Monday, November 30, 2009

A Hitchcock original

TCM is showing the 1934 British version of Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much tomorrow morning at 6:30 AM ET. It's a movie that doesn't get seen as much as the more well-known remake, but it's just as interesting in its own right.

The basic story is largely the same, in that a married couple and their kid are on vacation, only for the husband to be given secret information by a murder victim, and for the kid to be kidnapped and taken to London, with the father told that the kid will be harmed if he tries to do anything with the information he's learned. However, there are also differences; the family's being British is a cosmetic difference, but the final shootout at the end is a big one.

That shootout is foreshadowed at the very beginning when the mother (Edna Best) is in a shooting competition at the Swiss ski resort where the family (father Leslie Banks and daughter Nova Pilbeam) are vacationing. As in the remake, the mother's skills might just come in handy later on. The murder takes place at a dinner dance involving a very cleverly photographed set piece that includes the unraveling of a garment and everybody getting tangled up in string, before the action switches back to London. Just as in the remake, there's another set piece at a church of some unnamed minority Christian sect. But where the remake also includes a red herring at a taxidermist's, the original has Banks and his friend going to a 1930s era dentist's office which shows that dentistry hadn't advanced too much from the days of The Strawberry Blonde. Perhaps the most interesting thing, however, is that the bad guy is played by Peter Lorre, in his first English-language role.

Which version is better? Well, that's for you to decide. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses. As for the original, it's very fast paced, which is both a strength and a weakness, in that there's not much time to develop the characters, and at times the movie feels less like a coherent plot and more like a series of set pieces. On the other hand, Edna Best's mother character is much more appealing than the one plays by Doris Day, who goes hysterical when she learns her son's been kidnapped, and is deservedly slapped around by James Stewart.

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