"The first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional."
- Alfred Hitchcock to Francois Truffaut
Well, Heaven bless the talented amateur! While I find much to enjoy and admire in the 1956 version, it is the 1934 version that has retained a hold on this movie fan's imagination for many years.
Winter in the Swiss Alps shows the smart set participating in a sporting tournament. The Lawrence family, father (Leslie Banks), Jill (Edna Best) and daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) are enjoying the fresh air, fun company and Jill's chances for a trophy in the shooting. The rambunctious Betty inadvertently help put an end to her mother's chances, but a rematch with rival Ramon (Frank Vosper) is spoken of and is most definitely in the cards. Betty's antics also ruined chances for a charming skiing friend Louis (Pierre Fresnay). He doesn't seem to mind much. Perhaps he has other things on his mind. Other things beyond his mock flirting with Jill to create mock sorrow in Lawrence.
Louis is really an agent for the British Secret Service with vital information on a planned assassination. He is shot before he can reveal the secret, but before dying brings Jill and Lawrence in on the deal. Foolhardily, they rush into the intrigue, but before they can relay the information, the villains kidnap Betty leaving the Lawrences in a bind.
"Say nothing of what you have found or you will never see your child again."
Back in England, the Secret Service is monitoring the situation despite the Lawrences following instructions not to speak to the authorities. Lawrence and his friend Clive (Frank Wakefield) head out into the night and the neighbourhood of Wapping in East London. The only clue they have is the information left from Louis:
G. BARBOR MAKE
CONTACT A. HALL
No points for recognizing that A. HALL stands for the Albert Hall. The assassination scenes in both movies are equally thrilling with the Storm Clouds Cantata by Arthur Benjamin and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis providing a natural and exciting soundtrack to the emotional action.
Peter Lorre, Leslie Banks, Nova Pilbeam
Peter Lorre is the boss of the anarchist group, Abbott. It was his first English language picture and much of his dialogue was learned phonetically. However, that is not the impression you will get from watching the actor. The character is a leader, a sly villain and a sentimentalist. All of that is conveyed by Lorre's handling of the role.
If you have only seen Leslie Banks as the mad Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game, you owe it to yourself to see Banks as Lawrence in The Man Who Knew Too Much. He is given much of the grand dry wit that threads through the script making the movie such a pleasure to watch. Thank of it as Wodehouse with the dramatic bits put in.
Watching the 1934 film you can definitely see why Hitchcock would want to revisit the story, expand the family life, create that light-filled setting for the unseen danger. The 1956 version is a commendable film indeed. However, there is something about the brisk pace, the quick editing and, as mentioned, the use of humour that makes the 1934 film, at 75 minutes, a prime example of superb directing and a perfect entertainment.
TCM is screening The Man Who Knew Too Much on Thursday, November 3rd at 2:45 p.m. following Jamaica Inn, another Hitchcock flick featuring Leslie Banks. No, it isn't his birthday. If you miss it, TCM gives you another chance on Tuesday, November 29th at 7:15 a.m. in a day dedicated to Hitch.