The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

At the end of 1934 Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial career finally came out of the doldrums with this, his breakthrough hit. I saw the remake a number of years ago, but I never really got into it; Hitchcock himself may have been sniffy later about the original—there’s a quote from him about the 1956 film being the work of a professional and the 1934 version that of a talented amateur—but it has comparative compactness on its side if nothing else, clocking in as it does at just 75 minutes. Mind you, he’s not necessarily wrong about the “talented amateur” part, perhaps; I think it does get off to a very shaky start in establishing its basic story, and I’m not convinced by his decision not to use a conventional film score. Music obviously plays an important part in the narrative (the whole Albert Hall scene), but though it was evidently a conscious decision to only use diegetic music (oh fuck I can’t believe I actually used the word “diegetic” just then) I’m not sure some scenes wouldn’t have benefitted from a real score; it was in fact quite disconcerting not to hear it. But as the film goes on it picks itself up and there are more than a few hints of the future “master of suspense”. Peter Lorre is quite remarkable as the lead villain, given that at that time he didn’t speak English yet and had to learn all his lines phonetically; the performance gives no indication of this. Although it has quite a big climax, a wholesale urban siege, it is kind of a modest film in various ways, and obviously Hitchcock had bigger and better things to do later. But it certainly set him up for the future in a pleasing manner, and I liked it better than I did the 1956 version, however “professional” the latter may have been by comparison.

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