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The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
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,The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) is an Alfred Hitchcock-directed thriller that stars Edna Best and Leslie Banks as Jill and Bob Lawrence, a couple on holiday in the Swiss Alps with their teenage daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). When their friend Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) is shot while dancing with Jill, he tells Bob of an assassination about to take place in London. Fearing that their plot will be revealed, the assassins, led by a charming and nefarious Abbott (Peter Lorre), kidnap the daughter in order to keep her father quiet. Unable to secure much meaningful help from the police, the couple returns to London and ends up taking on the conspirators themselves.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is actually the first of two films based on the same material that Alfred Hitchcock directed. Perhaps the better known of the two, at least in the United States, is the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, starring James Stewart and Doris Day. There are several differences between the two productions. The 1956 version is in color, boasts a much longer running time, the star power of Stewart and Day, and an Oscar®-winning song called "Que Sera, Sera." While the 1956 version is required viewing for any Hitchcock fan, the original British production should not be overlooked either. While it may not have the remake's bigger budget and exotic Moroccan locales caught on Technicolor VistaVision, the 1934 version is lean, fast-paced and radically different in tone and narrative structure. First, there is a reversal in commonly expected gender roles in the leading characters of Bob and Jill. From the very start, we notice that it's Jill who is taking the more active hero role, by virtue of the fact that she's participating quite ably in a sharp shooting competition. In fact, she's a world-renowned marksman, a skill that will prove to be extremely useful later in the picture. Bob, on the other hand, is left to banter with his daughter and to fiddle around with a knitted sweater in the works.

Bob and Jill's marriage is also well beyond the honeymoon stage and they are not an idealized couple like Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man (1934): most of Jill's scenes are with other men, while Bob spends the majority of the film separated from her - on the hunt for his kid or in the custody of the villains. Also noticeably different from the 1956 version is the lack of an aggressive sense of urgency to find the kidnapped girl. Occasionally, it's possible for the viewer to forget they are even in pursuit of Betty. In fact, it could be argued that the daughter is the MacGuffin, which was Hitchcock's handy, ambivalent, and interchangeable object that motivates the plot, but which proves to be inconsequential to the viewer's enjoyment of the movie. The emphasis is more on a personal, almost affable cat-and-mouse match-developed more in future Hitchcock films such as Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946) and North by Northwest (1959)-that could not have been possible without the casting of Peter Lorre as Abbott, the lead criminal conspirator.

After achieving notoriety as the pathetic child murderer in Fritz Lang's M (1931), Peter Lorre left Germany for "conscientious reasons," which is a friendly way of saying, the Nazis were now in charge, and Lorre didn't want any part of it. Having fled to France, Lorre came to the attention of Ivor Montagu, Hitchcock's associate producer on The Man Who Knew Too Much. Eyeing him for a potential role, Montagu reminded Hitchcock of Lorre's performance in M. "We wanted him at once," said Montagu. "There was never any question about his coming over to be inspected or tested - even his English was not in question, for a German accent was no obstacle in the part."

The Man Who Knew Too Much was Lorre's first English-speaking part. Sources differ on how Lorre delivered a flawless performance in English. Some say he learned all his lines phonetically, while others claim that Lorre had developed a working grasp of English over the course of three months before filming began. Regardless, it is difficult to distinguish any hesitancy or unfamiliarity with this newly learned language for Lorre.

Hitchcock and Montagu first thought of casting Lorre as the actual assassin, the one who pulls the trigger at Albert Hall, but they decided he was just too good to waste in a smaller part. Hitchcock later said, "Your big problem in casting is to avoid familiar faces...I've always believed in having unfamiliar supporting players even if your stars are known." While Edna Best and Leslie Banks were familiar to British audiences, it was Lorre's scarred mug that was featured most prominently on the one-sheet posters for the release of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Alongside his face ran the byline, "Public Enemy No. 1 of All the World."

Producer: Michael Balcon (uncredited)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Charles Bennett, D.B. Wyndham Lewis; Emlyn Williams (additional dialogue); Edwin Greenwood, A.R. Rawlinson (scenario)
Cinematography: Curt Courant
Art Direction: Alfred Junge, Peter Proud (uncredited)
Music: Arthur Benjamin
Film Editing: Hugh Stewart
Cast: Leslie Banks (Lawrence), Edna Best (Jill), Peter Lorre (Abbott), Frank Vosper (Ramon), Hugh Wakefield (Clive), Nova Pilbeam (Betty Lawrence), Pierre Fresnay (Louis), Cicely Oates (nurse Agnes), D.A. Clarke Smith (Binstead), George Curzon (Gibson).

by Scott McGee



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