While vacationing in Switzerland, a British couple, Bob (Leslie Banks, The Most Dangerous Game) and his wife Jill (Edna Best, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), unexpectedly become witnesses to the assassination of a spy. In order to keep the couple quiet, the killers kidnap their daughter (Nova Pilbeam, Young and Innocent). Bob and Jill can’t go to the police so they decide to stop the assassins on their own.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Stand by, there’s trouble coming soon.”
The Man Who Knew Too Much, and the quintet of movies that followed it, established Alfred Hitchcock as the indisputable “Master of Suspense.” Although he had made thrillers before, from this point forward Hitchcock wholeheartedly embraced the genre and never looked back. The Man Who Knew Too Much has some rough edges but it manages to lay bare the fundamental Hitchcock formula.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is an exercise in “sustained anxiety.” The film is about suspense and suspense alone. There is no punctuation, period. The Man Who Knew Too Much wastes no time in creating an atmosphere of apprehension. The villains’ motivations are purposely vague — Hitchcock never cared about such details — but bad guys and good guys are clearly defined.
The film hinges at least partly on the mood and attitudes of pre-WWII Britain. Hitchcock often talked about how his compatriots’ tendency to bottle up their feelings has led them to react to stress in odd ways. You can see a lot of that in the movie. The parents’ stoicism in the face of tragedy doesn’t help them at all. Tellingly, an emotional outburst ends up saving the day. A critique or a mere observation? Either way, it’s interesting.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is cheeky in places (the film has a macabre sense of humor), which is an interesting thing to watch in the context of very serious situations. There is an unforgettable serious-comic sequence that takes place at a dentist’s office, a sequence that’s suspiciously close to the iconic moment in Marathon Man (1976). The ending in particular is some sort of cruel joke.
It’s not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination. I thought Hitchcock made a few mistakes. The climax is a bit clunky. I didn’t like how the film’s most important scene, the assassination attempt at London’s famous Albert Hall, was edited. From the famous Albert Hall, Hitchcock cuts to the kidnapper’s lair. It’s an odd choice. I thought crosscutting killed (no pun intended) some of the suspense.
In addition, the two leading actors, Leslie Banks and Edna Best, are a bit bland. I wasn’t as emotionally connected with the main characters as I should have been. I was more interested in the villain’s nefarious plans. This seems to have been intentional, though. Hitchcock allegedly wrote additional scenes for Peter Lorre (he plays the main bad guy) after he noticed that the actor was stealing the show.
Hitchcock’s technical proficiency makes you forget the minor flaws. The director manages to create something interesting and powerful in a relatively short amount of time. The camera work and art-direction are particularly excellent. The Man Who Knew Too Much was shot inside sound stages, but Hitchcock was able to convince this viewer that he went to both Switzerland and London’s famous Albert Hall.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The film was Hitchcock’s first international hit — The Man Who Knew Too Much made a small fortune on both sides of the Atlantic. Perfectionist Hitchcock was never completely satisfied with the movie and decided to remake it in 1956. Movie buffs and critics have gotten hernias discussing which version is better, the 1934 British film or the 1956 Hollywood version. Anyhow, The Man Who Knew Too Much is an excellent thriller filled with intriguing ideas. B&W, 75 minutes, Not Rated.