Hitchcock's First Five-Star Entry
Interplanetary Funksmanship | Vanilla Suburbs, USA | 11/26/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I agree with Alfred Hitchcock in his assessment that his 1956 remake of this 1934 classic was a superior movie. However, that's only when pressed. Really, despite mostly having the same story line and climactic scene at the Royal Albert Hall, they are two different films.
It's not just because one is in black and white, whereas the other is in color, or that one features British and the other American leads. It's more intangible than that. It has to do with pacing, and that this is a more tongue-in-cheek thriller than the remake. Also, while Hitch never stopped pushing the envelope on visual effects, it's so interesting watching this one, because he was learning as he made it. When Edna Best faints upon learning that her daughter (Nova Pilbeam) has been kidnapped, the camera movement simulates the room spinning round and round. It's a sort of primitive shot, one that Hitch didn't smoothly master until the 1940s. That said, it cannot be denied that Hitchcock's primary visual contribution at this point was in applying the German Expressionist montage sensibility to the British cinema, which was theretofore fledgling.
The acting is all right from the good guys, but it's the villains who are most impressive in this version. Peter Lorre as Abbott is creepy, and quite a polished actor, whereas the British actors were a little awkward in reciting their lines. Lorre was smooth, confident, volatile and simply a pleasure to watch. Cicily Oates as Abbott's religious sect "front" is simply mesmerizing when she hypnotizes Leslie Bank's comic relief friend, Clive. There are some stark Expressionistic shots of her through a glass lens, and as the light intensifies on her face, so does her perverse concentration. Almost zombie, cultlike.
The climax at the Royal Albert Hall was Hitch's largest scale set piece, a tour de force of sight and sound. Arthur Benjamin's soundtrack and his "Storm Clouds Cantata really raised the bar for movie music in those early days of sound, and even influenced Hitch's most famous composer, Bernard Herrmann, decades later when he re-scored the 1956 version. Herrmann had such admiration and respect for Benjamin's Cantata, that he used it intact, even doubling some of the parts and lengthening the score.
All of that said, don't just watch this for academic reasons. It's hugely entertaining, and has lots of great gags and suspense."
He knew too much!
E. A Solinas | MD USA | 12/23/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Alfred Hitchock may have preferred his later remake of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" as opposed to his early "amateur" original. But the original has a raw, murky, taut appeal all its own, and it has the veddy veddy British flavor that many of Hitchcock's early hits have. In short, it's unpretentiously enjoyable.
The Lawrence family is vacationing at a ski resort, and hanging out with a friendly Frenchman -- until their last evening, when he is shot during a slow dance with Jill (Edna Best). Bob (Leslie Banks) follows his last instructions, and finds top-secret information hidden inside a shaving brush. He's supposed to take it to the British authorities.
But what they don't realize is that a sinister man at the resort (Peter Lorre) is the leader of an enemy terrorist cell, who is planning to assassinate someone. And to keep Bob from turning in the information, they kidnap Bob and Jill's daughter. Now Bob and British intelligence must somehow free his daughter, while Jill thwarts the assassins...
Hitchcock directed a lot of spy movies, and this one is part of an early trio that includes "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes." Each one is pretty amateurish by comparison to his later works like "North By Northwest," but are still tight, enjoyable little suspense movies.
Hitchcock keeps the relatively simple plot moving along at a rapid pace, with a sense of solid suspense and often creepy dialogue ("Tell her they may soon be leaving us. Leaving us... for a long, long journey..."). It's not a slick James Bond-y flick -- the action is dirtier and misty, like the back streets of London. And the climactic scene in a crammed opera house is wonderfully chaotic.
None of the actors are really remembered now, except for Peter Lorre who plays the slimy creep to perfection. But they all carry off their parts well, with Banks and Best carrying their roles as an ordinary couple in extraordinary circumstances. They're completely believable, and a hundred percent sympathetic -- these are the people next door.
Hitchcock may not have known much about moviemaking at the time, but the original "Man Who Knew Too Much" had plenty of raw cinematic skill. Definitely a good one."
Fun and Atmospheric Early British Hitchcock
Bobby Underwood | Manly NSW, Australia | 05/17/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This entertaining thriller from Hitchcock's British period is proof that bigger budgets don't always mean better pictures. He remade this in America during the 1950's, in color no less, and while it has some fine moments also, first prize still goes to this more charming and fun to watch black and white original.
This is the film which got Hitchcock noticed and those who haven't seen the original version are urged to do so. Everything is just right in this one, from the script by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham Lewis to the photography of Curt Courant, to the charming atmosphere of early 1930's Switzerland and London. Much like "Sabotage," it may be a tick behind "39 Steps," "The Lady Vanishes" and, my personal favorite, "Young and Innocent," but there isn't a lot to quibble about.
Lesle Banks and Edna Best are excellent as the carefree couple on vacation in Switzerland with their teenage daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). That happy-go-lucky sense of living it up at dinner parties and ski resorts carried over from the 1920's will change suddenly, however, when their pal Louie is killed while dancing with Jill (Edna Best). He will have just enough breath left to give her an urgent message regarding a planned assasination of a politician which could throw the world in turmoil.
Before she and her husband can relay the message to those who need to know, however, their lively daughter Betty is kidnapped, an insurance policy against their talking. They return to London holding the key to preventing a muder, but must remain silent to save their beloved daughter. Lawrence (Leslie Banks) will not let them go on unpeeded, however, and he and Betty's uncle, Clive (Hugh Wakefield), will follow a trail that leads to a disturbed little criminal named Abbott (Peter Lorre) who tends to apologize for what he must do.
Hitchcock makes effective use of music to build a tense mood of apprehension during a concert scene at Albert Hall where the murder is to occur. While Jill is put in the untenable position of warning the victim at Albert Hall or saving her daughter, Lawrence finds Betty and uses a booldy shootout as an opportunity to help his lovely young daughter escape. Trapped on a ledge with a killer, it may be a mothor's love, and skill at skeet shooting, which will make the difference when Betty's life is hanging in the balance.
There is a nice look and atmosphere to this black and white film which makes it far superior to the 1950's remake. The terrific Nova Pilbeam would star a bit later as the grown young female lead in "Young and Innocent" and it's a real shame she did not get a chance to work with Hitch again. A very underrated film no Hitchcock fan can miss."