Friday, August 31, 2007

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

(Movie Review)

I mentioned in the previous post I was on a bit of a Peter Lorre kick recently (the great Austrian-Hungarian character actor--see previous post) watching "The Maltese Falcon" and re-watching "Casablanca" and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea".

And so, to round out my Lorre-athon, I found this in my local video store. This was Lorre's first big break in English speaking movies. As a European Jew, he had just escaped to England from Nazi Germany the year before, and barely spoke any English. According to wikipedia, he learned most of his lines phonetically for this movie.

If true, that represents quite an achievement because even working under that handicap Lorre still manages to steal every scene he's in. He plays the villain in the best tradition of spy movie villains. He is charming, polite, pleasant, and would cut your heart out in a minute.

This film is the only Hitchcock film to be later remade by Hitchcock himself, so it is not to be confused with the more famous 1956 Jimmy Stewart version. This is the 1934 version when Hitchcock was still making British films.

After recently watching several old classic films that don't feel like old classic films, this by contrast is a film that's showing its age a bit. The footage is grainy, the sound is staticky, and the cuts between shots are very abrupt. It might be tempting to explain all this away simply because of the movie's age, but then why do films like "Casablanca" "The Big Sleep" "The Maltese Falcon" or "Citizen Kane" retain such a smooth modern feel? With another film we could blame it on the director, but this film was made by Alfred Hitchcock himself.

Someone more versed in film history is going to have to explain this to me. Part of it is probably no doubt due to the fact that all of the British films Hitchcock made have now slipped into the Public Domain and so there is little profit motive for any would-be restorer of the work. That would explain at least the graininess and the static, but not so much the rough cuts. (Or I don't know, would it? How much stuff happens when you restore a film?) Maybe some of this is because Hitchcock didn't have as much money to play with when he was working for the British film industry. Or it could be because Hitchcock himself later considered his early work that of a talented amateur.

(Or, could it be that this movie was 1934, and all the other examples I cited above are from the 40s. Does that much change in 5 years? I'm going to have to re-watch a few1930s films for comparison).

...Anywho, despite all the production flaws on this film, one can see the Hitchcock genius popping up in a lot of the scenes. There's a few scenes were the tension is masterfully drawn out. And a big bang shoot 'em up finale at the end. Frankly I was surprised that a film this old would have such an intense shooting scene at the end. (Based apparently on the real life Siege of Sidney street, again according to wikipedia.)

More bonus youtube links: Here's Peter Lorre's famous scene opposite Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca". I know we've all seen this before, but go ahead and re-watch it. Look at how brilliant Lorre is as both pathetic and a little bit creepy, and yet sympathetic all at the same time.

and his capture scene here. Also brilliant, the look on his face when he first realizes what's happening.

Finally, whilst were wasting time on youtube, a couple different Peter Lorre tribute videos here and here.

Link of the Day
More news on Swagman Family blogging. It looks like my brother and his wife are going to be having another baby. Although this news is found on neither of their respective blogs (I guess new parents are busy people) but documented on my little sister's blog instead.


Rob said...

The Man Who Knew Too Much... totally me

Whisky Prajer said...

Public domain explains the jumpy scene transitions, too: odds are the video transfer is using very old footage that has been re-spliced many times. If you contrast this Hitchcock with something just a little later, and better preserved (like Rebecca) you'll see that Hitchcock must have been as anal about his scene-to-scene transitions in his early films as he was in his later films.

Glad to see you sticking close to Lorre - excelsior!