THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH: Deconstruction of a Scene – Royal Albert Hall (1934 vs. 1956)

Alfred Hitchcock was asked once about the differences between his two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much.  He replied that the first was the work of a talented amateur, and the second was the work of a professional.   I would argue that he’s being a bit modest calling himself an amateur.  By 1934, Hitchcock had been in the movie industry for over a decade, and had directed a dozen movies.  I think that qualifies for slightly better than amateur status.

While both versions of this movie are good, sometimes for very different reasons, when watching them back-to-back I find the original to be much more engaging and fresh.  Both versions feature a penultimate scene that takes place in the Royal Albert Hall. (As far as the final scene is concerned, the original movie wins by a mile, in my opinion.  Would you rather watch Edna Best take a rifle from a policeman and shoot the villain off the roof, or would you rather hear Doris Day sing “Que Sera Sera”?  That’s an easy choice for me.)  I thought it would be interesting to compare the two Albert Hall sequences.  The set-up of both scenes is the same:  The heroine arrives at the Albert Hall as her child is being held hostage.  She knows that an assassination is planned at the Hall, and will attempt to stop it, with no clear idea how to do so without risking her child.

In the earlier version, the sequence runs around 6 minutes and 10 seconds, with approximately 91 editorial cuts, which averages one cut every 4.1 seconds.

In the remake, the sequence is much longer, running around 14 minutes and 20 seconds, with approximately 193 editorial cuts.  This averages out to one cut every 4.5 seconds.  So even though the scene is considerably longer, Hitchcock’s cutting overall is very similar.  So let’s look at where the scenes are similar, and where they differ.  (The reason for the difference in frame size is because the first film was shot in a 1.33:1 ratio, which was the standard at the time, and the remake was shot in VistaVision and shown in a 1.85:1 ratio).

Both scenes begin with an establishing shot of the Royal Albert Hall exterior, advertising the concert about to take place.

 

 

We now have similar shots of Edna Best and Doris Day in the Albert Hall lobby, not quite sure what they are looking for.

 

 

Next, we get subjective POV shots, as they both recognize the assassin.

 

 

At this point in both films, after the heroine speaks to the assassin, she makes her way into the Hall.  One difference is that Edna Best actually takes a seat, whereas Doris Day stands in an aisle way.

 

 

The later movie begins to stretch out just a little bit here, taking more time to set the scene before the music begins.

We get these POV shots, as Doris Day locates both the dignitaries’ box, and the assassin’s box.  So the geography of the scene is already established for the viewer.

 

 

Next, the music begins, with a series of similar establishing shots.

 

 

The remake again takes a little more time here, with a greater variety of shots, from a variety of angles.  The older, more established Hitchcock does a better job of building suspense, even making sure to point out both the cymbalist and his instruments early in the sequence.

 

 

In the remake, Alfred Hitchcock has a VistaVision camera and he intends to make the most of it, giving us almost every conceivable camera angle of the musicians in the Albert Hall.  From the left:

 

From the right:

 

Even from above, in strange angles like this one:

 

After this both films follow a similar pattern.  We see our heroine looking, then we see what she is looking at.  This is textbook subjective POV.

 

Now the original film does something clever, out of necessity.  The camera pans along a wire, stopping on a radio transmitter.  Hitchcock uses this as a means to cut to the conspirators’ hideout, so we can see their reactions as they listen on the radio.  This is important because this is where both father and daughter are still being held captive.

 

 

Just as this sequence is unique to the original, the remake has a new sequence here.   Whereas the male lead was still a prisoner in the first film, in the remake Jimmy Stewart has broken free and comes to the Albert Hall.  So the camera breaks away from Doris Day to show his arrival.

 

Next, Jimmy Stewart finds Doris Day and they exchange information.  Hitchcock made the wise decision to play this scene without dialogue.  It is rather like a scene in a silent movie.  We see their mouths moving, we see their arms gesticulating, but we hear only the sweeping music.  Of course, we don’t need to hear the dialogue, because we know as much as the characters do.

 

So the second movie’s sequence will find much of its greater length here, as Hitchcock cuts away to Jimmy Stewart several times while he rushes upstairs in an attempt to find the assassin.

 

But in the first movie, Edna Best has no assistance.  She is all alone.  The cutting increases as she continues to look from assassin to target.  Edna Best gives such a heartfelt performance here.  Another brilliant Hitchcock touch:  we see Edna Best crying, then we see a “blurred vision” POV shot, as if we are seeing through her tears.

 

As the cymbal crash approaches, the cutting comes even faster, with many shots averaging less than a second.    In the second film, Hitchcock really relishes the buildup, with many more shots in the sequence.  Both films have the nearly-identical  iconic shot of the gun slowly coming around the curtain.

 

 

Again, the build-up is much lengthier in the remake.  Hitchcock has many shots of conductor Bernard Herrmann, even cutting to extreme close-ups of the musical notes that indicate the moment when the shot will come.

 

We even get this bizarre shot, just before the climax, taken from the point-of-view of the cymbalist!  This seems to break Hitchcock’s rule of “camera logic”, and yet as part of the montage, it adds to the emotional tension.  As a shot that is onscreen for less than a second, it registers emotionally before the mind can question it.  (If you look closely, you can see there are no hands holding the cymbals.  They seem to float in the air!)

 

When the moment for the assassination arrives, we get the scream of Edna Best and Doris Day.  The original film shows Edna stand to scream, then cuts to the hideout, where we hear the scream over the radio.   This adds to the suspense of the moment.  Was the assassin successful?  (We learn over the radio that he was not).

 

In the later film, Hitchcock gives Doris Day a close-up for her scream, which registers much more powerfully (and effectively) on the soundtrack.

 

In this case, Hitchcock stays at the Albert Hall.  We see firsthand that the assassin’s bullet causes only a flesh wound, and we see the dramatic moment of Jimmy Stewart bursting in his box, and the assassin’s fall, presumably to his death.

 

So, the final analysis:

The original film has a much shorter sequence, but still does an excellent job of building suspense.  Hitchcock employed many clever moments (the “blurred vision” POV, the cut from the radio transmitter to the actual radio in the conspirators’ hideaway) to tell the story.

When he did the remake, the changes in story structure (Jimmy Stewart’s arrival at the Albert Hall) necessitated changes in shot composition.   But more importantly, Hitchcock used many more shots, from many different angles, to increase the suspense of the moment.  While he was no amateur in the early film, it is clear that his mastery of the film medium had increased by the time of the remake, and he used that mastery to make a more powerful, and memorable sequence.

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934): “Stand by, there’s trouble coming soon”

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THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) – Gaumont-British – Rating:  ★★★★

B&W – 76 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Leslie Banks (Bob Lawrence), Edna Best (Jill Lawrence), Nova Pilbeam (Betty Lawrence), Peter Lorre (Abbott), Frank Vosper (Ramon), Hugh Wakefield (Clive), Pierre Fresnay (Louis Bernard).

Written by Charles Bennett & DB Wyndham-Lewis

Photography:  Curt Courant

Edited by Hugh Stewart

Music by Arthur Benjamin

In 1933 Alfred Hitchcock was shooting a movie called Waltzes From Vienna, and he was bored.   He called the picture a “low ebb of my career,” a type of film (the period costume drama) that he personally loathed.  But it was the only directing job he could get at the time.  Even as he directed it, going through the motions, he was already planning and plotting the movie that he really wanted to make, if only he got the chance.  That chance came in the form of studio head Michael Balcon, who had already worked with Hitchcock in the 1920’s silent film era.  Balcon paid Hitchcock a visit on the set and asked him what his next picture was going to be.  Hitchcock, seeing a golden opportunity, told Balcon that he had a gem of a screenplay tucked away “in a drawer, somewhere.”   Balcon asked him to bring it in to the office.  When Hitchcock did so, Balcon bought the story on the spot, also offering to sign Alfred Hitchcock to a multi-picture directing deal.

The thriller sextet:  Michael Balcon signed Alfred Hitchcock to a six-picture deal at the newly-formed Gaumont-British films company.  These six movies would completely change the course of Hitchcock’s career, establishing him as the master of the thriller.   The film industry in Britain, and the movie-going public, already recognized Hitchcock as one of their best directors, if not the best.  After the release of these six movies it was apparent that Hollywood, and the world, had taken notice as well.

These movies, which have come to be known as the “thriller sextet” prefigured the successful run that Hitchcock would have at Paramount Studios in Hollywood in the 1950’s.  In both cases, he had complete artistic control over his films.  He directed only the stories that he wanted to direct, and surrounded himself with cast and crew that he trusted, and wanted to work with.   The films in the thriller sextet have much in common:  economical storytelling, a brisk pace (the average running time is about 84 minutes), and a tone that mixes suspense and humor.  (Sabotage lacks the humor of the other 5 releases, due in part to the darker storyline.)

The Man Who Knew Too Much is the first film of the sextet; some say that this film marks the birth of the “real” Alfred Hitchcock on film.  The movie opens in St. Moritz, Switzerland because, as Hitchcock explained “that’s where I spent my honeymoon with my wife.”   The film introduces us to a dashing, cosmopolitan couple, Bob and Jill Lawrence, and their daughter Betty.  The couple (played by Leslie Banks and Edna Best) have an easy repartee that is believable and enjoyable to watch.  Jill is a sharpshooter, and if we know anything about Hitchcock, when he sets up a detail like this early in a film, it is sure to pay off later.    The humor of the first few minutes turns dark quickly, as a man they have befriended is shot and killed.

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Here is the first of several trademark Hitchcock images in this movie, as several fingers point to the bullet hole in the glass.   The image appears quickly, then disappears before we can question its logic:  how could seven people arrange themselves next to a window, and contort their hands in this configuration?   The dying man imparts the location of a secret of national security to Edna, who shares the information with her husband.  He acquires this information from the dead man’s room, only to discover that his daughter has been kidnapped.

Now the story moves to London.  As Hitchcock said “from the very outset the contrast between the snowy Alps and the congested streets of London was a decisive factor.”  The Lawrences know that a certain foreign statesman is to be assassinated.  The Foreign Office knows that they know, but the Lawrences cannot disclose the details, because  if they do their kidnapped daughter will be killed.  The moral dilemma is outlined very succinctly by a man from the Foreign Office, who compares their situation to the outset of World War I.  “A man you never heard of was killed by another man you never heard of, and a month later we were at war.”  What is a parent to do?  Risk the life of one’s child to possibly prevent the outset of a global conflict?   Bob Lawrence sets out to find his daughter, with family friend Clive (played by Hugh Wakefield).  Clive is essentially a comic foil,  a stereotype of the tried-and-true stalwart British companion.

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As in many Hitchcock films, this movie is a series of set pieces, with the action constantly shifting, ensuring the viewer is never bored.  It is interesting to watch how Hitchcock combines humor and action in the same scenes, something he did often in the thriller sextet, but would not do as frequently in his Hollywood films.

There are two such sequences here, as Bob and Clive try to interpret the clue left them by the dying man in St. Moritz, (a scrap of paper with the words “WAPPING, G. BARBOR, MAKE CONTACT A. HALL, MARCH 21ST”).   It turns out that G. Barbor is a dentist, who is part of the assassination plan, as his office is used as a meeting place.  The tone of this section of the movie is laid out by the very first shot, a close-up of a giant set of teeth which hang outside the dentist’s office.  The comic tone continues inside, as Bob and the dentist try to out-guess, then out-gas, each other.

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The action (and humor) then move to a church, where Bob and Clive have traced the gang.    They are recognized and locked in the church.  Thus begins a bizarre sequence, during which Clive escapes, and the interior of the church is demolished as the men inside throw chairs at each other, not wanting to use a gun as it could be heard outside.  An old lady plays the church organ to mask the sound of furniture being hurled every which way.

Mrs. Lawrence goes to the Royal Albert Hall, where the assassination is to take place, and anguishes over what to do.  If she attempts to prevent the shooting, she may risk her daughter’s life.   She screams as the gunman is taking aim, throwing off his shot.  The foreign statesman has received only a flesh wound.   But what of her daughter and husband?  They are locked up with the gang in a flat adjacent to the church.   The climactic shoot-out is based on a historical incident that occured in 1910, called the Sidney Street siege.  While such scenes have become commonplace in cinema, this is one of the first such sequences to appear in a British film, and the film censors were not happy with it initially.   After the film’s earlier visual stylization, and often comic tone, this final sequence almost has the tone of cinema verite in comparison, which certainly heightens the tension.  Remeber Jill’s sharpshooter skills?  Care to guess who shoots the assassin from the rooftop?

Performance:  All the performances are strong in this movie;  every character is believable.  But the standout performance is that of Peter Lorre as Abbott, the leader of the assassins.  This was Lorre’s first English language picture (coming just after his breakout performance in Fritz Lang’s M),  and his grasp of the English language was so frail at this time that he had to memorize his dialogue phonetically, translating it himself into German so he could understand the content.  Hitchcock said “I did insist on working with Peter Lorre…He had a very sharp sense of humor.”  Hitchcock really enjoyed working with Lorre.  He would use him again in the film Secret Agent, and they remained friends for a long time.

Recurring players:  Leslie Banks would later appear in Jamaica Inn.  Peter Lorre starred in Secret Agent.  Frank Vosper had just appeared in Waltzes From Vienna.  Nova Pilbeam would later star in Young and Innocent.  George Curzon would also have small roles in Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.  Frank Atkinson would also have uncredited roles in Young and Innocent and the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Hitchcock used Clare Greet many times; she was also in Number 13, The Ring, The Manxman, Murder!, Sabotage and Jamaica Inn.   James Knight would appear a year later in The 39 Steps.  Charles Paton had been in Blackmail.  Frederick Piper also had uncredited roles in The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Young and Innocentand Jamaica Inn.  Jack Vyvian would appear in Sabotage and Young and Innocent.  S.J. Warmington was in Murder!, The 39 Stepsand Sabotage.  

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Where’s Hitch?   He isn’t!  Or is he? As in the later film Sabotagethere is no credible evidence that Hitchcock makes a cameo in this film.  About 33:25 into the film, a man can be seen crossing the road in a trench coat, as a bus passes.  Some have said that this is Hitchcock, and it may be, but I’m not convinced enough to say so definitively.  What do you think?

Legacy:  Hitchcock remade this movie 22 years later, in a technicolor film starring James Stewart and Doris Day.  While the remake is enjoyable, and the Royal Albert Hall sequence far superior,  the later film suffers when both versions are viewed back to back.  The pacing, and two-hour running time of the remake is almost languorous compared to the brisk clip at which the earlier version runs.   ( I will soon do a comparison of the Royal Albert Hall sequence in both versions.)

What Hitch said:   Talking to Truffaut about the importance of this film in his career, Hitchcock said “…whatever happens in the course of your career, your talent is always there.  To all appearances, I seemed to have gone into a creative decline in 1933 when I made Waltzes from Vienna, which was very bad.  And yet the talent must have been there all along since I had already conceived the project for The Man Who Knew Too Much, the picture that re-established my creative prestige.”

Definitive edition:    The Criterion Collection released a blu-ray version of this film in 2013, which is light years ahead of any other available version.   Criterion used a true restoration print, with exceptional picture clarity.  The mono soundtrack is astonishing;  every syllable of dialogue is clear.  The extra features are also impressive:  there is a very informative commentary track by film historian Philip Kemp, an 18-minute appreciation by Guillermo del Toro,  The Illustrated Hitchcock (a 50-minute TV program in which Hitchcock is interviewed by Pia Lindstrom), 23 minutes of audio excerpts from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews, and a restoration demonstration.