The film begins with establishing shots of mountain scenery and downhill skiing. It's 1934, and we are in St. Moritz, Switzerland, an alpine resort town the English upper classes have only recently been persuaded is as attractive in winter as it is in summer. The Lawrence family has come for the fresh mountain air and alpine sports. Mommy is a crack sharpshooter (for sport only, at least at first). Not sure what Daddy does; perhaps he's living off family money back in London. And Betty, their rambunctious daughter, has a knack for getting into hot water.
We are talking, of course, of Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, an espionage thriller set in St. Moritz and London. Soon, we are in the dining room of what is clearly a five-star hotel, complete with large orchestra and couples gliding on the dance floor. A bullet flies through a window, killing one of the guests. And that's when the fun begins.
Everything was filmed in a London studio, but Hitch was probably inspired by Badrutt's Palace, to this day one of St. Moritz's five five-star hotels, all synonymous with the best of Swiss hospitality. Long before I knew where Hitchcock set his masterpiece, I knew I wanted to visit this chic place. And now, here I was.
Alpine winter tourism began in St. Moritz and then quickly spread to other Swiss mountain resorts. Johannes Badrutt, then the owner of the still-extant Hotel Kulm, made a bet with four of his clients at the close of the 1864 summer season: Leave chilly and foggy London this winter to get a suntan on my terrace in your shirtsleeves; if you're unhappy, I'll reimburse your travel costs from London to St. Moritz and back. But if you like St. Moritz in winter? Stay as long as you like, on me. They stayed until Easter. Winter tourism in the Swiss Alps became a thing.
Hitchcock first went to St. Moritz in 1924 and returned two years later for his December honeymoon with Alma Reville, staying at Badrutt's Palace Hotel (these days, locals call it just "the Palace"). Hitch professed no fascination with skiing or sledding, however, having remarked, "I am a devotee of winter sports from a distance." But he returned time and again for Christmas holidays and to celebrate his anniversary. "I just like sitting in my hotel room and looking at the snow," he once told an interviewer.
As I write this, I'm doing the same thing. I'm staying at the smaller and more intimate, but no less luxurious, Hotel Carlton, but my view of the snow-covered mountains on this snowy day in early February is probably the same one that entertained the famous director. I type, I look out the window; I type, I look out the window. It's distracting, but isn't distraction part of the magic of the Swiss Alps in winter?
I'm certain much has changed in St. Moritz since Hitch's day, but equally sure much hasn't. Tradition rules here. One emblematic indication: My room key at the Carlton consists of a heavy brass fob that looks like it was forged in 1913, the year the hotel was built, and to which is attached an electronic key. They could have just gone with a plastic key card, but that wouldn't be Swiss. General manager Dominic Bachofen greets each guest individually upon arrival, whether movie star or first-timer like me, as a host would to his own home. Indeed, he lives in one of the 61 rooms. "Guests," he told me one day, "have been known to knock on my door if they have a problem."
Exactly what there is to complain about I didn't discover. There's a high-tech lighting system and electronically controlled sunshades and speedy WiFi throughout, along with plentiful electrical sockets and bright, LED bedside reading lamps.
All rooms have the same gorgeous view, facing south to the mountains, so when the snow ended, I sat on my balcony and enjoyed the sunshine Badrutt was so proud of.
And although I spent much of my stay gazing out the window at the snow-covered mountains, I also got a splendid massage in the hotel spa, ate some delicious meals in the Michelin-starred restaurant, sipped Swiss wines on the sun terrace, and hung out in the ornate lobby reading a Georges Simenon whodunit, watching guests come and go. Hitch would have approved. And one afternoon, I watched The Man Who Knew Too Much on my iPad. I won't tell you how it ends.