While the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much was a big, two-hour, star-studded (James Stewart in his third of four collaborations with Hitchcock, and Dorris Day in her ill-fated first) color spectacle, the 1934 original (both of these movies were directed by Hitchcock) is a peaceful, swift 75 minute adventure. How can it be both peaceful and swift? Its brief running time, for one, keeps things going at a brisk pace. There aren't a great many scenes in the movie, but they all contribute in some way to the development of the plot. Not one of them is wasted or extraneous. And yet perhaps the most striking thing about the movie is that while it moves fast, it lacks urgency. And this is a surprising thing, because it tells the kind of story that typically, especially nowadays, is handled with great intensity. When dealing with the kidnapping of a child, it's almost as if movies see it as a responsibility to tell the story with as much realism as possible if for nothing else than to respect the tension that parents endure when this actually happens in real life. The obvious examples most recently would be Gone Baby Gone and Prisoners.
And yet, Hitchcock's film takes an almost blasé approach to the matter of Bob and Jill Lawrence trying to track down their kidnapped daughter while on vacation in Switzerland. This almost indifferent attitude starts actually before the kidnapping when a man is shot while dancing with Jill. We hear the gun blast through the window, but its really more of a pop, so quiet that we're not quite sure that it even was a gun shot. Hitchcock then cuts to a medium shot of Jill and the man, who calmly puts his hand to his chest and mutters "oh," and we realize that the shot was real and that this man has been hit. Its a crucial murder because he has information about a secret political assassination plot, and yet Hitchcock shoots it as if merely shrugging at the matter.
Later, when Bob and Jill are working with the British government to recover their kidnapped daughter (because the man had told Jill about the imminent assassination just before dying, the terrorist group is using the daughter as a safety-net for their plan), they're essentially told that the life of the British leader is more important than that of their child. "The last time there was a political assassination, this country went to war," they're told, and are essentially left alone to track down their daughter. And to make it clear, it's not that they're not concerned about finding her, but rather it's that Hitchcock doesn't treat it as a matter of great importance. Or, to phrase it differently, he doesn't seem like he's trying to produce a thriller. And yet because he's also not really concerned with making this dramatically compelling, the low-key approach comes across as somewhat inexplicable.
Frankly, it makes for a dull movie. This is not to say that a film needs bombast to be exciting, but it does need some ingenuity and a sense of craft, which this film lacks. While the assassination sequence is nicely staged, there are other scenes, like a clumsy chair fight and the climactic gun battle, that are just plain boring.
The typical response to this is that Hitchcock, in 1934, was inexperienced and still mastering his craft. This is certainly true, and Hitchcock even acknowledges that as an incentive for remaking it in 1956, when he was at the peak of his powers. What I find interesting though is why Hitchcock handles all the movie's big, exciting moments with such nonchalance. Watch the gun battle and the way Hitchcock shoots it with a kind of banality, suggesting he's really not into it. He opts for no music during this scene, which generally indicates a director is after a kind of intense realism. Hitchcock may be looking for realism, but the result is anything but intense. Even Peter Lorre, who plays the main villain, has a cool ease as he engages in the shootout with the police. And when characters are shot, they react much like the man at the beginning, stunned rather than wounded. Either Hitchcock simply had no idea how to create tension, or he was experimenting. I like how quiet and economical the whole thing is, but I'm torn between whether this is just an amateurish production or whether its relaxed state was something intentional.