Week 16: ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ – 1934

With ‘The Lodger’ Hitchcock showed some serious early promise for the calibre of movie he would go onto make and with ‘Blackmail’ this went even further. But it is with ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ that he completely found his feet and started on a string of astonishing, imaginative and creatively successful films that would go through the bulk of the rest of his career.

The start of the picture leads you into the location admirably as we see a bunch of travel brochures laid out onscreen, eventually focussing on one – giving us the location of the movie: Griesalp, San Moritz, Switzerland.

The story involves the kidnapping of a child and the threat of her death if the parents (Bob and Jill Lawrence, played by Leslie Banks and Edna Best) do not keep schtum about an upcoming political assassination that they have been tipped off about during the last gasps of an assassinated spy (Louis Bernard portrayed by Pierre Fresney). The parents decide to take things into their own hands and seek out the kidnappers themselves, finally rescuing the child and thwarting the killing.

Peter Lorre, as the main villain Abbott, appears right near the start of the film, just following a near disastrous ski jump – so he’s already familiar to Bob and Jill. Very useful, by the way, that Jill is a contestant in the shooting competition and is set for a possible victory – comes in handy when you have to take out a kidnapper under pressure (this is a bit convenient, truth be told). They all seem very sporting considering Betty (the daughter, played by Nova Pilbeam) ruins both the skier’s last jump and then Jill’s clay pigeon shot – very understanding and patient. I’d have sat her on the naughty step for the rest of the holiday, the brat.

The assassination of Louis Bernard in the early dance scene is wonderfully understated – him dancing with Jill, a great humorous bit of business with an unravelling piece of her knitting, and just when you’re enjoying that a fast cut to a bullet being shot through a pane of glass and bang! we’re off. He slumps to his knees and just has enough time to impart the location of a hidden message revealing a clue to the upcoming political assasination. Fantastic, fast, economical and intriguing.

Bob hunts and finds the hidden message: Wapping. G. Barbor make contact A. Hall March 21st, with a sunrise motif at the top of the paper. But the parents are soon hit with another missive: Say nothing of what you found or you will never see your child again. Mum promptly faints at this news, Hitchcock uses a spinning camera technique to suggest her imminent collapse.

There are so many instances of this kind of Hitchcockian inventiveness throughout the film it’s difficult to know where to start – he really has a great time of it throughout. The genuinely creepy church service scene, (‘The Tabernacle of the Sun’ is where Bob and Clive have tracked the baddies to), where Bob changes hymn lyrics to communicate messages to his fellow amateur detective Clive, played by Hugh Wakefield (‘Clive, Clive, Clive – that woman at the end..’).

Clive is then hypnotised and rendered useless. The ensuing fight scene is absolutely superb – chairs being flung around as Clive slumps in his hypno state – the organ music an incongruous backdrop to the furore.

It’s massively destructive, pretty much every bit of furniture being utilized to bash each other about, Bob struggling with the assassin and spying the Albert Hall ticket, Clive eventually coming to, jumping out the window to warn the cops. The action-packed police/villains shootout at the end sees the director clearly relishing having a vehicle in which to really stretch his creativity – and, moreso than any other film he has made to this point, it all comes together extremely well. What a relief to being trapped in the too-tight corsetry of Vienna…

Peter Lorre gives his usual weasly and cunning performance as Abbott, the ringleader of the tormenting kidnappers – all scarred face and curious skunk haircut.

Apparently Lorre had to learn his lines phonetically as he did not speak English at the time but even so, he is still convincing and chews sufficient scenery to make you believe his lethal intentions are genuine. His performance presages later highlights in his admirable career in such stone cold classics as ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘Casablanca’. His full on laughing as the kidnapper’s housekeeper (do kidnappers really have housekeepers?) is humiliated by stripping her legs naked so she cannot leave is completely convincing, and especially malicious.

He stares directly to camera just following the Tabernacle fight scene, and punches the dad full on – I wouldn’t want to come face to chest with this small-man-complexed individual.

I can’t think of anyone who relishes a dentist scene and there’s a pretty good one here, the sinister dentist prodding around in Bob’s mouth. His prodding and probing extends from the mouth to a gentle interrogation of who Bob actually is – before sussing the truth and attempting to gas him into oblivion, Bob turning the tables and rendering the dentist unconscious (good riddance to that dental psycho I say).

The scene is nicely restrained and resists the urge to plaster music everywhere (in some respects it reminds me of the extended – and traumatic – killing scene in ‘Torn Curtain’ thirty odd years later).

The tension built up towards the climactic orchestral scene is superb, cross cutting between Jill and the audience, the orchestra and chorus building in intensity as does the excitement. The gunshot is to take place at the exact moment of a massive cymbal crash – the assassin having rehearsed earlier by listening to a recording of the music. Jill looks everywhere for the assassin and eventually a long barrelled pistol emerges from behind a curtain. The tension is palpable and you can’t think what she is going to do to try to stop the inevitable. The percussion instruments and the fatal cymbals are readied – CUT: and her scream is heard by the villains in their hideout via radio…have they succeeded?

The aforementioned climactic siege on the villains’ hideout by umpteen policemen and mad amounts of shooting is as fantastically full on as the destructive chair fight in the Tabernacle. It’s reminiscent of a final shootout in a western – ‘Rio Bravo’ or John Carpenter’s western update ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ – those undersiege running low on ammo and their fate becoming more and more sealed. With the daughter on the roof, big baddie edging ever closer, mum’s crack shooting comes into its own as she grabs a rifle – it’s a bit clunky as she doesn’t seem to particularly aim it – but it does the job as she takes him out with one shot.

‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ is one of those rare cases where a director has gone on to remake one of his own films*, in 1956 reworking the story into a vehicle for James Stewart and Doris Day. In truth, neither version is top drawer fantastic and wouldn’t rank in my top 10 list of Hitchcock movies but, at the same time, they are both very much worth watching and offer the chance to compare climactic scenes shot 22 years apart.

The ending is pretty sudden (as we will see in many of the later movies) – it’s as if  as soon as the plot is over Hitch wants to get out of there and close the picture. All in all, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ is sharp, inventive, exciting and very well put together. And you can see the whole thing for free: http://www.archive.org/details/the_man_who_knew_too_much

Miscellaneous notes

*other examples of directors remaking their own movies include Michael Haneke’s reworking of  ‘Funny Games’ as an English language feature ten years after the original, Cecil B. De Mille’s two versions of ‘The Ten Commandments’, Robert Rodriguez’ ‘El Mariachi’ remade as ‘Desperado’ once he had pocketfuls of cash – and the recent announcement by David Cronenberg that he is to remake his 1980’s horror-fest ‘The Fly’ (as director or writer TBC, but wow…)

Interesting that Alfred Junge is the Art Director on the picture – his work with Powell and Pressburger solidified his reputation in later years.


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