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“I hate this sort of stuff,” grumbled Alfred Hitchcock on the set of Waltzes from Vienna, a musical about Johann Strauss the Younger, of all things, that he rashly took on during a jobless period in 1933. “Melodrama,” he said, “is the only thing I can do.” And sure enough, his next film was a melodrama, the brilliantly constructed tale of an unexceptional British couple who run into exceptional trouble on holiday. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) was also Hitchcock back in form, with even more dazzle, economy, and humor—and with the great Peter Lorre demonstrating definitively how a Hitchcock heavy should be played: with a light touch.
Hitchcock had already achieved stunning success with such films as The Lodger, in 1927, and Blackmail, in 1929. But Waltzes from Vienna brought him to a total of two recent, major flops, the previous one being the aptly titled Rich and Strange (1931), and he already knew that post-Waltzes he’d be officially freelance. As told by biographer Donald Spoto, Hitchcock’s former Gainsborough producer Michael Balcon, who had moved on to Gaumont, heard about the on-set outburst and set up a chat with the director. Informed by Hitchcock that he and screenwriter Charles Bennett had been wanting to adapt some old Bulldog Drummond stories, Balcon suggested they bring the project to his studio.
In the odd way that movie treatments often mutate, the tale of a dashing private detective became a fleshed-out version of a story that Hitchcock had conceived while on honeymoon in St. Moritz eight years before. With writers Bennett and D. B. Wyndham-Lewis, he went back to his idea of a couple whose swank vacation gets an unpleasant dose of the underworld when they run afoul of a criminal gang. Eventually, scenarists Edwin Greenwood and A. R. Rawlinson came in to help, and with Emlyn Williams contributing dialogue, the plot took shape. The gang became a group of spies carrying out a plot to assassinate a vaguely important foreign dignitary. The couple’s child morphed from a son into a daughter. The assassination attempt would take place in London, at a concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
Freed from Strauss and that “sort of stuff,” Hitchcock had a grand time back in his element, and it shows in the movie’s humor. Even the travel brochures that appear before the credits are a dark little joke: “Take Your Holiday in Switzerland!” (See Your Dance Partner Shot in Mid-fox-trot! Stumble Across a Spy Ring! Have Your Only Child Kidnapped!). The playfulness of The Man Who Knew Too Much would carry through to later tales of elegant couples battling spies, from The 39 Steps (1935) to North by Northwest (1959).
The vacationing couple are Bob and Jill Lawrence. She’s a champion sharpshooter, he’s a—well, we never find out, but whatever it is, it got them a vacation in St. Moritz. Played with an air of sleek cultivation by Leslie Banks and Edna Best, the Lawrences banter and indulge in mock spats. Jill pretends to flirt with their handsome friend Louis (Pierre Fresnay)—“I’m just going off with another man,” she announces—and Bob pretends to be jealous. They adore their daughter, Betty (Nova Pilbeam), to the point of nearly spoiling her rotten. In the first scene, on the slopes, with a crowd watching a skiing contest, Betty runs to snatch her dachshund out of the path of Louis mid-ski-run. It’s quite the calamity, as the ensuing crash sends a few dozen people sprawling, but Betty is wholly unrepentant. (The dog is never seen again, leaving dachshund lovers to wonder if he escaped death by ski collision only to meet his doom back at the hotel.)
Caught in the crush is a short man sporting a fur coat and expensive hat, who laughs heartily when asked if he’s all right. “Better ask my nurse,” he says, referring to the narrow, gothic figure (Cicely Oates) who’s dusting him off with grim efficiency. “My English is not good enough for me to know.” He locks gazes with Louis and moves on. Even if we could go back almost eighty years and see Peter Lorre with fresh eyes, the eyes of someone in 1934 who hadn’t gotten around to seeing Fritz Lang’s M, the character would still seem sinister from the beginning. His laugh is too loud, his stare too unblinking, and why on earth does he need a nurse? Bob accepts Abbott as he’s presented, as adults do, but when Abbott offers his watch as a toy for Betty, she snaps, “I’m not a baby!” The girl sees, as the adults do not, that his friendliness is phony and that his own amusement is all he cares for. This Lorre character is a reversal of the one he plays in M. Abbott isn’t a man who preys on children, he’s a child who preys on adults.
Hitchcock spells out the film’s vocabulary swiftly, framing Jill through a large picture window edged with lacy frost—a postcard, in effect—as she prepares for a shooting match against a hulking opponent, Ramon (Frank Vosper), who we soon learn is in league with the spies. A later scene in the hotel restaurant opens with the camera looking out the window at the mountains, another postcard view, which will be shattered when Louis meets his fate. Jill has brought her knitting to this evening of dinner and dancing, an odd thing to do in the 1930s or any other age, but it sets up a gorgeously sinister visual joke. Bob, in mock indignation over his wife’s dancing with another man, attaches a strand of yarn from a scarf Jill is working on to a back button of Louis’ dinner jacket. As Jill and Louis dance, the scarf unravels and the yarn loops around the other couples on the floor, twining their knees together and forcing them to step over it like a trip wire. Naturally, Abbott is in the restaurant too, laughing wildly at the people entangled in the web. And, with poetic precision, the moment Louis notices that the web has caught him is the moment when a neat cut to the window shows a gunshot coming through. A circle of fingers points to the delicate hole the bullet has punched in the glass. For the rest of the movie, windows will mean menace.
But the menace in The Man Who Knew Too Much is mostly slick and subtle, like Abbott. Only here and there do we get a hint of the darker Hitchcock to come, as when Bob and family friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) track the gang to a seedy dentist’s office and Clive winds up as one of the few permanently maimed characters in the director’s body of work. The agony of the affable, rather dull-witted Clive is played, strangely, for comedy, though it’s the sort of joke only Abbott would find funny. When, with exquisite suggestiveness, the dentist later takes up an instrument to probe Bob’s mouth, the camera savors the hovering metal pick (foreshadowing the flash of the knife in 1960’s Psycho).
The Man Who Knew Too Much’s mere seventy-five-minute running time abounds in such flourishes: Betty’s kidnapping conveyed by an abrupt shot of the girl on a pile of furs in the back of a sleigh, as she’s whisked away at night like a fairy-tale princess under a spell; the passage of time as the mountains of St. Moritz dissolve to the towering neon lights of Piccadilly; the Lawrences’ deep connection expressed in a whisperingly intimate close-up of Jill on the phone with Betty as Bob tries to listen; the creepy, nearly all-female revival meeting where poor, wounded Clive is hypnotized, presided over by Oates’s nurse, who could replace the church’s statuary in a pinch. Weaving in again and again is Lorre, cigarette going and round eyes popping slightly, wielding a laugh that’s always a bad sign but even worse news when it switches off.
Just such a moment occurs before the greatest of the film’s set pieces, the immortal Albert Hall scene. At the church, where the gang is hiding out, Abbott abruptly stops chuckling over the tender reunion between Bob and Betty in order to play a record for the gang’s assassin and set up the exact point when the noise of the concert will cover the sound of a shot. And then there’s Jill, taking her seat at the hall so hurriedly that she’s still clutching her coat, looking up to the balcony and seeing Ramon’s gun protruding from the curtains. Back and forth Hitchcock moves between the chorus, the orchestra, the oblivious diplomat target, the gun, the gunman, the mother—and then to Abbott, back at the hideout. His confident planning, and his earlier barbed jokes about how easily he could kill father and child, render the suspense over how Jill will solve her dilemma even more potent and keep her thoughts almost visible: does she warn the gang’s target and perhaps doom Betty, or keep quiet and let the man die?
Contrary to Hitchcock’s famous dictum about showing an audience what will happen, the things unseen at the Albert Hall also turn up the suspense, such as when, in the pan of the balcony, shown from Jill’s point of view in her seat, the camera catches just the killer’s triangle of white shirt behind the curtain, glides back to Jill, and then on to the theater entrance—which is empty. And twice during this scene, Hitchcock drags us from the theater altogether, cutting to Abbott in his lair—the second time as, looking nothing so much as bored, he waves a forkful of food at an overeager henchman. With gestures like that one, Lorre merges the Continent and the underworld to create a unique breed of refined psychopath. His silkily evil performance dominates the film, and its traces can be seen all over later Hitchcock, from Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) to Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train (1951) to James Mason in North by Northwest.
Hitchcock had seen M and at first wanted Lorre to play the gang’s hit man. So in the spring of 1934, he cabled Paris, where Lorre and his longtime love Celia Lovsky were living in glum poverty. Back in Berlin, Lorre’s successful stage career had included notable roles for Bertolt Brecht, and the thunderbolt of M, released in 1931, gave the actor the greatest hit of his career. But less than two years later, as soon as Hitler became chancellor, Joseph Goebbels began putting restrictions on Jews in the film industry. By July of 1933, they had been banned from films altogether. Lorre, a Hungarian-born Jew, got out of Berlin early that year.
With Lovsky, he moved first to Vienna, then to Czechoslovakia, then finally to Paris, where even his excellent French couldn’t get him much more than small parts. At age thirty, his struggle with morphine addiction was already more than seven years old and had necessitated a recent and expensive “rest cure,” which ate up what little Lorre had earned so far in France. According to Stephen D. Youngkin’s biography The Lost One, when Lorre left for London to take up the first good movie role he’d been offered in many months, the actor had to borrow the cost of a ticket from his brother.
Needing the job as much as he did, Lorre tried to conceal the fact that his English was basically terrible. He later told interviewers that all he said to Hitchcock at first was “yes,” to avoid the explanations that “no” would require. This doesn’t appear to have worked—Charles Bennett said the filmmakers knew Lorre’s English was rough—but such was the impression the actor made that Hitchcock immediately decided to promote him to mastermind villain. Lorre claimed that he learned his lines phonetically, staying up late to translate the scenes into German and then go back over them in English. However he managed it, his voice in The Man Who Knew Too Much is already the one we know so well from Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon—breathy, nasal, the accent and languid delivery suggesting not merely sophistication but kinks no censor would ever permit on-screen.
The character of Abbott would become classic Hitchcock, one of those hyperintelligent, scaldingly witty evildoers who elevate even lesser films like Jamaica Inn (1939). But this villain is also made unique by Lorre’s ineffable mix of deviance and humanity. When the plot is foiled and the gang is cornered, the ensuing firefight offers Abbott a moment of warmth, and according to Youngkin, it wasn’t in the script. The one person for whom Abbott doesn’t exhibit unmitigated contempt is the woman he calls his nurse. She’s shot trying to bring ammunition to the room where Lorre and his last followers are holed up, and Abbott embraces her briefly before she slips to the floor. Then, in a gesture that says even more, he goes to the window and, slouching almost in full view of the police snipers firing from the street, shoots at the men below in the offhandedly cruel way a man might pick off squirrels from the safety of his front porch.
Nowadays, Hitchcock’s 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much remake is often judged the superior picture, largely for its darker tone and greater complexity, two qualities beloved by critics. The marriage is rockier and fraught with psychological conflict, the vacation setting more remote and dangerous, the boy’s peril and the mother’s dilemma considerably more emphasized. There are some of us, however, who stubbornly prefer the original, for its mordant wit, its overcast snowscapes and London nighttimes, its economy of plot and barreling momentum. And not even Hitchcock can keep us from mourning when confronted with a new villain in place of Peter Lorre.
Farran Smith Nehme writes about classic film at her blog, Self-Styled Siren. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Post, the New York Times, Barron’s, Cineaste, and Moving Image Source. She is the cofounder of an annual blogathon called For the Love of Film, which raises money for film preservation.