Not to be confused with the tiresome 1955 Hollywood remake (best remembered for introducing Doris Day’s mind-numbing hit “Che Sera Sera”), the original and superbly economical “Man” set the comic sardonic tone for Hitchcock’s British thrillers. It’s also my favorite, even better than “Sabotage”—a crazy near-slapstick gleeful dark comedy that ends with a wild shoot-out and racks up a fairly outrageous body count. (Hitchcock was truly the Quentin Tarantino of 1935.)
When “The Man Who Knew Too Much” opened in New York on March 31, 1935, the New York Times called it “the raciest melodrama of the year.” The movie packs plenty into 75 minutes—the classic Albert Hall assassination scene, a startling visual trope involving an unraveling sweater in another murder, not to mention a prescient instance of dental horror, a cold-blooded kidnapping, the trashing of a church, and an anarchist terror cult lead by the great Peter Lorre who, a new-minted refugee from Nazi Germany, evidently learned English on the set and pushes the movie’s irrationality towards the surreal. Hitchcock could not believe his luck. Not the nominal leads but third-billed Lorre–his face a composite of Frankenstein scar, dangling cigarette and alarming gray-streaked comb-over–was emblazoned on the movie’s poster. The New York Times waxed poetic: Lorre was “a poet of the damned,” “as malignant a flower of evil as the screen has produced.”
Bizarrely named “Abbott,” Lorre’s sauntering little sociopathic tough-guy is at once scarific and, in his giggly devotion to his basilisk-eyed “nurse,” almost lovable. An actor who trained with Brecht and was reviewed by Walter Benjamin, Lorre would disparagingly refer to his movie career as a matter of “making faces.” He does that too. (His crooked teeth and over-enthusiastic impish smile remind me of the late S. Clay Wilson’s Checkered Demon.) In her witty and informative notes, Farran Smith Nehme calls Lorre’s 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.” He also preys on the mind.