Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The First Man Who Knew Too Much

- One of Hitchcock's first big hits, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) tells the story of the Lawrence family, Bob (Leslie Banks) and Jill (Edna Best), whose daughter is kidnapped when they accidentally discover a multi-national plot to assassinate a world leader. Perhaps not quite as well known as the 1956 version starring Jimmy Stewart, the original 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much is a tough little thriller that holds up quite well in the 21st Century.

Hitchcock stated in a late-60s interview with French director Francois Truffaut that, while he considered his 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much to be the work of a professional, his 1934 version, although only the work of a talented amateur director that Hitchcock believed himself to have been at that stage of his career, was his preferable version due to its roughness. I actually disagree with both halves of Hitchcock's statement: the 1956 version is the superior film but the 1934 version is anything but amateur.

I can honestly say that I have not seen a film by Alfred Hitchcock that has appeared amateur; the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is no exception. Hitchcock does an excellent job constructing the story in a way that holds the audience's interest and keeps them guessing. The film is, unsurprisingly, also visually well-crafted (although lacking the glob-trotting flare of the 1956 version) and Hitch serves his actors well, Peter Lorre being the main stand-out as the evil Abbott (but no one rivals the performances of James Stewart and Doris Day in the remake).

Of course, there are a lot of distinct differences between the 1934 and 1956 versions including some story points, different characters and some particularly strong visual motifs in the 1934 version where not echoed in the remake (and vice-versa). One major difference between the two is that the 1934 version contains a magnificent raid/shoot-out that was not reconstructed in the 1956 version. I found the big raid scene quite exciting, its high bullet count makes it a bit over-the-top but it ends up believable because Hitchcock makes it rough and gritty at the same time.

While there are a number of on-paper differences between the 1934 and 1956 versions of the film, I would actually say that, while I find the 1956 version of the film to be the superior movie, this 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much does a few things better than its 1956 remake. Unlike the 1956 version, the 1934 film makes sure that the audience understands the importance of the death of the targeted world leader. The 1956 version basically skips over this point but the 1934 version was old enough to remember what sparked World War I: the assassination of one Austrian Duke started a chain reaction of alliances declaring war on each other. I think that placing an importance on the consequences of the death of the targeted world leader raises the stakes of the story, drawing the viewer in much more to this part of the story than the 1956 version does by ignoring it. Another positive way that the 1934 version is different from the 1956 version is the tone that the original ends on. Without giving anything away, I feel that the final moments of the original 1934 version of the film are a bit more satisfying than the lighthearted final note of the 1956 remake.

Beyond the difference in visuals and story elements, the biggest difference between the 1934 and 1956 versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much is how each film focuses on the telling of its story. Hitchcock is, rightly, renowned for making thrillers that are more than just "thrillers." Films like Psycho (1960) and North By Northwest (1959) are much more than the mystery and the suspense through the themes, style and strength of character that Hitchcock successfully conveys to the audience; this is what makes Hitchcock a cut above the rest of cinemas filmmakers. Unlike the majority of Hitchcock's work that has substance in its suspense, the original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is much more of a straight-up thriller. While the 1956 version is focused much more on the characters, specifically the McKenna family, the 1934 version is focused much more on the mystery and the suspense.

This makes for a good movie and, thanks to how Hitchcock packages the story together, impressive entertainment but, because it lacks meaty elements that make other Hitchcock films great, this 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much cannot measure up to its 1956 remake and is a lesser Hitchcock picture overall. Perhaps not measuring up to its 1956 remake or many of the other films that would reside inside an Alfred Hitchcock pantheon, the original The Man Who Knew Too Much is nonetheless a quality picture and is easily recommendable to classic film lovers. Hardly the work of an amateur, at the very least.

CBC Rating: 7/10

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