d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 75 mins.
"I think you'll find the real start of my career was The Man Who Knew Too Much." - Alfred Hitchcock
I can't imagine a more honest self-assessment. After a string of lackluster movies (up until this point, his good films were his most "Hitchcockian" – The Lodger, Blackmail, and Murder!), Alfred Hitchcock seemed to take control of his destiny and find the kind of film he was destined to make when he set out on The Man Who Knew Too Much. It was the first of six spy thrillers he made in Great Britain during the 1930s, most of which involve espionage of some kind. Those six include his first masterpiece (The 39 Steps) and another of his early great films (The Lady Vanishes). Still heavily influenced by early German cinema, Hitchcock made The Man Who Knew Too Much as one of his most expressionistic films. The camera swoops and swirls and rises and falls, pushing the boundaries of innovation for how a film could look and move in the 1930s. The editing is sudden and explosive. (Sometimes the editing is effective and helps maintain the pacing; other times it is jarring enough to draw you out of the film.)
Whenever he became stalled for a project in Hollywood, Hitchcock proposed remaking one of his British productions. (He always wanted to remake The Lodger but was never afforded the opportunity.) The only film he ever revisited was The Man Who Knew Too Much, turning it into a glossy high-quality Technicolor thriller with James Stewart and Doris Day. To say two two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much are "somewhat different" would be a profound understatement. They share the same story and the same tense urgency, but they are vastly different films, made by the same director in vastly dissimilar stages of his revered career.
For Britain in '34, Leslie Banks and Edna Best star as a couple who inadvertently learn the impending danger a group of anarchists pose to the security of Europe and the world. To keep the couple from reporting their knowledge to the authorities, the anarchists (lead by recent immigrant Peter Lorre, who had fled Nazi Germany and spoke English for the role phonetically) kidnap the couple's daughter and inversely link her fate to the fate of an ambassador targeted for assassination: for her to live, he must die, and for him to live, she will die. Left with no choice but to chase the kidnappers themselves, Banks and Best head out to save their daughter and prevent the anarchists from succeeding. (As one British agent puts it, emphasizing the importance of international stability: World War I happened "because one man you've never heard of killed another man you've never heard of in a place you've never heard of.")
The evident differences make the two films a subject of great debate: which is better? He preferred his work from '56, calling '34 the work of an "amateur." But Hitchcock was frequently deprecating and dismissive, so we can't rely on that alone. In a way, as far as film criticism is concerned, it's a moot question; the films almost don't even deserve to be compared to each other, and each is an example of Hitchcock's stellar capabilities in the two eras of his career. In terms of personal chronology, I watched the '34 version first and admittedly found it at first to be rather mediocre. But after watching the '56 version, I appreciated '34 much more – not because one is better than the other but because they highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each other. I'm convinced more than ever that they should be appreciated together.
The most noticeable strength of his British version is the sheer economy of filmmaking. With such a small budget, Hitchcock was forced to make a tight thriller (it's only 75 minutes) that relied as much on what is seen as what is unseen. Sound also becomes an incredibly expressive tool in the hands of Hitchcock, who turns ordinary occurrences – the ping of a tuning fork, the scream of a woman, the crash of cymbals – into extraordinary storytelling devices. The most successful scenes in the entire movie showcase this tremendous resourcefulness. As Banks seeks information in a simply staged dentist's office, Hitchcock relies on the slow movement of the camera and the high-contrast of lighting to make the space feel more intimidating. Likewise, the famous Royal Albert Hall sequence was not filmed on location but in a set; the visual effect is convincing, but the entire scene derives so much tension from a looming cantata, the absence of any dialogue, and a gun suddenly visible from behind a curtain.
There are some obvious weaknesses. Banks and Best aren't the most emotive actors, and aside from widening their eyes and fainting, they are at times rather bland (perhaps it's just a stiff-lipped Brit sort of thing.) Best is still better than Doris Day, who played the same role in the '56 version, however, mostly due to the script here – by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham Lewis – which allows her to be more creative and steadfast than Day. And the shoot-out between the anarchists and the police that occurs in the climax of the film (based on a real siege in 1911 London) is rather unsatisfactory.
The quality of the film has diminished through the years, with static buzzing on the soundtrack and scratches blipping and bursting along the celluloid. To make matters worse, The Man Who Knew Too Much is in public domain and inferior copies of it abound. It's surprising that such a seminal film in Hitchcock's oeuvre would be in such desperate need of remastering. This premiere example of low-budget, high-quality filmmaking should be preserved for future generations, particularly because it's one of Hitchcock's better earlier works.
07 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 75 mins.