THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) – Gaumont-British – Rating: ★★★★
B&W – 76 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Principal cast: Leslie Banks (Bob Lawrence), Edna Best (Jill Lawrence), Nova Pilbeam (Betty Lawrence), Peter Lorre (Abbott), Frank Vosper (Ramon), Hugh Wakefield (Clive), Pierre Fresnay (Louis Bernard).
Written by Charles Bennett & DB Wyndham-Lewis
Photography: Curt Courant
Edited by Hugh Stewart
Music by Arthur Benjamin
In 1933 Alfred Hitchcock was shooting a movie called Waltzes From Vienna, and he was bored. He called the picture a “low ebb of my career,” a type of film (the period costume drama) that he personally loathed. But it was the only directing job he could get at the time. Even as he directed it, going through the motions, he was already planning and plotting the movie that he really wanted to make, if only he got the chance. That chance came in the form of studio head Michael Balcon, who had already worked with Hitchcock in the 1920’s silent film era. Balcon paid Hitchcock a visit on the set and asked him what his next picture was going to be. Hitchcock, seeing a golden opportunity, told Balcon that he had a gem of a screenplay tucked away “in a drawer, somewhere.” Balcon asked him to bring it in to the office. When Hitchcock did so, Balcon bought the story on the spot, also offering to sign Alfred Hitchcock to a multi-picture directing deal.
The thriller sextet: Michael Balcon signed Alfred Hitchcock to a six-picture deal at the newly-formed Gaumont-British films company. These six movies would completely change the course of Hitchcock’s career, establishing him as the master of the thriller. The film industry in Britain, and the movie-going public, already recognized Hitchcock as one of their best directors, if not the best. After the release of these six movies it was apparent that Hollywood, and the world, had taken notice as well.
These movies, which have come to be known as the “thriller sextet” prefigured the successful run that Hitchcock would have at Paramount Studios in Hollywood in the 1950’s. In both cases, he had complete artistic control over his films. He directed only the stories that he wanted to direct, and surrounded himself with cast and crew that he trusted, and wanted to work with. The films in the thriller sextet have much in common: economical storytelling, a brisk pace (the average running time is about 84 minutes), and a tone that mixes suspense and humor. (Sabotage lacks the humor of the other 5 releases, due in part to the darker storyline.)
The Man Who Knew Too Much is the first film of the sextet; some say that this film marks the birth of the “real” Alfred Hitchcock on film. The movie opens in St. Moritz, Switzerland because, as Hitchcock explained “that’s where I spent my honeymoon with my wife.” The film introduces us to a dashing, cosmopolitan couple, Bob and Jill Lawrence, and their daughter Betty. The couple (played by Leslie Banks and Edna Best) have an easy repartee that is believable and enjoyable to watch. Jill is a sharpshooter, and if we know anything about Hitchcock, when he sets up a detail like this early in a film, it is sure to pay off later. The humor of the first few minutes turns dark quickly, as a man they have befriended is shot and killed.
Here is the first of several trademark Hitchcock images in this movie, as several fingers point to the bullet hole in the glass. The image appears quickly, then disappears before we can question its logic: how could seven people arrange themselves next to a window, and contort their hands in this configuration? The dying man imparts the location of a secret of national security to Edna, who shares the information with her husband. He acquires this information from the dead man’s room, only to discover that his daughter has been kidnapped.
Now the story moves to London. As Hitchcock said “from the very outset the contrast between the snowy Alps and the congested streets of London was a decisive factor.” The Lawrences know that a certain foreign statesman is to be assassinated. The Foreign Office knows that they know, but the Lawrences cannot disclose the details, because if they do their kidnapped daughter will be killed. The moral dilemma is outlined very succinctly by a man from the Foreign Office, who compares their situation to the outset of World War I. “A man you never heard of was killed by another man you never heard of, and a month later we were at war.” What is a parent to do? Risk the life of one’s child to possibly prevent the outset of a global conflict? Bob Lawrence sets out to find his daughter, with family friend Clive (played by Hugh Wakefield). Clive is essentially a comic foil, a stereotype of the tried-and-true stalwart British companion.
As in many Hitchcock films, this movie is a series of set pieces, with the action constantly shifting, ensuring the viewer is never bored. It is interesting to watch how Hitchcock combines humor and action in the same scenes, something he did often in the thriller sextet, but would not do as frequently in his Hollywood films.
There are two such sequences here, as Bob and Clive try to interpret the clue left them by the dying man in St. Moritz, (a scrap of paper with the words “WAPPING, G. BARBOR, MAKE CONTACT A. HALL, MARCH 21ST”). It turns out that G. Barbor is a dentist, who is part of the assassination plan, as his office is used as a meeting place. The tone of this section of the movie is laid out by the very first shot, a close-up of a giant set of teeth which hang outside the dentist’s office. The comic tone continues inside, as Bob and the dentist try to out-guess, then out-gas, each other.
The action (and humor) then move to a church, where Bob and Clive have traced the gang. They are recognized and locked in the church. Thus begins a bizarre sequence, during which Clive escapes, and the interior of the church is demolished as the men inside throw chairs at each other, not wanting to use a gun as it could be heard outside. An old lady plays the church organ to mask the sound of furniture being hurled every which way.
Mrs. Lawrence goes to the Royal Albert Hall, where the assassination is to take place, and anguishes over what to do. If she attempts to prevent the shooting, she may risk her daughter’s life. She screams as the gunman is taking aim, throwing off his shot. The foreign statesman has received only a flesh wound. But what of her daughter and husband? They are locked up with the gang in a flat adjacent to the church. The climactic shoot-out is based on a historical incident that occured in 1910, called the Sidney Street siege. While such scenes have become commonplace in cinema, this is one of the first such sequences to appear in a British film, and the film censors were not happy with it initially. After the film’s earlier visual stylization, and often comic tone, this final sequence almost has the tone of cinema verite in comparison, which certainly heightens the tension. Remeber Jill’s sharpshooter skills? Care to guess who shoots the assassin from the rooftop?
Performance: All the performances are strong in this movie; every character is believable. But the standout performance is that of Peter Lorre as Abbott, the leader of the assassins. This was Lorre’s first English language picture (coming just after his breakout performance in Fritz Lang’s M), and his grasp of the English language was so frail at this time that he had to memorize his dialogue phonetically, translating it himself into German so he could understand the content. Hitchcock said “I did insist on working with Peter Lorre…He had a very sharp sense of humor.” Hitchcock really enjoyed working with Lorre. He would use him again in the film Secret Agent, and they remained friends for a long time.
Recurring players: Leslie Banks would later appear in Jamaica Inn. Peter Lorre starred in Secret Agent. Frank Vosper had just appeared in Waltzes From Vienna. Nova Pilbeam would later star in Young and Innocent. George Curzon would also have small roles in Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn. Frank Atkinson would also have uncredited roles in Young and Innocent and the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hitchcock used Clare Greet many times; she was also in Number 13, The Ring, The Manxman, Murder!, Sabotage and Jamaica Inn. James Knight would appear a year later in The 39 Steps. Charles Paton had been in Blackmail. Frederick Piper also had uncredited roles in The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Young and Innocent, and Jamaica Inn. Jack Vyvian would appear in Sabotage and Young and Innocent. S.J. Warmington was in Murder!, The 39 Steps, and Sabotage.
Where’s Hitch? He isn’t! Or is he? As in the later film Sabotage, there is no credible evidence that Hitchcock makes a cameo in this film. About 33:25 into the film, a man can be seen crossing the road in a trench coat, as a bus passes. Some have said that this is Hitchcock, and it may be, but I’m not convinced enough to say so definitively. What do you think?
Legacy: Hitchcock remade this movie 22 years later, in a technicolor film starring James Stewart and Doris Day. While the remake is enjoyable, and the Royal Albert Hall sequence far superior, the later film suffers when both versions are viewed back to back. The pacing, and two-hour running time of the remake is almost languorous compared to the brisk clip at which the earlier version runs. ( I will soon do a comparison of the Royal Albert Hall sequence in both versions.)
What Hitch said: Talking to Truffaut about the importance of this film in his career, Hitchcock said “…whatever happens in the course of your career, your talent is always there. To all appearances, I seemed to have gone into a creative decline in 1933 when I made Waltzes from Vienna, which was very bad. And yet the talent must have been there all along since I had already conceived the project for The Man Who Knew Too Much, the picture that re-established my creative prestige.”
Definitive edition: The Criterion Collection released a blu-ray version of this film in 2013, which is light years ahead of any other available version. Criterion used a true restoration print, with exceptional picture clarity. The mono soundtrack is astonishing; every syllable of dialogue is clear. The extra features are also impressive: there is a very informative commentary track by film historian Philip Kemp, an 18-minute appreciation by Guillermo del Toro, The Illustrated Hitchcock (a 50-minute TV program in which Hitchcock is interviewed by Pia Lindstrom), 23 minutes of audio excerpts from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews, and a restoration demonstration.