The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

D: Alfred Hitchcock
S: Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre

There are some real surprises in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and not just the characteristic Hitchcockian moments of shock and suspense (though these are present). In his first rendition of this particular tale, Hitchcock and his team of scriptwriters present a fast-paced story of espionage, assassination, and kidnapping in which female lead Edna Best plays a much more prominent role than is usual in the genre (witness even recent efforts including Ron Howard's Ransom or Hitchcock's 1956 remake of this film). There's also a certain frankness in the portrayal of intra-marital flirting and the characters' espousal of personal causes over political ones which is all the more effective because they are not over emphasised. It also showcases a solid English-language performance by Peter Lorre (star of Fritz Lang's classic thriller M) as the main heavy.

Brit winter sports enthusiast Leslie Banks and sharpshooting wife Best find themselves smack in the middle of an international conspiracy when following the death of an acquaintance in Switzerland who passes on some cryptic information to them, their daughter is snatched with a warning not to reveal what they know. Banks embarks on a mission to find the girl by following the leads himself, leading to a climactic assassination attempt at the Albert Hall followed by a shoot out in which only Best keeps her head amid the gunfire and bloodshed. There are plenty of curious happenstances along the way, including an encounter with a sinister dentist, a brawl in a church accompanied by organ music, and unexpected sudden death. Hitchcock handles the elements nicely, and though the story doesn't always hold attention largely due to the bland performances of its leads (who are merely pawns in Hitchcock's hands), it is never less than interesting.

The film is especially notable for its use of sound and sound effects, demonstrating a mature grasp of the relationship between sound and image after only a few years of the technique. In perhaps an acknowledgement of Lang's earlier film, Lorre's villain is identified by sound, in this case the chiming of a pocket watch (in M it was a strain of Peer Gynt whistled on the wind). Hitchcock also uses sound ironically, such as in the aforementioned church scene, where amid scenes of violence, ponderous religious tunes are heard. One scene even plays on the relationship between diagetic and non-diagetic space, as Best's emotional state is reflected by music which is actually being played right in front of her.

Visually the film retains the shadowy tones of the director's earlier expressionist-influenced work such as The Lodger. Though it would soon become standard for the genre, his use of shadow-inducing lighting and off-centre composition enhances the feeling of claustrophobia and suspicion later to define Hollywood film noir. It also enhances the tone of vague fantasy which takes some of the edge off the political sub-texts, which Hitchcock treats as little more than narrative Macguffins. This hurts the film more than it would in later examples such as The Lady Vanishes and Foreign Correspondent. Despite the foreshadowing of war and the suggestion of intrigues largely hidden from the general population, the film is first and foremost an action thriller with moments of comedy which lacks the kind of balance he found only a year later in The 39 Steps.

As a film in its own right, The Man Who Knew Too Much is worth seeing. It's fast, entertaining, and has some real jolts and neat directorial flourishes which can't but impress even jaded contemporary viewers with an iota of perceptual awareness. It is more interesting to students of film and of Hitchcock in particular though, who will find it as fascinating in its own way as any of his later works, not least of all in its portrayal of such a strong female figure as Best's. Watch in particular for the ending, which is not quite so upbeat as it appears. Take a look at the daughter's reaction to being reunited with her parents. Her face reflects far from the expected joyous relief which the more insipid type of kidnap film usually gives us. The suggestion of life-affecting trauma is an element of reality again unusual for the genre and not necessarily characteristic of the film on the whole. But it is yet another surprise in a small gem of a movie which has that capacity for the unexpected which makes it enduring in spite of its shortcomings.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.