The Man We Knew When

Vince Keenan

I don’t know what it is with some directors that they like to remake their own films. Cecil B. DeMille remade The Ten Commandments, for instance. Granted, one version was silent and one had sound, but they were still basically the same film. And of course, there’s George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but they’re more like tweakers. Hitchcock also hopped on the remake bandwagon when he remade The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956, but his 1934 film is what we’re going to look at today.

The movie opens on a table covered in brochures, and after a pair of male hands pulls up several centered around Switzerland, they finally settle on one for a resort in Griesalp. Then we see a crowd of spectators watching a ski-jump competition. One of them, a teenage girl named Betty (Nova Pilbeam), holds a dachshund who escapes into the path of the jumpers. She runs out to grab her and Louis (Pierre Fresnay), the current jumper crashes into Abbott (Peter Lorre) a German in a fur coat. He’s not a bit hurt, and very understanding. The woman he’s with is more worried than he is. Betty and her dad, Bob (Leslie Banks) apologize to Louis, who’s an affable sort, and they all troop up to the lodge to where Bob’s wife, Jill (Edna Best) is competing in a skeet-shooting contest.Louis has asked the family to dinner.


Jill loses the contest to Ramon (Frank Vosper) and in a bit of light banter, goes off with Louis. She’s still with him at dinnertime, when the two of them are cutting a rug. Meanwhile, Bob and Betty sit at a table watching them. Bob is visibly bored until he takes the yarn from Betty’s knitting project and ties it to Louis’s coat button. They watch, fascinated as the yarn slowly unravels and all the dancers get tangled. Abbott is there as well, and he giggles while he observes the spectacle.

Someone literally points out that it’s tied to Louis’s button when a shot is heard breaking glass. Louis’s shirt is red with blood right over his heart, and all he has time to say before collapsing is, “Oh.” As he sinks to the floor, he presses a key and a note into Jill’s hand and tells her that there’s something hidden in his shaving brush, and that she should give it either to the British consulate or to someone named Gibson. “Don’t breathe a word to anyone,” he gasps, right before he dies.


Bob and Jill are mystified. Bob sneaks into Louis’s room and starts puttering around. The hotel concierge staff comes up to the door and asks him in French and Italian (!) to open the door. He unscrews the shaving brush handle to find a note reading, “Wapping. G. Harbor make contact A. Hall. March 21st,” and there’s a rising sun drawn on the top. The guy goes out into the hallway to find Ramon staring at him. Ramon asks Bob to hand over whatever he found right as the hotel staff arrive with police.

Bob gets pulled into the manager’s office, where he asks to contact the British consulate, but the Swiss officer shrugs. Then Bob gets a note, which he shows to Jill: “Say nothing of what you found, or you will never see your child again.” Jill faints, and the note falls into the fireplace.


Meanwhile, Betty is headed off in a sleigh with Ramon.

Bob and Jill go back to England, where they get Scotland Yard involved. For some reason Bob pretends Betty is staying with her aunt on the Continent, but the detectives can tell he’s holding something back. Bob sees them all out, but one of them, Gibson (George Curzon), stays behind. He tells Bob and Jill that Louis knew of a plot to assassinate a foreign diplomat named Roper, and he needs to know what was on the paper Bob found in the shaving brush. Jill and Bob are scared to death, because they’re afraid that if they confess, something will happen to Betty.

While they’re still standing there talking, Betty’s captors call, and they let Betty talk to Bob and Jill. Betty is being taken care of, but she wants to come home. Jill carefully asks where she is, and the phone goes dead. Fortunately, the call was traced, and Gibson finds out it came from Wapping. He asks Bob and Jill if that name means something, and they say no. Gibson leaves, but not before he tells the Lawrences that anything happening because of them not talking will be on their conscience.


Bob and the Lawrences’ butler, Clive (Hugh Wakefield) immediately head to Wapping. The end up at someplace called Tabernacle of the Sun, and lo and behold, it has the identical symbol as the one on the note. Inside, a bunch of women are singing hymns…to the sun. Bob sees one woman giving him the evil eye, and pretends to be singing along, but he’s really telling Clive there’s trouble coming.

Once the hymn is over, the woman who was with Abbott at the ski resort gets up and starts talking about the League of the Golden Ray. She knows Bob and Clive have infiltrated, and she wants them to submit to some kind of initiation. Clive gets up and hesitatingly walks to the front of the room while Bob tries to keep from laughing. The woman, who looks like death warmed over, hypnotizes Clive with a small mirror and asks everyone who’s not a member of the Fourth Circle to leave. Whatever that means. Bob tries to leave too, but the organist presses a gun to his side and locks him in.


Abbott and Ramon both show up and it turns out that the cult is just a front for their crime ring. Bob asks if his daughter is ready, and the organist says that she’s asleep. Bob starts throwing chairs at people. They throw them back, and in the midst of the epic chair fight, the organist starts playing to muffle the sound. Bob glances at a ticket in someone’s coat pocket for a concert at Royal Albert Hall, the same one Roper’s supposed to be at. He throws a chair at Clive to wake him up, and tells him to call Jill and tell her to get down to the Royal Albert Hall.

Jill, like any good mama bear, rushes down there, of course, and therein lies the climax. Meanwhile, her husband and daughter are in the clutches of chortle-y Abbott and the sun-cult woman. Will Jill foil the plot and see Bob and Betty again?


I ended up laughing at parts besides the chair fight that were supposed to be serious, like in Switzerland, when Ramon asks Bob for whatever he found–he literally says “Hand it over, ” and then walks a few feet away, where he stands glowering at the scene. Somehow I don’t think Hitch was going for comedy there.

There are other flaws, too. Speaking of comedy, Peter Lorre wasn’t nearly as menacing as he could have been in his role of criminal mastermind–his giggling dilutes his scariness. And unfortunately, Bob and Ramon look very much alike, except that Ramon’s face is broader, but other than that, they could be brothers. Or cousins, at least. It could have been the fault of my fuzzy public domain copy of the film, but who knows. Either way, there were definitely elements that could have come off differently.


Obviously, Hitchcock thought so, too. He said The Man Who Knew Too Much was the work of a gifted amateur, and compared to his later movies, it definitely was. Still, it’s another memorable glimpse of Hitchcock’s directorial salad days.

As usual, Maddy has more Hitch for you at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Thanks for bringing back this premiere director, Maddy–let’s do this again next year! Thanks for reading, all, and see you on Friday with another dose of Shame. 😉

This film is available on Amazon.

5 thoughts on “The Man We Knew When

  1. Great write up, Rebecca. I like this film quite a bit (and it’s always wonderful to see Peter Lorre), but I much prefer the 1956 remake. I think Hitchcock’s own opinion of this film is correct, but it is a good film in any case.

    If I am able to host this again next year I certainly will do. Thanks again for being a part of this blogathon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m in the camp (if there is a camp, which I’m sure there is) who enjoys this film more than the 1956 version of the story. 1934 zips by and 1956 feels a long longer than its 2 hours runtime to me. I appreciate the setting and some of the more interesting set pieces, but the drugging of the mother leaves me troubled.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Really? I mean about the 1934 version being better. It’s definitely not terrible. I’m not sure which camp I’m in, though–I don’t remember the 1956 movie at all. Just little bits.


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