This review is of the earlier British version of the film. Simply stated, in my opinion, it’s the better film. No disrespect to Jimmy Stewart or Doris Day but the 1950s version is not even close to the original. Once again Hitchcock gives us a tale of everyday people colliding with the world of spies. In this story there is an international plot to assassinate a foreign leader. And an English couple who accidentally become entangled in it are forced to choose between stopping the killing or getting their kidnapped daughter back alive.
The film opens up in the Swiss Alps where Bob and Jill Lawrence along with their young daughter Betty are involved in some sporting competitions. Jill is a competing in a skeet shooting match and sometime during the games they have befriended a French downhill skier named Louis Bernard. After the competitions they all attend a dinner and dance party. During the party Louis is fatally shot but he manages to tell the Lawrences that he has a secret message that must be given to the British Consulate. Bob finds the message in Louis’ room but before he can inform the consulate he receives a message telling him to say nothing if he ever wants to see his daughter Betty alive again. She’s been kidnapped.
So that’s the setup. And it takes the rest of the movie for Bob and Jill to figure out the message and find the spies without the help of the police. In between there are homicidal dentists, sun-worshipping churches and classical music performances at the Albert Hall and most importantly there is Peter Lorre as Abbott. He will be the only actor familiar to American viewers and he is definitely the highlight of the movie. Of course, he’s the head villain and the most interesting character in the film. Being Peter Lorre, he is palpably creepy but at the same time not completely unsympathetic as a character. His dealings with the Lawrences are strangely cordial, almost friendly, as if it’s all just an unfortunate business situation and there are no hard feelings. And he can inject a touch of humor into the film such as in a scene where Abbott has left the hideout and gone down to the street to talk to the police. When the gang hears a police whistle blowing they suspect the worst has occurred. Hearing footsteps approaching they pull their guns. When Lorre opens the door, he sees the guns and he puts his hands up and smiles playfully at his gang as if to say, “Well, you’ve got me. Now what?” It’s just a throwaway moment but it does provide a human touch to the character and gives an extra dimension to the scene.
The climax of the film is a protracted gun battle between the London police force and the spy ring. Hitchcock really went to town with this scene and the bad guys start off with a fusillade of lead that seemed more appropriate in a World War II machine gun battle. The merry mayhem goes on for a good little while and forces the police to raid a hunting store to obtain high powered rifles to compete with the weaponry the bad guys are sporting. I guess Hitchcock can be seen here to be one of the fathers of the action film.
What I especially liked about this film is the way Hitchcock adds in the little touches that aren’t central to the plot. During the gun battle the English police officers commandeer the surrounding buildings and watching them interact with the tenants and order them around in their own homes was very interesting not because it advanced the story or included characters that would be seen again but because it was humanly interesting.
I like the British Hitchcock films because I think they’re more grounded in the real world that he came from. The common people seem a little more real than his later attempts at bystanders and incidental characters as if they were based on real individuals he had known. Hitchcock is known for his crime films and these mundane bits don’t seem to belong in that genre but to the contrary, I think it’s the mundane but authentic elements in a story that make it feel real and that gives it impact. Otherwise it becomes just fantasy. Well anyway that’s my opinion.