It’s week 16 at Weekly Hitch, a film-type blog where I watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies in chronological order, no matter what they are, and then I talk about them and tell people what I think. You’re people.
This week Hitchcock turns a corner and we turn it with him as I watch 1934’s classic, exciting, and only slightly flawed thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. So read on, and see how much he knew!
A triumphant return to both form and popular success for Hitchcock, The Man Who Knew Too Much reunited the director with his first producer, Michael Balcon and early supporter Ivor Monatague, and truly serves as both a homecoming for Hitch’s talent and artistic energy – and as the beginning of a whole new chapter for the director.
Beginning in Switzerland, vacationing couple Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are attending a skiing and trap-shooting competition when Bob and daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) make friends with Louis (Pierre Fresnay) who is a mysterious French fellow. Also in attendance are Ramon (Frank Vosper), who beats Jill at the clay-pigeon shooting (Jill is a crack sharp-shooter it seems), and a curious foreign fellow named Abbot (Peter Lorre – in his English film debut).
With all these players quickly put in place within the first five minutes, the film moves to a dinner and dance, where Jill and Louis dance together – her teasing her husband about finding a new man (it’s all very charming screwball comedy stuff) and Bill retaliating by tying a ball of yarn to Louis’ jacket. Everyone is having a grand time, dancing and laughing, and then – in the midst of this light comedy – a quiet pop is heard, and Louis – the Frenchman – is shot in the heart, dead!
With his dying words, Louis tells the stunned Jill that he is a secret agent and there is vital information that can prevent an assassination hidden in his room. Husband Bill sends their daughter to bed as he hurries to Louis’ room and retrieves a cryptic message on a piece of paper just in time to be found by the hotel security and Ramon, who demands to have the paper. But it’s too late, Bill and Jill are taken in for questioning and the people who killed Louis know they have the information. So the villains have only one choice, while Bill and Jill are being questioned by the police, they kidnap young Betty!
After being told that their daughter has been taken and that the killers will kill her if they tell anyone what they know about the information found in Louis’ room, Bill and Jill decide to head back to London and hope things turn out – both distraught and upset, and very much out of their depth.
Back in London, Bill is visited by the local police and a gentleman from the Foreign Office who finds it very odd that they have returned without their daughter. The Foreign Office man tells Bill that Louis was one of his spies and that the information he had could stop a very important dignitary from being killed, but Bill is determined to keep his daughter safe – and knows the only way to ensure that is to keep his mouth shut.
Interestingly, the Foreign Office man tries to convince Bill to help out by alluding to the shooting of arch duke Franz Ferdinand – which set off the first world war, and that allusion underpins everything in The Man Who Knew Too Much. It seems that writers Hitchcock and Bennet were keenly aware that Hitler’s rise to power in Germany was injecting a new tension in the world.
Anyway, Bill shakes the Foreign man and then decides with family friend, Clive (Hugh Wakefield – in a charmingly “Watson from Sherlock Holmes-esque” role) that he will chase down the clues left behind by the dead Frenchman and find his daughter himself!
With Jill left at home to mind the phones (which plays in later), Bill and Clive head to the first clue – a dentist in Wapping, where Bill finds all the evil players – including Ramon the assassin, and Peter Lorre’s Abbott. Soon, Bill has a fight with the dentist (who is in on it) and then he and Clive are off to the next clue – a church of weird cult sun-worshippers where everything goes off!
At the church the two men are discovered and a fight breaks out which results in Bill being captured, and Clive escaping with the knowledge that the assassination is taking place that very night during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Clive rushes to go tell Jill via phone and to get the police.
Meanwhile, Bill is taken to the assassin’s hide-out where he is momentarily reunited with his daughter (Nova Pilbeam is especially great in this scene – actually in all her scenes) and then discovers that the fatal shot is to be taken during a loud piece of music – which Hitch cleverly plays for us so we know just what to anticipate.
Soon Jill is on her way to the concert and as we wait for the fatal moment she worries about whether or not she can risk her daughter’s life to save one man and possibly stop a war. As the tension builds, Jill sees a gun peer out of a curtain and she screams as the final moment comes. The shot is fired and the dignitary goes down.
Back at the hideout, the villains learn that the scream distracted Ramon – and the dignitary suffered only a flesh wound! Soon the police are on the way and a siege takes place – with the baddies firing at the cops and the cops shooting right back.
In amongst the shoot out (based on a famous gun fight in London) we see several police officers go down, and Jill arrives to worry about her family. And back inside Bill struggles to get Betty outside. Betty escapes to the roof, but Ramon shoots Bill and chases after her – and there not he rooftop Betty faces a killer… but down below her mother grabs a policeman’s rifle (which is a bit silly) and shoots Ramon dead. Betty is rescued, and inside the hide out, Peter Lorre commits suicide. The day is saved.
As much as I liked Waltzes From Vienna and other Hitchcock dramas like The Manxman, the fact remains that when it comes to pure, recognizable Hitchcock films – The Man Who Knew Too Much is possibly the first, and it’s also the best so far.
A brilliant combination of action, thrills, screwball comedy, melodrama, and suspense – The Man Who Knew Too Much is Hitch’s most cohesive film to-date, by far. It is the culmination of eight years of missteps and accidental success – it’s thrilling and clever and seriously, truly fantastic.
Buoyed by great performances from Nova Pilbeam (then just 14 years old) and Peter Lorre (in his first English role), and a great, episodic structure (thanks to writer Charles Bennet) the film takes the viewers from the Swiss Alps to the back streets of London to the Royal Albert Hall (last used by Hitch in The Ring). It’s the most classic of classical Hitchcock films.
I was lucky enough to watch a film print of this movie with an audience about a month ago before watching it for this piece, and it’s such a pleasure to see an audience reacting and enjoying the film some 80 years later. And I think the reason it holds up so well is that Hitchcock has tapped into some very primal and basic storytelling techniques, and a method of laying out a film that Hitch would return to again and again.
Cleverly starting out with all the tropes and clever wordplay of a screwball comedy; a married couple on vacation, a suave Frenchman who might be an interloper, bouncy dialogue, a distant location – it’s all very light and frothy… and then Hitchcock does something brilliant. He turns the world on its head with one shot.
Much like he would do later in Psycho, Hitch uses a death to violently shift gears in his film – only, in the case of The Man Who Knew Too Much the film goes from comedy to spy-thriller, and does it brilliantly. Some would argue that a few of the bigger moments are perhaps underplayed – Louis’ death is very subtle, as is the final shot that Jill takes to save her daughter, and the shot in the Albert Hall… but again, the fact that Hitch underplays the gunfire just serves to put his focus more on the results and the people and less on the violence.
In the end, what works so well about this movie is the synthesis of everything Hitch had learned and tried before. Hitchcock has gone through so much trial and error, that now – given the chance to put it all together – he does so almost perfectly, and the result was a hit for Hitchcock. Upon release, The Man Who Knew Too Much was given almost universal praise. The film was credited with reviving the British melodrama, and breathing new life into cinema. Hitchcock’s flare for combining German technique with mass-appeal had finally hit home, and this success more than perhaps any other would go on to shape cinema for the next 30 years.
The Man Who Knew Too Much has its roots in the “lowest ebb” of Hitchcock’s career, during his time at British International Pictures. Stifled by the work he was being assigned, and unable to convince Walter Mycroft to give him better material, Hitchcock began to spend more time developing his own ideas and adaptations.
One of these ideas was born long ago during Hitch and Alma’s honeymoon in the Swiss Alps, a place they both loved and would return to time and time again. Hitch decided to use the exotic location as a launching point for a different, more exciting kind of thriller. He recruited Charles Bennet, whose play was adapted as Hitchcock’s Blackmail a few years earlier, to join him in writing the scenario – and then discovered that British International Pictures owned the rights to a popular series of novels featuring “Bulldog Drummond”.
Drummond was a fictional ‘gentleman adventurer’ – a first world war vet who would find himself in various scrapes and troubles, often involving a kidnapped wife or friend, a sort of proto-James Bond. Hitchcock and Bennet decided to take the Bulldog Drummond character and create a new story called “Bulldog Drummond’s Baby.” The plot of the movie surrounded Drummond and his wife visiting the Alps, only to become involved in an assassination plot – which then leads to their baby being kidnapped to keep him quiet.
But of course, once Mycroft and Maxwell learned that Hitchcock was interested in the project, they decided not to make it. Hitch went on to make Number 17, was released from his contract and then while directing Waltzes From Vienna, he reconnected with his old friend and boss Michael Balcon. Balcon, now running Gaumont-British (who were distributing Waltzes), asked hitch what he had planned next and Hitch had to admit that he had no jobs lined up. But Balcon knew a good opportunity when he saw it and he asked the director if he had any ideas. Hitch brought up the Bulldog Drummond story.
Soon after that, Balcon and Hitch bought the rights to the script from BIP, and reworked the story to become The Man Who Knew Too Much – which was actually the title to another unrelated novel by GK Chesterton that Hitch owned the rights to.
The reworked script – with contributions from Bennet, Alma, old Hitchcock collaborator Ivor Montague (who came in to save The Lodger) and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis – became a sort of group project wherein ideas came from everywhere and were all filtered through the eye of Hitchcock.
Soon production was underway with Leslie Banks, Edna Best, and Nova Pilbeam filling in the main lead roles along with a newcomer to English film, Peter Lorre.
Peter Lorre, who would become famous for his roles in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, has impressed Hitchcock and the rest of the film world with his portrayal of a child-murderer in Fritz Lang’s “M” in 1931. If you haven’t seen it, the film is a near template for future serial killer films, and Lorre’s performance is astounding.
But by 1934, Lorre (who was Jewish and fled Germany in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power) was living in Paris – nearly broke – and considering giving up acting when Hitchcock contacted him and brought the actor to London. Only trouble was that Lorre didn’t speak any English – and so had to learn his lines phonetically while never fully understanding what he was saying.
No longer under the over-controlling thumb of Mycroft and Maxwell at BIP, and working on a production he truly believed in, Hitchcock was free to make the kind of film he’d always dreamed of making. And when all was finished in the fall of 1934, the Hitchcock film was born.
So where do we stand then, or rather where does The Man Who Knew Too Much stand? The answer is fairly straight forward. This is the beginning of Hitchcock.
Up until this film, Hitch would find success piece by piece. He put a little bit of himself in each movie – a MacGuffin in Number 17, grand climaxes in Blackmail, conspiracy in The Lodger, suspense in Murder, but never before had he brought everything together in one picture, or with such visual flare and control.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is the start of so much for Hitch. It’s the reconnection with Balcon and a relationship that would rejuvenate his passion and excitement for cinema. After this picture, Hitch would go on to direct 6 suspense films in a row – ending with the incredible The Lady Vanishes before heading to America, and his entire career would be born out of the triumph he found with this picture.
And of course, there is Hitch’s own quirks and passions. His obsession with hands crops up again, a strong mother, the MacGuffin, conspiracy, murder, an inept police force, it’s like a greatest hits parade for Hitchcock fans.
Famously, Hitchcock remade The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1955 with Doris Day and James Stewart, and there’s a debate to be had over which is better – but we also would have to remember that it was practically made by two different filmmakers. Hitchcock in the 30’s was finding his feet and exploring a genre while also reinventing it. This earlier film has a light fun and almost absurd whimsy – a villainous dentist, a weird sun-worshipping cult, an elaborate assassination plot involving a cymbal crash… it’s a more surreal and fun affair – and completely lacking the weird colourful isolationism that the 50’s post-war paranoid-yet-wholesome thriller would have. The latter film being all about America’s fear of the other, while this early British thriller seems far more interested in the power of ordinary people to fight large battles… something which Britain would soon learn all too well.
But first we have more great Hitchcock films to watch, including what might be one of his greatest, with next weeks classic thriller from 1935; The 39 Steps.
See you then.