The Siren is pleased to announce that the Criterion Collection edition of Alfred Hitchcock's 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much has hit the street, and her essay on this marvelously compact tinker-toy of a film is up at their website. This Man has been languishing in murky public-domain editions that completely failed to do it justice; Criterion has made it sparkle again, the better to find new admirers. The Siren was tickled to death to be name-checked by the celebrated J. Hoberman in his review, but even more so was she pleased to find out that Hoberman, like her, prefers the original to the remake.
Here, a brief excerpt from the Criterion essay:
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.
The Siren used The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen D. Youngkin as a reference, and she reiterates her enthusiastic recommendation. It's a wonderfully complete resource on the actor's life and work. Since we were just discussing one of the films that Peter Lorre made with Sydney Greenstreet, from Youngkin's book here's a glimpse of this perfect team at work--sort of.
In their game of cat and mouse, Lorre did the stalking. When Greenstreet warned him he would cut off both his hands if he did not stop projecting himself into his scene, Lorre amiably checked, "Fine, then I'll play the scene with stumps and steal the whole show." Irving Yergin said thatt Lorre loved to tell of being on the set of The Conspirators (1944) with Sydney Greenstreet and Hedy Lamarr, who was wearing a low-cut dress. "Hey Sydney," he joked, "you're the only person on the set with a pair of tits." According to Lorre, production was held up for two hours while Greenstreet and Lamarr chased him around the set, no doubt fitting one reviewer's description of the actors as a "Pekingese and a great dane out for a romp." Lorre wrapped his take on one of his favorite stories with Jack Warner fining him ten thousand dollars for the day.