The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, Alfred Hitchcock)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
After achieving considerable acclaim and popular success with his first two sound films, Blackmail and Juno and the Paycock, Alfred Hitchcock spent the majority of the early 1930s in the wilderness, with a run of frustrating experiences at British International Pictures. He was continually saddled with projects toward which either he or the studio lacked enthusiasm, with five consecutive films based on novels or stage plays, the most interesting of which (Murder! and Rich and Strange) never found the audiences their director felt they deserved, while his more conventional filmed plays got great reviews and were successes with the public. (Such was the early novelty of talking films, fused with the air of artistic superiority favoring theater over cinema felt in Britain as well as America.) Rich and Strange and Number Seventeen precipitated a falling out between Hitchcock and the studio that ended with his contract lapsing, after which he made one film independently then was taken under the aegis again of producer Michael Balcon, the man who’d originally given him a career (and had nearly ended it during post-production of The Lodger). Hitchcock offered Balcon a property he’d been toying with, a story about espionage and kidnapping featuring the well-loved British detective character Bulldog Drummond. By the time the resulting film was exhibited, Drummond was long gone; The Man Who Knew Too Much would not be a continuation of any established trend but the beginning of what can only be termed a revolution in British filmmaking, and a fruitful new chapter for all cinema that would swallow up the next four decades.
Balcon was the director of production at both Gaumont-British and Gainsborough Pictures, which shared a corporate parent; he placed Hitchcock under a two-year contract with Gaumont that would then be extended through the end of the ’30s. While Hitchcock was not yet producing his own films, he was apparently now given far more freedom to choose his material and shoot it as he pleased, and his new collaboration with Gaumont would set the tone for the rest of his career. Until 1934, Hitchcock was a diversified director of many genres, from romance to comedy to musical to detective story to sobering slice of life. It was with the beginning of the Gaumont deal — after throwing a tantrum on the set of Waltzes from Vienna out of frustration with the subject matter — that he began to be strictly identified as a thriller director; not coincidentally, the films he made at Gaumont find him suddenly operating with a new level of dedication and intensity. His work there, comprised of six stunning suspense films in an unbroken stretch from 1934 to 1938, has become informally known as the “Gaumont Six.” These films deserve to be considered as their own entity in addition to their placement within Hitchcock’s history taken as a whole. They share several characteristics that seem almost to follow a model of success, though they’re also quite disparate in their story content. Blackmail and (to a lesser extent) The Lodger and Murder! predict some aspects of the methodology that would take the director to his greatest heights, but really there is no precedent to The Man Who Knew Too Much in his filmography, and not many in anyone else’s.
The Gaumont Six are all rapidly paced, breathlessly exciting thrillers that tend to seduce an audience in their expository first scenes and then pick up with a frantic sense of journey that carries them through their typically sudden, tantalizing finales. The films’ concentration is on a forceful, purposeful race through its situations, characters, settings, and their energy is emotional rather than logical — they introduce the common Hitchcock device of the MacGuffin, a bland catalyst for whatever action Hitchcock is more interested in exploring. With the exception of The Lady Vanishes, the last in the series, each of the films runs less than ninety minutes; all but two are shot by cinematographer Bernard Knowles and share an urgent, spontaneous “look” rare in this era, miles away from the staid formal studio settings of so many American films, and if anything closer to the intoxication visualized by the likes of Jean Vigo in France in the early ’30s. Hitchcock’s films had already been rife with surprising and inventive visual moments, but it’s with the Gaumont contract that his work attains a fluid quality, with each of the films consistent in their intimate, electrifying style. (Truth be told, on leaving for Hollywood he would adopt a different approach, and with few exceptions his later films didn’t share this frenetic or impulsive sensibility.)
Another collaborator shared by all of the Six (again excluding The Lady Vanishes) is screenwriter Charles Bennett. He had been the playwright of Blackmail, source of what was then still Hitchcock’s most famous film, and the two were partnered on the conception and adaptation of scenarios at Gaumont. Apart from that he shared with his wife Alma Reville, this was perhaps the most important creative collaboration of Hitchcock’s career. The pair worked eyeball to eyeball at times, and Bennett displayed a remarkable understanding of construction and tone that allowed these films to stand starkly apart from other mysteries and thrillers of the day; in fact, it’s not unfair to credit the two of them with establishing the thriller as we know it. More than anyone else, Bennett established the Hitchcock modus operandi of a simultaneous commitment to character and story, of fierce identification with a protagonist and tense buildup filled with strange side attractions and bravura setpieces, always suffused with a healthy degree of humor and levity but never surrendering to it or making the scripts lightweight. Indeed, all of the Bennett scripts are rather dark, in part because of the frighteningly fragile Europe they incidentally document; as the pregnancy of the pending war becomes more evident through the latter part of the decade, Bennett’s scripts attain an obvious menace even when their subject matter seems outwardly innocuous, and Hitchcock’s direction of them becomes ever more foreboding. The England of Hitchcock is devious, unpredictable, sometimes bleak, a dreary and deathly backdrop to the exhilaration in the foreground.
For The Man Who Knew Too Much, produced in the year of Adolf Hitler’s election as German chancellor, Bennett and Hitchcock establish the morbid, nefarious forces lurking behind every precious taste of idyllic everyday life in their world. (The events that snowballed into the First World War are directly mentioned at one point by way of comparison to the plot being uncovered.) Ever since it was Bulldog Drummond’s Baby, the story had concerned a child being kidnapped to silence someone who knew of a pending assassination. Hitchcock and Bennett would always favor concentrating on characters to whom an audience could strongly relate, and the deletion after their move to Gaumont of Drummond in favor of a regular couple trying to recover their older daughter gives the resulting movie an incredible injection of vitality. It grabs and doesn’t let go.
The man of the title is Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks), but the title (taken from an otherwise unrelated G.K. Chesterson story collection) is also reductive. The marriage at the center of this film is one of true equals. We meet the Lawrences — Bob, Jill (Edna Best) and their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) — during a vacation in Switzerland, where in one of those magical Hitchcock coincidences they are already acquainted with both the victim and perpetrator of a murder they are about to witness. Jill’s in a sharpshooting competition which Betty distracts her from winning (“Never have children,” she cautions jokingly); the winner, a smooth-talking faker called Ramon (Frank Vosper), displays no indication that he is a contract killer presently on assignment, and cheerfully offers his opponent a rematch someday. Jill and Bob’s confidence and comfort in their marriage is shown by how freely they joke with one another; Jill flirts and dances with another man, a skiing Frenchman named Louis (Pierre Fresnay), and Bob’s nonchalant good humor in response shows their strength and unity, which is necessary for — and in fact the essence of — the story that follows. When Louis is shot while dancing and whispers a secret to Jill indicating that his death is part of a much larger scheme, Jill and Bob spend the rest of the film engaged in a sort of relay race to deliver the relevant information (found in a hairbrush in Louis’s room) to the British consul, and then to rescue Betty, who’s been kidnapped in the interim by the syndicate that shot Louis, while trying to avoid police involvement and thus get her killed. Bob is the one who proceeds to the hotel room and uncovers the disputed papers and Bob is the one who, along with the couple’s friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield), travels to Wapping in East London to scope out the conspirators’ front. But he is then taken hostage just like his daughter, and it falls on Jill to do her part in foiling the larger assassination scheme and finally to use her skills as a sharpshooter to save Betty, by killing Ramon — a rematch indeed. The equal, unspoken exchange and distribution of duty in this pensive, terrifying matter comprises one of the most persuasive cinematic portraits of a good marriage. All three Lawrences’ devotion to one another is never in question, nor even directly examined; it’s taken as a given, even in the light moments when Jill is testing Bob for the fun of it, and that might be a more touching (and personal, for Hitchcock) gesture than the career-marriage conflicts in the films John Michael Hayes wrote with him in Hollywood, including their remake of this.
Banks and Best would never perform in a more visible film — Banks made another feature with Hitchcock, the haphazard Jamaica Inn, and Best later went to Hollywood but played dull matronly roles in the likes of Swiss Family Robinson and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a bizarre turn given her elegance and magnetic but earthy, believable charm here — and this is a pity, because as individual performers they are both impeccable here, both embodying their characters as real people and fully selling the audience on their rapport as well as their grief. And together, their chemistry is something to behold: they don’t melt the screen with sensuality but they feel sincerely like a relatively young couple who have a considerable amount of history and still enjoy one another, the most universally appealing kind of romantic relationship and by far the hardest type to capture on film. The precocious Pilbeam adds to this illusion brilliantly; we don’t get to see her shine as much here as we later would in Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent, in which she would play the lead and become a favorite of Hitchcock’s (he tried to persuade her to sign with David O. Selznick when he went to Hollywood), but in her scenes with Banks and Best it’s remarkable how much she genuinely seems like their real daughter, a sign of maturity on her part as an actress as well as simply how phenomenally well cast the film is.
Some aspects of the structure in The Man Who Knew Too Much would be repeated in the rest of the Gaumont Six, and in the remainder of Hitchcock’s output: the introduction of an everyday set of characters thrown unexpectedly into bizarre circumstances would be quickly reprised in The 39 Steps and then Young and Innocent, while the use of exotic or famous locations (here, the Royal Albert Hall, largely reproduced with paintings, and St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps, entirely reproduced in Lime Grove Studios) and the bustling streets of London would both show up continually through the end of the decade. With just a 75-minute running time, however, the picture takes little time to sweep the audience up in its scenario, and Hitchcock’s method of getting us there is beautifully chilling — the hastily whispered last words of the dying British spy Louis “Don’t breathe a word… don’t breathe a word to anyone” seem to lift the curtain on not just the destiny of the characters in this film but on Hitchcock’s mission and commitment to his audience for the remainder of his life. There is so much promise in that moment, for a story that will pile us down with thrills and entertainment, and for the first of many times Hitchcock is capable of fulfilling every expectation he thus places on himself. He proceeds to amp up further intrigue with the image of Betty, her mouth clamped shut by Ramon’s gloved hand, her eyes wide, as the newly frightening sound of sleigh bells provides the only soundtrack to her nighttime journey into parts unknown. Hitchcock would always subsume disturbing and sophisticated themes within the aesthetically pleasing framework of the crackerjack thriller, and anyone doubting his way with an audience could do worse than to screen the first act of this film as a demonstration of how easily he took the world under his wing.
The lowest-key but most beautifully performed scene in the film comes just after the Lawrences have discovered that Betty has been abducted and they’ve returned to their home in London, joined there by cops and government officials sniffing for trouble and asking invasive questions, and by their friend Clive, who comforts Jill — fragile but stoic, Best again a sight to behold here — while tinkering endlessly with the child’s electric train set. When a bit of evidence falls into their laps, Jill agrees to let Bob proceed to one of the city’s seedier districts alone, at which point he falls into an elaborate series of false front operations maintained by the conspirators; these individually translate to the first delightful entry in Hitchcock’s long series of truly weird momentary setpieces that introduce a larger world and life to his films, extrapolating into sometimes surreal directions, without distracting from the main story. It’s reasonable to believe that, in addition to the Lawrences’ marriage, these inventive and strikingly odd scenes are the true impetus behind the making of the film, and Hitchcock had never done anything quite like them before. First is the dentist’s office, where a snarling Dr. Barbor (the uncredited Henry Oscar) yanks bicuspids out for a few quid, his services advertised outside by a humongous and eerie model of a full set of teeth — evidently a tradition nixed a decade earlier, but one Hitchcock wisely appropriated — a perversely ugly mirror of the solid gold tooth in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, and just as much a harbinger of doom. Bob hilariously reverses the gas on the dentist after he lets Clive go under the blade, so to speak, as a decoy, then overhears a conversation that lets him track the activity to an even creepier establishment, the Tabernacle of the Sun.
This is a cultish sun-worship gathering situated in a hole in the wall down a dark alley, the congregation and its lengthy chorus headed by one Nurse Agnes, one of the anarchists’ associates, who directs a whole procession of double-speaking accusation at Bob and Clive from the pulpit, then occasions a touch of the avant garde (specifically the Watson and Webber version of The Fall of the House of Usher) when she hypnotizes Clive and he watches as her visage grows ever blurrier to him. One ingenious touch has Bob sharing information with his friend to the tune of the religious song being sung, one of the film’s most resourceful uses of sound. The situation quickly devolves, when Bob finds himself threatened with a gun by the incongruously elderly Mrs. Brockett (Clare Greet), into probably the director’s best-ever and certainly funniest fight sequence, wherein all involved destroy the Tabernacle and one another with wooden chairs, all while Mrs. Brockett plays the organ and Clive continues sleeping.
The ringleader of the diverse gang that has kidnapped Betty and is attempting to conceal the nature of their planned assassination of a diplomat is Peter Lorre in his English language debut as one Abbott, the quintessential well-controlled Hitchcock villain who’s more charming than menacing. When he first meet him, still in Switzerland, he’s joking around with the Lawrences about their disruption of a ski competition, later seen laughing at Bob’s antics with a piece of knitting in the dining hall. Lorre was best known then as one of the screen’s most terrifying (but also most sympathetic) villains, the child molester and killer Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s M. His fame as a catch-all character actor in Hollywood films, as Mr. Moto, and eventually as a frequent caricature in various animated cartoons still lay far ahead, and here Hitchcock casts him against type as a suave, resourceful man showing little outward signs of his temper, bloodlust and cunning. He has a way with people, retaining such calm in his interactions with Bob late in the film that we only are sure he plans to kill both him and his daughter because he keeps directly mentioning his intention to do so. To a person, his assistants and henchmen are scarier than he is, especially Cicely Oates as the terrifyingly unfeeling Nurse Agnes. Only once does his anger let him slip out of the comfortable exterior he’s set for himself, and at that moment — a close-up of his face, the basis for the film’s poster — all hint of life and empathy drains from his face as he prepares to strike Bob, and he suddenly becomes the most threatening sort of villain because he is capable of transforming so quickly and deliberately. It’s to the film’s credit that his actual motives in this plot are not made clear, nor are any of the deeper motivations behind the assassination; the mystery in both his inner life and his relationships with the other villains is vague enough to be both richly evocative and truly disturbing.
It’s while Betty and Bob are in custody of Abbott’s gang that we learn when and how the assassination is to take place (Bob discovered the location — the Royal Albert Hall — earlier during the fight, and was able to notify Jill). Abbott plays a record of a supposed classical piece, to be performed at the Hall that night, which reaches a cymbal-crashing crescendo; at this apex the gunshot won’t be heard or immediately noticed. This piece, the “Storm Clouds Cantana,” was actually commissioned and written for the film by its composer Arthur Benjamin; it’s so impressive that Bernard Herrmann — that’s Bernard Herrmann — used and expanded it in the film’s remake instead of writing his own piece. The Cantana has attained some level of notoriety outside of the movies, meaning that both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much managed a surprising shared legacy outside of cinema, the remake having been surely outlived in the cultural consciousness by the song Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote for it, “Que Sera, Sera.”
The Albert Hall sequence that follows, in which Jill is directly threatened but manages to foil the plot by screaming just before the shot is fired, only features a few token moments of actual location filming; otherwise it uses process shots, like the British Museum portions of Blackmail, and painted extras, probably less because Hitchcock didn’t wish to spend time on location than because of budgetary concerns. That isn’t really the film’s climax despite its perceived size; it’s followed with a replica of sorts of the Sidney Street Siege of 1911, a gunfight between British authorities and a severely outnumbered pair of anarchists (with young Home Secretary Winston Churchill observing on the sidelines), as the street on which nearly the entire latter two thirds of the film have taken place descends into mayhem that’s broken only by the gradual deaths of Abbott and his associates, and by Jill’s climactic shot that brings down Ramon, who’s chased Betty to the roof of the house in which the gang has been holed up. This finale also has precedent in Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld and — even more directly — Howard Hawks’ Scarface, both of which Hitchcock undoubtedly knew well, but it’s very much a British variant of those moments of smoky extremity, with the casual conversation and behavior of the cops contrasted with the blood-drenched chaos inside the hideout above the Tabernacle. Afterward, the Lawrences are at last reunited in the final seconds before the film fades out, and it should be noted that it’s wife Jill who saves husband Bob and daughter Betty from capture and distress, a continuation of the film’s deliberate clouding of popular gender roles and of “traditional” marital relationships.
Waltzes from Vienna wasn’t destined to stand as Hitchcock’s last failure, nor did the move to Gaumont and its attendant freedom mark the end of his struggles with producers. Indeed, even this film suffered a distribution setback thanks to Hitchcock’s old nemesis C.M. Woolf, the British distributor who’d kept The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle out of circulation in the mid-’20s. Sharing and influenced by the director Graham Cutts’ low opinion of Hitchcock’s abilities and still unconverted by 1934 (unlike Michael Balcon, who’d considered The Lodger an awful mess but was now fully supportive of the director), he was blindsided when the film received stellar reviews and proved massively popular, Hitchcock’s strategy of placing melodramatic concerns against a gritty real-world setting having struck a genuine chord with audiences (and with critics; a trade ad records a telling comment from the Morning Post, calling it “a true to life picture”), the full fruition of his strategy in The Lodger and Blackmail at last. All the same, Woolf stubbornly threw the film on a low-price double bill which circumvented its profitability, though it couldn’t be denied that it was an incredibly popular film, breaking attendance records throughout the country. The long-term effect was that whatever issues Hitchcock may have encountered in the future, his struggle to be noticed was over; he was now the leading British director — a household-name status he’d flirted with tentatively in the past would be his permanently from this point — and would within ten years be one of the most famous filmmakers in the world. His commercial abilities assured, he’d never again spend time on the fringes of the business, either at home or — eventually — abroad, and with his own confidence in using popular entertainment to explore his own thematic and artistic interests also validated, he’d never again suffer from a lack of enthusiasm or, as he would put it to François Truffaut, from carelessness.
In that same conversation with Truffaut, from 1962, Hitchcock reflects on this watershed moment and claims a preference for his 1956 Hollywood remake of this title starring James Stewart and Doris Day. Truffaut agrees with him, and Hitchcock goes so far as to dismiss the 1934 film as “the work of a talented amateur.” Like many of Hitchcock’s unsparing opinions in the Truffaut interview, this assertion is disappointing. Though it’s probably natural for any director to remain more strongly attached to and sentimental toward his or her more recent work, Hitchcock also tended to go along with the drift of the conversation instigated by his interviewers, with numerous anecdotes, asides and opinions always at the ready, and Truffaut’s preference for the later film is frankly inexplicable. There is merit to the remake, but there’s comparatively little life in it, and John Michael Hayes’ screenplay isn’t nearly as probing or unconventional as its inspiration; despite strong performances by the leads, the casting is mostly lackluster and the only point on which the remake genuinely improves on its predecessor is in its impressive production values, with Hitchcock’s status as Hollywood A-list director, as his own producer, and as a huge moneymaker for Paramount Pictures clearly blowing wind at his back. The original film is exponentially more fun, more exciting, more interesting, and more absorbing thanks to the ramshackle real-world quality that so enamored critics at the time.
Hitchcock had not lost the ability to tell a compelling story by the ’40s and ’50s, when his films became more seduced than perhaps anyone else’s by the glamour and beauty of Hollywood as an artificial world unto itself, and by its stars as the constellation of weirdos populating all modern mythological dreams, and the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much can serve as a strong if rote demonstration of his infallible storytelling impulses if taken on its own. But having known Jill and Bob and Betty, and having been so upset by Abbott and his fellow killers, and having felt so immediately drawn to and involved in the Swiss and London settings despite so much more artificiality and trickery than in the more financially comfortable remake, everything about the 1956 film save Stewart’s admirably cold, enigmatic performance can seem flat and ordinary. Even the reunion of the couple with their child hasn’t the intensity of the brief moment Pilbeam shares here with Best and Banks, largely because we are so conscious of the fact in the newer version that these are actors, stars at that in the cases of Day and Stewart.
Perhaps most damaging is Hayes’ more conservative view of marriage, which forces a stoic, emotionally barren woodenness from Stewart, which he again sinks into quite impressively, that was probably then perceived as macho strength. The couple’s subplot in the film works from Hayes’ favorite subject, of a career-marriage conflict, which served him so well in Rear Window but now feels contrived: Day is a former professional singer who wants to go back to work and she saves her son’s (it’s now a son, natch) life by singing, not by shooting. The Lawrences in 1934 felt like a couple you might know, or one you might even be; you wanted to spend more time with them than you were allowed. The McKennas in 1956 feel like Frankenstein approximations of prosperous “normal” suburbanites as guessed at by the Hollywood archetype machine. Interestingly, it’s one of only two Hitchcock films made after WWII that revolves around a traditional family dynamic, of a couple with a child or children. (The other is The Wrong Man, which is much more successful but has the leg-up of being based directly on real people.) Whereas Jill laughs and jokes effervescently around her husband, Day’s Jo seems almost afraid of hers — and while this may speak to where the status of women stood in the respective eras and countries, one also wonders whether the operative influence is of Bennett’s worldview versus Hayes’. It’s the difference between a wonderful and a terrible way to model a relationship for your kids, or even your friends, and more importantly a wonderful and a terrible relationship to be in. (On the other hand, Jo remains in the front seat of the action for the entire film, whereas the Lawrences split up during the body of this one, a correction Hitchcock may have specifically sought to make.)
For my part, I think it’s much more likely that Hitchcock and Truffaut’s relatively low opinion of the 1934 film may well have been driven by print quality, with Hitchcock’s own memories probably otherwise vague thirty years later. The movie was difficult to see for decades, with Paramount apparently having bought the copyright to make the 1956 film and rendering the original a rarity, and the negative was lost eons ago, so for many years even new viewers in the video era could well walk away bewildered by the original Man Who Knew Too Much; having first seen it on a public domain VHS tape I can verify that with its muffled dialogue, scratchy film stock and inadvertent jump cuts it looked like a highly intriguing but incomprehensible series of random images revolving around people skiing, other people speaking and pacing frantically, and Peter Lorre laughing. Seeing a film like this presented correctly makes all the difference, and thanks to the Janus Films restoration mounted in 2011, everyone can now hopefully bear witness to what an extraordinary film this is; a monument to a career that was hitting its stride, yes, but also a magnificent moment all its own in which love with equanimity and compassion can conquer everything even set against the unforgivingly dim larger world. I don’t think it’s strange to say that I find great comfort and identification in the portrait it paints of long-term romantic love, chair fight or no chair fight.