THE MANXMAN – 1929 – British International Pictures – ★★
B&W – Silent – 81 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Principal cast: Carl Brisson (Pete Quilliam), Malcolm Keen (Philip Christian), Anny Ondra (Kate Cregeen), Randle Ayrton (Caeser Cregeen), Clare Greet (Mother).
Screenplay by Eliot Stannard, based on the novel by Sir Hall Caine
Cinematography by Jack E. Cox
Welcome to the machine: For much of his tenure at British International Pictures, Hitchcock felt like a cog in a machine. While he made several good films during these years, he frequently had no choice in his assignments, taking whatever the studio gave him. This was one of those cases.
The novel was very well known, so Hitchcock could not stray too far from the source material. Even though this movie does not have much of Hitchcock’s signature style in it, there are still brief moments where he was able to incorporate some of his trademark visual flair.
The story set up is rather trite; a basic love triangle. Pete loves Kate, but he is a poor fisherman, and Kate’s father says he’s not good enough. So Pete heads off to South Africa to make his fortune, asking his good friend Philip to “look after” Kate while he’s gone. Kate promises Pete she will marry him upon his return. Philip is a deemster (a Manx judge) and very well off. He is perhaps a little too good in his role of protector, and he and Kate begin to fall for each other. Hitchcock employs a clever visual using Kate’s diary to show how she and Philip grow closer together over time.
Eventually a false report of Pete’s death arrives from South Africa. Kate and Philip can stand it no longer, and they sleep together, inside the town mill. This being a very early silent film, the sex had to be implied. All we see is a kiss, shot from a distance and in shadow, then a cut to the mill wheel spinning, and a fade out. The rest is left to our imagination. But to an audience of the time, the implication would have been clear.
Despite Hitchcock’s dislike for location shooting, there are some beautifully lit and framed exterior shots scattered throughout the film.
Kate and Philip learn that Pete is not dead, and will return in a matter of days. Kate also discovers that she is pregnant with Philip’s child. Philip cannot bear the thought of hurting Pete, even though he is in love with Kate, so he insists that she marry Pete. They do marry, and she raises the baby as Pete’s.
Kate is unhappy, and eventually flees, leaving her child behind, and attempts suicide. She is fished from the water and brought before the deemster, who is of course Philip. During this courtroom scene, Hitchcock found an opportunity to use his subjective point of view, as Kate’s father pivots his head from Kate to Philip, and back again, putting the pieces of the puzzle together.
The movie ends with Philip, Kate and baby leaving town, while being derided by the townsfolk. And the last shot mirrors the first, as Pete heads back out in his fishing boat.
Hitch on the shelf: John Maxwell, the head of British International Pictures, was so disappointed in the finished product that he shelved The Manxman. After Hitchcock’s next movie Blackmail became a hit, and after a successful screening for the press, The Manxman was finally released, to moderate success in Britain.
Source material: The movie is based on an 1894 novel of the same name by Sir Hall Caine. Caine’s book was immensely popular in Britain and the United States, selling over half a million copies (a rather large number for those days). The movie retained the general plot of the novel, involving the love triangle between Pete, Kate and Phillip. The novel had a much greater depth of detail.
It is not an easy read by today’s standards, one reason being that it includes a lot of colloquialisms from the Isle of Man, which can make the dialogue tough to follow at times. It is a very well constructed book, and an engaging if familiar story. There are much deeper Biblical overtones in the novel. Just before Kate surrenders herself bodily to Philip in the novel, she plucks an apple from a tree and offers him a bite (bit of a heavy-handed metaphor, there). And poor, dear Pete is one of the most generous and long-suffering characters in fiction.
It is a little frustrating to read, because both Kate and Philip are presented with many opportunities to come clean at an earlier point, but they persist on their path until things are irreparably damaged for all concerned. In the novel, Philip is to be named Governor of the Isle of Man at the end, and at the ceremony he confesses his relationship with Kate, and steps down from his position.
Recurring players: Carl Brisson starred in The Ring as boxer “One Round” Jack. Malcolm Keen had appeared in both The Mountain Eagle and The Lodger. Anny Ondra would star in Hitchcock’s next film Blackmail. Clare Greet, Hitchcock’s favorite character actress from his British period, also appeared in The Ring, Murder!, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage, and Jamaica Inn.
Where’s Hitch? There is no Hitchcock cameo to be found in The Manxman.
What Hitch said: Hitchcock had very little to say about this film over the ensuing years. Even in his conversations with Truffaut, he was quick to dismiss it. Here is the sum total of his comments:
The only point of interest about that movie is that it was my last silent one…it was a very banal picture…the picture was the adaptation of a very well-known book by Sir Hall Caine. The novel had quite a reputation and it belonged to a tradition. We had to respect that reputation and that tradition. It was not a Hitchcock movie.
Definitive edition: Like most of Hitchcock’s early British films, The Manxman is in the public domain, which means several different versions of varying quality are available for home viewing. The best version currently available is to be found on the Lion’s Gate 3-disc “Alfred Hitchcock Collection” boxed set. Also included are 4 other titles from Hitchcock’s early British period. The picture quality is decent, and there is an accompanying piano score. There are no extra features.
JAMAICA INN (1939) – Mayflower Pictures – Rating: ★★★
Black and White – 99 mins. – 1.37:1 aspect ratio
Principal cast: Charles Laughton (Sir Humphrey Pengallan), Maureen O’Hara (Mary Yellan), Leslie Banks (Joss Merlyn), Robert Newton (Jem Trehearne), Marie Ney (Aunt Patience Merlyn), Horace Hodges (Chadwick), Emlyn Williams (Harry the Pedlar).
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by Erich Pommer and Charles Laughton
Cinematography by Bernard Knowles and Harry Stradling, Sr.
Film Editing by Robert Hamer
Written by Sidney Gilliat and Joan Harrison, additional dialogue J.B. Priestly, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier
Original Music by Eric Fenby
Dialogue Coach: J. Lee Thompson
In the summer of 1938, Alfred Hitchcock was in the United States,courting Hollywood in the hope of signing a contract. Hitchcock had been thinking about a move to the States for a few years; now, riding the success of The Lady Vanishes, he was a hot commodity. He finally signed with David O. Selznick in July. His contract would not take effect until spring of 1939, which meant he had time to make one final film in England before making the move to America. That final British film would be Jamaica Inn.
Hitchcock had very little interest in the movie; his mind was already on Hollywood and Selznick. He directed it essentially as a favor to star Charles Laughton. Over the course of his life Hitchcock was very dismissive of the movie, and it has a bad reputation in the Hitchcock canon. Many contemporary reviews refer to it as one of the worst movies Hitchcock ever made. Perhaps it is time for a reevaluation of this movie, particularly in light of the newly restored version released by Cohen Films in conjunction with the BFI.
As a first-time viewer of Jamaica Inn, I was surprised to discover that it is not nearly as bad as its reputation. It does not have the feel of a Hitchcock movie at all; anyone who subscribes to the auteur theory of film making may have a hard time seeing Hitchcock’s direct influence on this movie. But he certainly did leave small touches here and there. It is also not a traditional Hitchcock suspense movie; it is at times over-the-top and downright bizarre. But it mixes tone nicely, and never ceases to entertain.
The plot centers around Mary Yellan (played by a young Maureen O’Hara), a girl from Ireland who has travelled to England to live with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss Merlyn (Marie Ney and Leslie Banks). Her uncle is the proprietor of the Jamaica Inn, which is a front for a smuggling operation. Her uncle runs a crew of ship wreckers; men who intentionally ground ships, kill the sailors and steal the cargo. Early in the film Mary befriends Sir Humphrey Pengallan, the local magistrate, played by Charles Laughton in his usual scene-chewing fashion. What Mary does not realize (but the audience does) is that Laughton’s character is the real mastermind behind the shipwrecking crew. Mary also does not realize that Jem (played by Robert Newton), a member of the gang who she rescues from a hanging, is an undercover police officer, sent to infiltrate the gang to gather evidence. So in typical Hitchcock fashion, the audience has significant information that the protagonist lacks.
Mary and Jem escape from Jamaica Inn, only to be trapped in a cave by the rather odd members of the wrecking crew. Eventually they will escape, only to unwittingly place themselves in more danger, as they go to Sir Humphrey’s estate, asking for assistance.
Sir Humphrey, as played by Laughton, is an oddball character from the beginning, but it appears that he is overtaken by madness as the story progresses. By the time that Mary Yellan knows the true nature of all the characters in the story, she is caught in the clutches of Sir Humphrey, who attempts to flee with her aboard a parting ship. In the end Sir Humphrey will meet his downfall, quite literally, in a closing sequence that is trademark Hitchcock.
Source material: The screenplay is based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier. Hitchcock adapted three of his movies from Du Maurier stories (Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and The Birds). Of the three, only Rebecca remained true to the source material. The novel Jamaica Inn is a gothic novel with a suspenseful build to a surprise ending. The action takes place over several months, unlike the movie, which is condensed into a couple of days. In the novel, the mastermind of the gang is actually a local vicar, named Francis Davy. The movie could not employ a vicar as the antagonist, because film censors would not permit a priest to be a bad guy. In the novel, the character of Jem is actually not an undercover policeman, but is the brother of Uncle Joss Merlyn. The screenplay does a very good job of condensing action and characters, and keeping the pace moving along at a nice clip. In the novel, the reader does not learn the true nature of the vicar until the last few pages. In the movie, we learn very early on that Charles Laughton is the mastermind of the wreckers. Alfred Hitchcock explains why this change was necessary:
“The problem there was…one would have to have a very important actor to play this character…The question was, how could one possibly have an important actor playing in an apparently unimportant part in the first two-thirds, when the characters are talking about a mysterious and influential figure? Naturally, then, the story had to be changed…We had to let the audience in on the secret about that figure and change the whole middle of the story, so that you saw this figure behind the scenes and how he manipulates the wreckers. We had to invent new situations.”
Hitchcock touches: As previously mentioned, there are few genuine “Hitchcock” moments in this film. Because Charles Laughton was both producer and lead actor, Hitchcock was often at his whim. Alfred Hitchcock may have been content to shoot two or three takes of a scene for instance, but if Laughton wanted ten takes, or fifteen, Hitchcock had to acquiesce. Even if Hitchcock was making a by-the-numbers movie to please his producer/actor, he still managed to leave his imprint on a few scenes. The opening sequence, showing the wreckers leading a ship onto the rocks, then plundering it, is a fantastic sequence; a couple of the ship shots are clearly models, but regardless the sequence holds up well today. A sequence that takes place in a cave by the sea has some nice Hitchcock touches. There is one fantastic tracking shot of Maureen O’Hara as Mary, sneaking among the rocks behind the wreckers, which cuts to a close-up of several of the wreckers peering over the rocks. This shot is pure Hitchcock, leaving no doubt as to who directed it. And finally, the last sequence of the film, which also takes place on a ship, finds Charles Laughton leaping to his death from the top of the main mast. This sequence is very well put together. Hitchcock would later end several of his movies in this way, with a major character falling to their death (Saboteur, Vertigo, North by Northwest). Another Hitchcock touch is the absence of a musical score. There is original music for the opening and closing credits, but no music during the actual movie. This is the first of three films which would have no music (Lifeboat, The Birds).
A Hitchcock comedy? I guess it’s a bit of a stretch to call this a comedy, but for a movie that involves ship wreckers, smugglers and murderers, there are a lot of genuine laughs; some intentional, some not. Laughton’s character is bizarre from the opening sequence, in which he leads a horse into the dining room. The way Laughton is always yelling for his butler “Chadwick!” also supplies some humor. The last shot of the movie, after Laughton has fallen to his death, is a shot of Horace Hodges as Chadwick, who still hears Laughton’s cries of “Chadwick” echoing in his mind. This final shot is both genuinely wistful and slightly comic, a pure Hitchcock moment, and indicative of the way the entire movie mixes tone. The members of the wrecking crew also add some humor to the movie. And Basil Radford, appearing in his third movie for Alfred Hitchcock, makes the most of his limited screen time by providing some genuine laughs.
Performance: The title sequence of this movie proclaims “Introducing Maureen O’Hara”. This was not her first movie, but was her first leading role, and her first under the exclusive five-year contract she signed with Charles Laughton. Maureen is charming and convincing in her role. Some feel that Laughton’s performance is way over the top, but his character is supposed to be going mad, so while he might walk the line, I think he pulls it off. Leslie Banks is wonderful as Joss Merlyn; he is almost unrecognizable as the same actor who played the father in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Many of the actors in the smaller supporting roles are great. Hitchcock used many of his favorite character actors in this movie, perhaps because he was leaving for America and didn’t know if he would have the chance to work with them again.
Recurring players: Charles Laughton would later appear in The Paradine Case. Frederick Piper had small parts in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps, Sabotage, and Young and Innocent. Hitchcock favorite Clare Greet had appeared in The Ring, The Manxman, Murder!, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and Sabotage. George Curzon had been in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Young and Innocent. The great Basil Radford was also in Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes. Leslie Banks had starred in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Wylie Watson had played Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps. Robert Adair would later have a bit part in Stage Fright. Marie Ault had appeared in The Lodger. William Fazan also had bit parts in Murder! and Young and Innocent. Hitchcock regular John Longden had appeared in Blackmail, Juno and the Paycock, The Skin Game, and Young and Innocent. Aubrey Mather was also in Sabotage and Suspicion.
Hitchcock legacy: Robert Hamer, the editor of this movie, would become a popular British director in the 1940’s and 50’s. He made his most memorable films at Ealing Studios, including Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Alec Guiness. J. Lee Thompson, the dialogue coach on this film, would become a very successful director, making many well-known movies, including The Guns of Navarone and the original Cape Fear.
Where’s Hitch? He isn’t! Alfred Hitchcock had made cameos in several movies by this point, and he would make one in every subsequent movie, but he chose not to in Jamaica Inn. Perhaps this is an indication of how little regard Hitchcock had for this movie, that he chose not to appear in it.
What Hitch said: Despite the fact that this film was a huge hit, grossing over $3 million in 1939, Hitchcock never had a kind word to say about it. He said “It was completely absurd…it made no sense to cast Charles Laughton in the key role of the justice of the peace. Realizing how incongruous it was, I was truly discouraged, but the contract had been signed. Finally, I made the picture, and although it became a box-office hit, I’m still unhappy over it.” Hitchcock also said of his leading man “You can’t direct a Laughton picture. The best you can hope for is to referee”, and “He wasn’t really a professional film man.” Harsh words, indeed.
Definitive edition: This movie has languished in the public domain for a long time, the result being several DVD releases of varying poor quality, some with almost unintelligible dialogue, and some even missing ten minutes of footage, which is integral to the plot! There is only one version of this movie that you should see, and that is the brand new blu-ray from Cohen films. Their print, which is a full restoration released in conjunction with the BFI, is breathtaking. The picture quality is startlingly good, the audio track is solid, and most importantly, the footage missing from many earlier prints has been restored. Perhaps the excellent quality of this blu-ray will help to give this movie a new life. While it is not a great film, and not quintessential Hitchcock, it is certainly a well-constructed and entertaining film. The blu-ray includes a very informative (without being dry) commentary track by film historian Jeremy Arnold, a 13-minute video essay featuring Donald Spoto, and a 2014 re-release trailer.
THE RING (1927) – British International Pictures – Rating: ★★★
B&W (silent) – 90 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Principal cast: Carl Brisson (“One Round Jack” Sander), Lillian Hall- Davis (Mabel), Ian Hunter (Bob Corby), Forrester Harvery (James Ware), Harry Terry (Showman), Gordon Harker (Jack’s Trainer), Clare Greet (Fortune Teller).
Written by Alfred Hitchcock
Photographed by John Cox
Produced by John Maxwell
In 1927 Alfred Hitchcock signed with the newly-formed British International Pictures, becoming the highest paid director in England in the process. Over the course of the next six years, Hitchcock would be involved with 11 different movies at British International, a period that bridged the end of the silent film era and the first years of sound films. His output was uneven, and his relationship with studio head John Maxwell was occasionally rocky. There are only two films from this period that are considered “classics” in the Hitchcock canon: Blackmail(Britain’s first movie with sound) and Murder! The Ring, Hitchcock’s first movie for British International (the first movie ever released by the studio, for that matter) is also quite good, with an engaging story line, groundbreaking visuals and flashes of humor.
Trivia buffs might be interested to know that this is the only film in Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work as a director for which he also received a writing credit; “WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK” reads a title card at the beginning. The story is a classic love triangle, certainly not the kind of story that is generally associated with Hitchcock. The film’s title, The Ring, refers to the boxing ring, as both male leads are boxers. But it can also refers to a wedding ring, as well as a serpentine bracelet which features heavily in the plot.
The movie opens with Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis) working as a ticket girl at a carnival attraction, where her boyfriend is an amateur boxer. The boxer (played by Danish actor Carl Brisson), is known as “One Round Jack” because nobody makes it to the second round with him. Until a man named Bob Corby (Ian Hunter) shows up and soundly beats him. It turns out that Corby is the heavyweight champion of Australia. Corby invites Jack to be his sparring partner, ostensibly to help him, but in reality to be closer to his girlfriend. Corby gives Mabel a bracelet, in the shape of a serpent, which becomes the symbol of infidelity. Mabel marries Jack anyway, even though she clearly has feelings for Corby.
The wedding sequence shows all of the carnival performers entering the church; we see the Siamese twins, the dwarf and giant, in a comic scene which clearly prefigures a similar sequence in Hitchcock’s later film Saboteur. Hitchcock loved images of the incongruous, which he indulged in frequently in his British period. After the wedding, the movie shows Jack becoming a better boxer, getting bigger matches, while all the while his new wife Mabel gets closer to Bob Corby. Eventually Jack confronts Mabel about her infidelity and she leaves. Of course the movie will end with the two men settling their differences in the boxing ring, and of course Mabel will realize that Corby is a cad and return to her husband’s side.
The silent film aspect: Most modern-day film goers have never seen a silent film; even many fans of Hitchcock have probably not delved into his early silent period. It certainly is a different experience, but in the case of Hitchcock the adjustment is not too difficult. Throughout his career, Hitchcock was always a believer in telling a story through visual means; he never forgot the things he learned in the silent era. If you watch this movie, you will notice there are not a lot of title cards. This is because the visuals clearly tell us what is happening on screen.
John Cox, cameraman: In the late 1920’s, there were not a lot of “special effects” techniques available to filmmakers, particularly in post filming. So Hitchcock wanted to find a cameraman who was adept at filming effects “in camera”, as it was often done then. He found just the man he was looking for in John Cox (or Jack Cox, or J.J. Cox, as he was also credited on some films). Cox would end up acting as Hitchcock’s cameraman/cinematographer on a dozen movies, including every film he directed at British International. They would also reunite one last time on Hitchcock’s 1938 masterpiece The Lady Vanishes. From a technical standpoint, this is the most important collaborative partnership in Hitchcock’s entire British period. (And also mirrors Hitchcock’s later partnership with American cinematographer Bob Burks, who would also work with Hitchcock on 12 movies.)
In the image above, you can see how Cox was able to superimpose the image of Ian Hunter’s head onto the punching bag. Even a seemingly simple shot like this took some doing in the 1920’s. But Cox’s (and Hitchcock’s) innovations went far beyond this. Later in the film there is a party sequence, in which the party goers become out of control. Hitchcock wanted to recreate the feel of the drunken revelry for his movie goers. So into a montage of people singing and dancing are intercut images like this one to the right: an eerily elongated piano, with a spinning turntable superimposed upon it. Nothing quite like this had ever been seen in British cinema.
But perhaps the most important effect technique that Hitchcock wished to employ in this movie, (and would use again in a few later films) is called the Schufftan process.
Schufftan process: This process is named after its inventor, Eugen Schufftan, who first used the process on Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. The process involves placing a mirror at an angle in front of the camera, with a painted or photographed image to the side, which will be reflected in the mirror, and captured on camera. Then, scraping away part of the reflective mirror, leaving only clear glass, and filming live action through the newly scraped area. The two images (the live portion filmed through the clear glass, and the reflected painted portion) will then appear to be one image. Hitchcock wished to use this technique in the movie’s final sequence: the boxing match in the Royal Albert Hall. (Hitchcock staged scenes from three of his movies in the Albert Hall: this one, and both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much.) The following diagram shows how the Schufftan process worked.
Performance: All of the performances in this movie are solid. There is perhaps no real “standout” performance but everyone holds their own. Gordon Harker plays his role as Jack’s trainer for great comedic effect. And Carl Brisson is very solid as the male lead. He has to generate sympathy from the audience for the story to succeed, and he does so, admirably.
Recurring players: Carl Brisson would later star in The Manxman. Lillian Hall-Davis also appeared in The Farmer’s Wife. Ian Hunter was in both Downhill and Easy Virtue. Forrester Harvey would later appear in Rebecca. Harry Terry was in The Manxman. Gordon Harker was in The Farmer’s Wife and Champagne. Clare Greet, one of Hitchcock’s favorite character actresses in his British period, also appeared in Number 13, The Manxman, Murder!, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage and Jamaica Inn. Tom Helmore would later appear in The Secret Agent, and would also play the role of Gavin Elster in Vertigo.
Where’s Hitch? There is no credible evidence to suggest that Hitchcock made a cameo appearance in this movie.
What Hitch said: When talking to Truffaut, Hitchcock said of this movie “…that was really an interesting movie. You might say that after The Lodger, The Ring was the next Hitchcock picture. There were all kinds of innovations in it, and I remember that at the premiere an elaborate montage got a round of applause. It was the first time that had ever happened to me.”
Definitive edition: There are numerous versions of this movie available on DVD in various box sets and “collections”, but the best print available is to be found on the three disc Alfred Hitchcock Box Set from Lions Gate Studios. This set contains 5 of Hitchcock’s films from the British International Pictures period. This print is far from pristine, but keeping in mind that the movie is almost 90 years old, it is definitely watchable, and relatively clean. There are no extra features on this disc at all.
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 Innocentand Jamaica Inn. Frank Atkinson would also have uncredited roles in Young and Innocentand 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!, Sabotageand 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 Sabotageand 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.