To keep a British couple from telling the police about an assassination plot, foreign spies kidnap their daughter.
I think ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ is a minor film still worth watching. This is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s early British thrillers. I would suggest seeing it in a double-bill with ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ to see how much Hitchcock had improved from one film to the next. ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ was made a year before, and can be seen almost as a rehearsal for that classic. Where ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ is light, breezy and appears effortless, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ is stilted, clunky and poorly-paced.
It suffers from several flaws, particularly its sound, which has the crackle and stop-start feeling common to early 1930s films. It also looks very cheap and is generally poorly acted. That said, however, it needs to be watched by anyone vaguely interested in Hitchcock’s career, because it has several sequences that demonstrate his wit and rather cruel sense of humour.
The story is the archetype of several of his thrillers: an innocent caught in a web of intrigue. Leslie Banks and Edna Best play the Lawrences, a married couple on holiday in the Swiss Alps, where their friend Pierre Fresnay is in the ski-jump, and Best competes in clay shooting (she loses to skilled marksman Frank Vosper, and he will return as a villain). At an apres-ski dance, Fresnay and Best get entwined in some knitting wool, and he gets shot at the exact moment that it snaps.
As he’s dying he tells her to find a secret note he has hidden in the handle of a hairbrush in his room (yes, I know, it’s an odd place to hide a note, but this is the McGuffin; it’s best not to question it, but simply go along). The note has some cryptic scribbles: a picture of the sun and something about A. Hall and Wapping. To make sure Banks and Best don’t tell the authorities about the note, the villains abduct their daughter, a rather annoying little girl played by a young actress called Nova Pilbeam (with a name like that, is it any wonder she never became a star?)
Back in London, it turns out that Fresnay “was one of our chaps at the Foreign Office”, and he had information about a planned assassination of a visiting European dignitary. A. Hall turns out to mean the Albert Hall, the sun is the symbol of an obscure religious sect in the East End. Who the villains are or what they hope to achieve is never fully explained; they’re creepy and vaguely middle-European, which was generally enough for a movie villain at the time.
They are headed by Peter Lorre, and that is almost enough to save the film. He gives the only memorable performance, simultaneously perverse and suave, and he is the only who seems to know he’s in a thriller. Everyone else behaves as if they’re in a drawing-room comedy or a music-hall. This is the sort of film where chaps in dinner jackets drink “a gin and French”, say things like “steady on, old girl”, cockneys make endless cups of tea for the police, and coppers say “well, what do you have to say for yourself?”
There are some wonderful moments, though. Two characters in a church singing secrets to each other in the middle of a hymn; a fight in which one man holds off several by throwing chairs about the place; a gunshot timed to the clash of cymbals of a symphony; a dentist put to sleep by his own gas.
Twenty years later, Hitchcock did a Hollywood remake of ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’, much longer, with James Stewart and Doris Day. I will defer to critic David Shipman’s assessment of both versions. Of the 1934 film, he wrote “a good basic idea, if sketchily developed, lightly handled.” Of the remake, “a good basic idea, if well-developed, heavily handled.”
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