“THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH” FILM FROM 1934: CHURCHILL HITCHCOCK AND THE 1911 SIDNEY STREET DISTURBANCES

April 17, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Posted in Art, Film, History, Philosophy, United Kingdom | Leave a comment

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The Man Who Knew Too Much Film from 1934:

Churchill, Hitchcock and the 1911 Sidney Street Disturbances

The Man Who Knew Too Much is a 1934 suspense film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, featuring Peter Lorre, and released by Gaumont British. It was one of the most successful and critically acclaimed films of Hitchcock’s British period.

Hitchcock remade the film with James Stewart and Doris Day in 1956 for Paramount Pictures; it’s the only film he ever remade. The two films are, however, very different in tone, in setting, and in many plot details

Synopsis

Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best), are a British couple on vacation in St. Moritz, Switzerland, with their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). Jill is participating in a clay pigeon shooting contest. They befriend a foreigner, Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay), who is staying in their hotel. One evening, as Jill dances with Louis, she witnesses his assassination as a French spy. Before dying, the spy passes on to them some vital information to be delivered to the British consul.

In order to ensure their silence, the assassins, led by a charming and nefarious Abbott (Peter Lorre), kidnap their daughter. Unable therefore to seek help from the police, the couple return to England and, after following a series of leads, discover that the group intends to assassinate a the Ambassador of an unidentified European country, during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Jill attends the concert and distracts the gunman with a scream.

The assassins are tracked to their hide-out in a suburban church. Bob enters and is held prisoner, but manages to escape. The police surround the building and a gunfight ensues, the assassins holding out until their ammunition runs low and most of them have been killed. Betty, who has been held there, and one of the criminals, are seen on the roof, and it is Jill’s sharpshooting skills that dispatch the man, who, it emerges, was the man who beat Jill in a shooting contest in Switzerland.

One of the assassins commits suicide rather than be captured, and Betty is returned to her parents.

Production

Peter Lorre was unable to speak English at the time of filming (a Jew, he had only recently fled from Nazi Germany) and learned his lines phonetically.[1]

The shoot-out at the end of the film was based on the Sidney Street Siege, a real-life incident which took place in London’s East End (where Hitchcock grew up) on 3 January 1911.[2][3][4] The shoot-out was not included in Hitchcock’s 1956 remake.[5]

Hitchcock hired Australian composer Arthur Benjamin to write a piece of music especially for the climactic scene at Royal Albert Hall. The music, known as the Storm Clouds cantata, is used in both the 1934 version and the 1956 remake.

Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appears 33 minutes into the film. He can be seen crossing the street from right to left in a black trench coat before they enter the Chapel.

The siege was the inspiration for the final shootout in Alfred Hitchcock‘s original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, although not his own 1956 remake.

The Siege of Sidney Street, popularly known as the “Battle of Stepney”, was a notorious gunfight in London’s East End on the 2nd of January 1911. Preceded by the Houndsditch Murders, it ended with the deaths of two members of a supposedly politically-motivated gang of burglars supposedly led by Peter Piatkow, a.k.a. “Peter the Painter“, and sparked a major political row over the involvement of the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill.

The siege was the inspiration for the final shootout in Alfred Hitchcock‘s original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, although not his own 1956 remake.

The Houndsditch murders

On 16 December 1910, a gang of Latvian thieves attempted to break into the rear of a jeweller’s shop at 119 Houndsditch, EC3, working from 9, 10 and 11 Exchange Buildings in the cul-de-sac behind. An adjacent shopkeeper heard their hammering, informed the City of London Police (in whose area the shop was), and nine unarmed officers — three sergeants and six constables (two in plain clothes) — converged on Exchange Buildings.

Sergeants Bentley and Bryant knocked at the door of No. 11 Exchange Buildings, unaware that the first constable on the scene had already done so, thus alerting the thieves. The gang’s leader, George Gardstein, opened the door, but when he did not answer their questions they assumed he did not understand English and told him to fetch someone who did. Gardstein left the door half-closed and disappeared.

The house consisted of a single ground-floor room, into which the front door directly opened, with a staircase leading to the upper floors on the left, and a door to the open yard at the back on the right. It was later deduced that Gardstein must have moved left towards the staircase, since if he had gone right and out of the yard door he would have been seen by one of the plain-clothed officers standing outside, who had a clear view of that side of the room.

Growing impatient, the two sergeants entered the house to find the room apparently empty, before they became aware of a man standing in the darkness at the top of the stairs. After a short conversation, another man entered through the yard door, rapidly firing a pistol, while the man on the stairs also started shooting.

Both officers were hit, with Bentley collapsing across the doorstep, while Bryant managed to stagger outside. In the street, Constable Woodhams ran to help Bentley, but was himself wounded by one of the gang firing from the cover of the house, as was Sergeant Tucker, who died almost instantly.

The gang then attempted to break out of the cul-de-sac, Gardstein being grabbed by Constable Choate almost at the entrance. In the struggle Choate was wounded several times by Gardstein, before being shot five more times by other members of the gang, who also managed to hit their compatriot in the back. They then dragged Gardstein ¾ of a mile to 59 Grove Street, where he died the next day. Constable Choate and Sergeant Bentley died in separate hospitals the same day. An intense search followed, and a number of the gang or their associates were soon arrested.

The Siege of Sidney Street

On 2 January 1911, an informant told police that two or three of the gang, possibly including Peter the Painter himself, were hiding at 100 Sidney Street, Stepney (in the Metropolitan Police District). Worried that the suspects were about to flee, and expecting heavy resistance to any attempt at capture, on 3 January, two hundred officers cordoned off the area and the siege began. At dawn the battle commenced.

The defenders, though heavily outnumbered, possessed superior weapons and great stores of ammunition. The Tower of London was called for backup, and word got to the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, who arrived on the spot to observe the incident at first hand, and to offer advice. Churchill authorised calling in a detachment of Scots Guards to assist the police. Six hours into the battle, and just as the field artillery piece that Churchill had authorised arrived, a fire began to consume the building. When the fire brigade arrived, Churchill refused them access to the building. The police stood ready, guns aimed at the front door, waiting for the men inside to attempt their escape. The door never opened. Instead, the remains of two members of the gang, Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow (both were also known by numerous aliases), were later discovered inside the building. No sign of Peter the Painter was found.[1]

Aftermath

All the fatal shots in what became known as the “Houndsditch Murders” came from the same Dreyse pistol belonging to Jacob Peters, but as he had left it with the mortally wounded Gardstein to be found by the police, it was assumed to be his and that he was the killer. This was despite the fact that Gardstein had completely different calibre ammunition for a Mauser C96 pistol both on him when he died and in his lodgings, but none at all for the Dreyse. Gardstein’s “guilt” was further compounded by the mistaken belief that it was Gardstein who had opened fire at 11 Exchange Buildings from the yard door, on the grounds that it was he who had opened the front door to the police shortly before they were shot.

Of seven supposed members of the gang captured by the police, five men — including Peters — and two women were put on trial, but they all either had their charges dropped, were acquitted, or had their convictions quashed. Peters later returned home, and after the October Revolution served as deputy head of the Cheka. He perished during the Great Purge in 1938.

The role Churchill played in the Sidney Street Siege was highly controversial at the time, and many, including Arthur Balfour, the former prime minister, accused him of having acted improperly. A famous photograph from the time shows Churchill peering around a corner to view events. Balfour asked, “He [Churchill] and a photographer were both risking valuable lives. I understand what the photographer was doing but what was the Right Honourable gentleman doing?”

The gang’s superior firepower led the police to drop the Webley Revolver in favour of the Webley semi-automatic in London.

On film

Much of the siege was captured by newsreel cameras, including the moment a bullet passed through Mr Churchill’s top hat, coming within inches of killing him. This footage was later shown at the Palace Theatre, London, under the billing, “Mr Churchill in the danger zone”

The siege was the inspiration for the final shootout in Alfred Hitchcock‘s original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, although not his own 1956 remake. The events were depicted directly in the 1960 film The Siege of Sidney Street.[2]

In popular culture

The siege was parodied by the Goon Show in the episode The Six Ingots of Leadenhall Street.,[3][4] A bullet was supposedly fired which passed through Churchill’s hat, though this has been dismissed by historians.

The events were portrayed fictionally in the Sherlock Holmes pastiche Sherlock Holmes and the Railway Maniac by Barrie Roberts.

References

  1. 1.                              Siege of Sidney Street — 1911 (Metropolitan Police history) accessed 4 Feb 2008
  2. 2.                              The Siege of Sidney Street (1960) at the Internet Movie Database
  3. 3.                              http://www.thegoonshow.net/scripts_show.asp?title=s05e23_the_six_ingots_of_leadenhall_street
  4. 4.                              http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0072vdz

The Man Who Knew Too Much Film from 1934:

Churchill, Hitchcock and the 1911 Sidney Street Disturbances

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