Monday, February 6, 2012

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Director Alfred Hitchcock’s work as a filmmaker in England begins to peek with his masterpiece British produced picture The Man Who Knew Too Much. Having worked is cinema since the days of silent pictures Hitchcock has driven his way into be one of the most interesting artists of the silver screen. He has slowly developed his own unique style of suspense that ever seems to improve with each production of his, and each having Hitchcock’s own dramatic flair. In The Man That Knew Too Much he works acting, cinematography, editing, and sound together in such a way that builds suspense to a new level. Standing out from his fellow English counterparts, Hitchcock proves to one day be of the finest filmmakers to transfer to Hollywood cinema and entertain a far larger audience.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is a suspense drama of a married couple who mistakenly get caught up in the world international espionage and murder while the life of their child hangs on the balance of the information that the two come across. While vacationing in Switzerland Bob (Leslie Banks) and Jill (Edna Best) by occurrence of being in the wrong place at the wrong time become privy to sensitive information that if share would mean the death of their now kidnapped daughter Betty. Unable to seek help from the police due to possible harm to their child, Bob and Jill follow a series of clues to find Betty, who is being kept by the reprehensible yet charming Abbot (Peter Lorre). Bob discovers the strategy Abbot’s men have to assassinating an ambassador at Royal Albert Hall, which Jill helps to thwart; ending is a large shootout between Abbot and his men with the surrounding police force until the rescue of poor, defenseless Betty.

The picture is filled with creativity wit, and marvelous suspense that could be seen as unparalleled by filmmakers before. Sharing many of the plot points that would ever be popular in the many Hitchcock films of the future, this picture is filled with the idea of an everyman stuck in a very difficult situation, entering very dangerous foreign environments, surrounded by a story of murder. The crux or the suspense is ever present in the climax at Royal Albert Hall. Here Hitchcock builds anxiety as, I think, has never been played with to this peak before in the movies. Beyond Hitch’s great foresight in camera framing and masterful editing, all of which are carefully planned well beforehand in the production process, Hitchcock tops it off with the use of music as the point of greatest tension. For it is when the music builds to its biggest point, climaxing with loud banging of drums and crash of cymbals, that the gunman is to fire upon the ambassador. It is a relative opera of suspense that Hitchcock orchestrates in a crescendo of expectancy that eats at the character and the audience alike.

Aside from the main characters of the picture played by well respected British stage artists turned screen actors Leslie Banks and Edna Best, the actor that controls the screen is that of Peter Lorre, playing the villainous Abbot. Lorre was a known actor in German cinema, but due to recent events had just fled Nazi Germany in fear of the new regime. After stopping in Paris he would make his way to London and meet associates of Hitchcock who loved his work in the German suspense picture M. After talking to Hitchcock, which for Peter did not do much more than just laugh and nod, Lorre was cast in The Man That Knew Too Much. At the time Lorre knew very limited English, making his performance that much more impressive, for he learn his lines phonetically, but still was able to act out the role in a way that convinced most that he could understand and speak the language fluently. His unusual look and brilliant skills as an actor would begin to lead the young Peter Lorre to new and interesting places in film, one day landing normal work in America.

Somehow Hitchcock seemed to be more invested in his pictures more than most filmmakers. His personal touch was very evident in what he played on screen. He was never held down by the story ideas that inspired him, but rather went with what felt right and was the most stimulating to him. He took events that happened around him during his life, such as the shoot-out known as the Sidney Street Siege which inspired the final gunfight in the picture. He even took the title from a G.K. Chesterton work “The Man Who Knew Too Much” as inspiration for the storyline, but the film has no other connection whatsoever. Perhaps it is this knack for creative freedom within his imagination what makes his films seem to be so intriguingly different.

The film was an achievement of its time, winning himself some attention as a skilled filmmaker. It would also be the only film in his library that he personally would remake. In 1956 Hitchcock would release a Hollywood produced version of the movie with many aspects of the story from this version changed, but keeping the most major plot point intact. The 1956 version would go on to be better known, despite it only being produced to fulfill a contractual obligation Hitchcock had at the time, but that does not technically overshadow that brilliance of this original version. This is a chance to view Hitchcock being wonderfully creative with his limited world while working in London. His budget was smaller, and the world to shoot around was lesser, but his creativity was so large that this picture serves as a fine example of his filmmaking prowess.

Hitchcock would one day compare the two version of The Man That Knew Too Much, saying that his 1956 version was his finer work while this 1934 release was the work of an amateur. Those would be harsh words for one to criticize his own work, but he would later admit he rather enjoyed this version more for his creativity as a young director, and I must agree with Hitchcock on this. His 1956 version would be a better production value film, filled with more stars, but this version provides a window to a master filmmaker working his way as a young artist, forced to make more out of less. That is why this “lesser” film seems so good to me.

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