Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

I have always found it strange when a writer or director returns to something they have published previously.  I understand the argument for going back to older material that might seem underdeveloped or raw, but the rough edges are often what makes art charming.  George Lucas and Stephen King may be the most notorious (and richest) examples of revising their own history, but it's always been around, from Walt Whitman to the current Hollywood reboot craze.  I was surprised when I learned that legendary director Alfred Hitchcock remade one of his movies, The Man Who Knew Too Much; I was even more surprised when I realized that the original film wasn't silent.  Why would a director with such good instincts want to revise his own film?  Well, there's one way to find out, right?

Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) and his wife, Jill (Edna Best) are vacationing with their daughter, Betty, in what appears to be the Swiss Alps.  Why only "appears"?  Well, watch this opening scene and tell me how much of it you believe:
That sure is ski accident, Hitch.  And by "convincing," I of course mean "insultingly idiotic."  How old is that girl supposed to be?  I think you learn at a pretty young age to not put your life and the lives of others in danger and then laugh about it.  I am not one to advocate child abuse, but if there is an argument for it, Betty could be it.

Anyway, that scene shows the Lawrences laughing it up with Mr. Can't Ski, AKA Louis (Pierre Fresnay) and sharing a few laughs with the sinister (not in this scene, though) Abbott (Peter Lorre).  Not long after the skiing accident, Jill and Louis are sharing a dance when he is assassinated by a sniper's bullet.  With his dying words, he urges Jill to find an important secret in his room, and pass it on to the British consulate.  Naturally, since Jill is a delicate woman (who is a champion skeet shooter...?), Bob takes over.  In Louis' bedroom, he finds a shaving brush, and inside that brush --- apparently he had the Rambo survival knife of brushes --- there is a note.
Of course!  This
Bob returns to Jill, where she is being comforted/questioned by the police.  As he prepares to share the message with everyone, the Lawrences receive a phone call; if they want to see stupid little Betty again, they had better not talk to the cops! 
"We'll consider it.  Don't call us, we'll call you.  Maybe."
Since they opt to try and keep their daughter alive, the Lawrences are left without many attractive options.  They know something bad is going to happen, and it is implied that this bad thing could be as significant to world politics as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  What can this married couple do?  Well, Bill can go out and try to single-handedly try to save his daughter.  Jill...well, she can sit out most of this one.

Hitchcock movies are not particularly famous for having great acting parts; he's a master director, and the plot usually supersedes the actors involved.  Such is the case with The Man Who Knew Too Much.  I found Edna Best to be fairly vapid in the lead female role.  Hitchcock generally had pretty strong female parts in his films, but Best appeared genuinely helpless, even when she was taking action.
Her lines are written on her palm
Leslie Banks seemed ill-suited for his role, too.  I have never seen either actor in anything else, but I was not impressed by their dramatic chops here.  Banks, in particular, seemed better suited for a romantic comedy than a thriller.  Peter Lorre, though, is quite memorable here as the evil mastermind, Abbott.  Lorre is usually good, but he is what lifts this picture up; sure, he's an evil mastermind, but he also has a sense of humor --- and that makes his character far more rounded than most of the cast.
"Well...I'm only mostly evil."

In all fairness, the cast wasn't working with much.  The script is not very clever and many parts of it are just stupid (like the ski jump scene or the chair-throwing battle).  Alfred Hitchcock's direction --- which I assumed would be great --- is shockingly poor.  It's not awful, just mediocre, which is "shockingly poor" for a master.  I thought the story was edited together (and written) poorly; this is a bit of a mess from a plot standpoint.  I'm still not entirely sure what was going on here --- I think the Lawrence child was kidnapped to prevent the Lawrence parents from showing the police a note that would lead them to...a dentist?  That can't be right.  Hitchcock does show flashes of his future brilliance, with many of Lorre's scenes being filmed impeccably and some of the transitions between scenes were inspired, but there is just too much mediocrity in this film --- acting, script, plot, and occasional stupidity --- to give him a pass.  I was very surprised when I realized that I didn't like this movie.  Normally, I can enjoy a Hitchcock film because the story is entertaining.  In this instance, I'm still not sure when Bob becomes a Man Who Knows Too Much; for most of the film, he appears to be half-cocked and mostly clueless.  I also thought some of the story elements were handled clumsily; was there really a doubt how the film would end when Jill's skeet-shooting nemesis turns out to be a bad guy?  My biggest complaint is that this is a suspense/thriller movie with neither suspense nor thrills.  The story is too incoherent to effectively build tension, despite nearly non-stop action.  Is this Alfred Hitchcock's dumb action movie?  I think it is.  No wonder he wanted a second crack at this one.

Writing this review made me want to look up photos of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but I instead stumbled across music videos for the band Franz Ferdinand instead.  I had no idea that a Scottish band inadvertently started World War I.

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