacGuffin: Probably coined by Hitchcock friend and screenwriter Angus MacPhail, the story goes that two men were traveling through Scotland by train, and one had a large suitcase with him. His friend asked him what was in the suitcase and he replied that it was a lion trap. His friend told him that there were no lions in the Scottish highland. To which he replied, “Well, then that’s no MacGuffin!” This shopworn story, apocryphal or not, illustrates the idea that the MacGuffin is just a device for moving the story forward. The details are meaningless. In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) it’s the cryptic address that is discovered in the deceased spy’s shaving brush. It’s a means to an end and nothing else.
- An absolute command of the mise-en-scene: this is a French theatrical term that in film criticism refers to the arrangement of all of the pieces of filmmaking into a cohesive unit: the framing, cinematography, acting, music, and everything you see and hear on screen. Hitchcock is always in total command of these elements, more so than almost any other director with the possible exception of the notoriously rigorous Stanley Kubrick.
- A strong-willed female character: Yes, contrary to the prevailing attitude about Hitchcock, I’m insisting that strong-willed, interesting female characters are a defining feature of all but a few of his best films. Don’t believe me? Check out The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Young and Innocent, The Lady Vanishes, Jamaica Inn, Rebecca (kind of), Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Notorious (in a way), Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), North by Northwest, Psycho (not Janet Leigh, but her tough-as-nails sister played by Vera Miles), The Birds, Torn Curtain, and Family Plot.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) came about through a long period of writing and brainstorming, where friends and writers would gather at Hitchcock’s house for dinner and try to top each other with outlandish ideas for scenes. The finished result reflects this approach as it careens from setpiece to setpiece over the course of its brief 75 minute running time. For me this is an area where the 1934 version is superior to the 1956; the later version should have more time to develop character and plot, but this is antithetical to Hitchcock’s way of working, and just results in long periods of sitting around. The 1934 version is a breathless rush, running from a daughter’s kidnapping to distraught parents in London deciding what to do, and then out into the course of a long eventful night in an attempt to save the child and prevent an assassination. Hitchcock and his screenwriter Charles Bennett excellently balance the tension of the parents wanting their daughter back with the terror of political murder by a shadow group.
The film’s most noteworthy sequence comes at the Royal Albert Hall. Peter Lorre (we’ll get to him, don’t worry) has outlined the entire scheme at his hideout: a hired assassin will go to a symphony performance and at the precise moment when a cymbal crashes, the assassin will shoot an important dignitary. A captured Leslie Banks is able to get word to his wife to attend the performance, but he can’t tell her what she’s looking for.
Now begins one of the most thrilling moments in cinema, a sequence that Hitchcock couldn’t improve on so he included it, almost shot-for-shot, in the 1956 remake. The orchestra begins to play, and she takes her seat, unsure what is happening. She spies the dignitary, with a flag draped over his private booth. She notices an unused box, and movement behind a curtain. As the music builds to a crescendo with a series of shots moving from a wide angle of the hall, the scene unfolds as precisely as the piece of music. Plausibility is disregarded as we react to the changes in the score, the rhythm of the cutting, and Best’s eyes as she looks back and forth. A gun emerges from a curtain, and she pieces it together, screaming just half a second before the shot is fired and distracting the shooter who misses and only wounds the official. Hitchcock’s prior film was the oft-maligned Waltzes from Vienna, and it’s clear that the musicality of that movie helped Hitch prepare for this astonishing sequence, easily the equal of anything else produced in 1934.
Strangely, the film doesn’t end with this towering climax, but moves back to the gang’s hideout for a protracted gun battle in the street with police, a scene that results in a bizarre bit of side business. British police officers famously don’t carry firearms and studio heads were nervous about the tone of this scene, resulting in a sequence where the police raid a nearby gun store for guns. Yet even during this odd deference to decorum, Hitchcock finds a way to make the clumsiness work to his advantage; while setting up their rifles in a building across the way, two police officers chit-chat about their wives and family life. Then suddenly, as they take their positions, one of the officers is shot dead instantly. It’s a rare moment of cruelty for Hitchcock, yet also one that elevates the stakes of the sequence. Now when we watch the father crawling through the house in search of his daughter, we know that he could die at any moment. It’s that kind of film.
When I was younger, I remember feeling “meh” about the family dynamic in this film, but as I’ve grown older, I can appreciate it. The family isn’t perfect and they spend most of the movie apart but they clearly love each other, enough to joke and tease in quieter times. Leslie Banks’ single-minded quest to save his daughter and Edna Best’s coolness with a rifle under fire ironically provide one of the warmest family dynamics in any Hitchcock film.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my own family lately, and it’s hard to know how much to write about here. I love my parents very much, and they raised me the best that they could. But for years I’ve struggled with their limitations and my own resentments. I’ve been in therapy in and out since 2008, and last week I had what could be considered a breakthrough.
Breakthroughs aren’t like they are in movies, like Hitchcock’s own Spellbound where a single incident triggers a flood of repressed memories and suddenly the patient is cured, cured I tell you! Instead it’s weeks or months or years of long hard work that results in a connection. It doesn’t change your life overnight but it can give you a clarity that makes things easier. For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with anxiety. It’s been mild and irritating, it’s been enough to impact my relationship with friends and family, and it’s been so debilitating that one time while I was riding in a car I was begging, literally begging my ex-wife to pull the car over because I couldn’t take the sensation of moving forward for one more second.
For a long time I struggled with the WHY. Why am I anxious? Why can’t I stop it, why can’t I fix this myself, why can’t I stop apologizing, why can’t I make myself better, why can’t I admit that I need to get help, why why why? After many years I learned to give up “why.” It doesn’t really matter, in a way. I am the way I am, I feel the way I feel, I constantly overanalyze, apologize and feel like everything is my fault, so let’s address that. And we did. Over the course of several years I’ve grappled with these issues and my demons and slowly made progress, even if it’s not as fast as I wanted or as successful as I’d hoped.
I was in therapy, and it was helping. But this past week, when I’d stopped expecting it, I had something like that Hollywood “a-ha” moment.
We were talking about my anxiety and need to apologize for everything. I’d had a recent situation where I was on a hike with my girlfriend but the trail was too muddy & icy for us, and I couldn’t stop apologizing, even thought I clearly had nothing to do with it. My therapist asked if I could remember feeling this way when I was younger. I thought about it for a while.
And I could. I had a flash of that same combination of panic, shame, and apology when I was a young boy. My dad sometimes wanted my help with typical “man” stuff. Changing the oil in a car, or soldering the wires in an electrical circuit. It was the kind of thing that came easily to him, partly because he enjoyed it, partly because he spent a lot of time studying those things. It was something he enjoyed.
Me, I was different. I spent my time building things with my legos and drawing spaceships. I was never good at the nuts and bolts stuff. So these father/son projects would make me really anxious. Because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing yet my dad expected me to and I didn’t want to let him down.
Those moments, when I was expected to know how to put together a piece of electronics or know what size wrench to hand to him when he’s lying under the car changing the oil, were stressful. Even now, writing about them with a remove of over thirty years, I can still feel that combination of fear, shame, and panic. Fear that I’d be yelled at, shame at not knowing what to do, and panic that the situation was out of my control. The same way I felt when my hike with my girlfriend didn’t go the way I’d planned. The same way I feel multiple times a day, grappling with even the smallest decision, certain that whatever I do will be wrong.
I don’t blame my dad for this, and I don’t want anyone reading this to draw anything negative from this memory. I know my dad did the best he could. Just like I’m doing the best I can. And there’s a peace in that, a calmness that comes from making that connection. As a result, stories that deal with parents & children have been hitting me harder lately, carrying more resonance than they did when I was in my twenties.
This is an excellent example of why it’s both important and fun to revisit your favorite films from time to time; as we change, so do our perceptions and the baggage we bring with us When I first saw The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) in high school, it was part of a 10-film VHS box set of Hitchcock’s British work (what I now know to be a cheapo set of public domain films). The transfer was grainy, the sound was hard to hear, and while I liked it, I felt that it was a little hard to get a handle on. Some of the editing felt stodgy and strange, and the layers of British humor in the film can make it seem like it’s being performed in a foreign language.
If there’s one thing I took away from those early viewings, in my dorm room at NYU trying to seem like I was cool because I had a whole Hitchcock box set yo, it’s the performance by Peter Lorre as the head of the spy ring. Lorre stunned audiences around the world as the child-murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, and had recently fled Germany and Hitler in 1933. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) was his first feature film after escaping from Germany and he spoke little to no english (Reportedly he even learned some of his lines phonetically). No matter; Hitchcock was delighted by Lorre and spoke enough German to communicate with the brilliant actor. Lorre’s part changed and grew to accommodate the whims of Hitchcock and his commercial sensibilities. And Lorre is excellent in the film, showing a combination of childlike innocence and abject cruelty. Despite his supporting role, it’s his face that dominates the movie poster, with the wonderfully hyperbolic tagline: “Public Enemy No. 1 of All The World.”
The rest of the cast is excellent too, with a young Nova Pilbeam (three years later starring in Young and Innocent) just 14 years old but capably playing beneath her age as the young kidnapped girl. Leslie Banks begins the film as a bumbling British twit but changes into the perfect everyman over the course of the film; not perfect and not a superman, but quick-witted, resourceful, and single-minded in his quest to save his daughter. Edna Best as the mother remains sidelined for the middle of the film, but her appearance at the Albert Hall and final shootout are among the best moments in the movie.
As much as the film can appear rough around the edges, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) is full of elegant moments of symmetry. Peter Lorre’s unique wristwatch chime disrupts Edna Best’s shot in the shooting tournament at the beginning of the film; later the chime is what gives Lorre away when the police storm the house. Even better, Edna Best’s character is established as one of the best shots in the world with a rifle in the opening Switzerland sequence; at the end of the film, when a nervous police officer is afraid to shoot one of the kidnappers for fear of hitting her daughter, Best grabs the rifle and takes the shot herself, saving her daughter.
It all adds up to a marvelous, exciting film. It’s even more thrilling when viewed through the lens of Hitchcock’s entire career, knowing what he would accomplish, and seeing this as a blueprint for so many later triumphs. Ironically, I don’t find his 1956 remake of this film to be one of those triumphs. But who knows; maybe I’ll look at it differently next week? Stay tuned!
Watch It: The Man Who Knew Too Much is available to watch streaming for free on Youtube, but I highly recommend the Criterion restored edition for clarity of picture and sound.
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