The Mubi Cinematheque: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
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Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, at their best, tend to involve ordinary individuals thrust into extraordinary events. It’s true in North by Northwest and it’s true in The 39 Steps.
It’s also true in The Man Who Knew Too Much, a film that, even though Hitchcock wasn’t as pleased as he might be by later projects, provides a glimpse into the mind of a future master.
That’s too much of a backhanded compliment. For the most part, this is a very tight narrative. The opening sequence, introducing the Lawrence family, is very naturalistic. Perhaps it’s the familiarity with Hitchcock’s later work that betrays it, but there is a sense of dread from the very beginning as the raucous score kicks as an anonymous set of hands rifles through a stack of Swiss vacation pamphlets. It’s innocuous, which is part of why it works. It, again, links to the notion of the normal being disrupted by chaos.
A ski accident following the opening credits acts as the first real evidence of foreboding. The skier escapes, but that doesn’t mean he is out of danger. As faces are introduced, everything is moving at a near disorienting pace. It works to keep the viewer guessing. And then everything stops in a start as the skier is shot while dancing with Jill Lawrence (Edna Best). The skier, also a spy, gives her information about a note in his hotel room. And thus thrusts the unassuming family into its adventure.
The film becomes a back and forth ping pong match. The Lawrence’s discover the information and take it while those responsible for Louis the spy’s death kidnap Betty (Nova Pilbeam), the Lawrence’s precocious daughter. The set up works remarkably well because the family is depicted in such a way that familiarizes them. While Leslie Banks may not set the world on fire as Bill, his chemistry with Best and Pilbeam is very strong. They joke around and show love for one another without seeming theatrical or forced.
But it’s Peter Lorre who steals the whole show in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Without his performance as the tittering, yet menacing, Abbott the whole thing might not hold together quite as well as it does. Lorre is one of those character actors who is instantly recognizable but has the skills to inhabit whatever character he’s playing with ease. In Fritz Lang’s M, he brings fragility to an otherwise unsympathetic character. Here, that fragility is used as a smokescreen as it morphs into sleazy gravitas. At first, he seems harmless, a bystander, a face in the crowd. There are several scenes where he is clearly visible in the background simultaneously sticking out and blending in. He’s a true chameleon.
The film falters because it is not pieced together with the expert craft that is synonymous with Hitchcock’s later work, which explains why he decided to remake the film twenty years later. He explained as much in an interview he did with Francois Truffaut. Despite any shortcomings that may be present, there is still enough of a gripping story to warrant a viewing. While as a whole it may lose its way in places, specifically the last fifteen minutes or so, there are individual scenes of wonderful suspense. Bill playing spy to infiltrate Abbott’s crew at the dentist’s office and later the church are fantastic.
Hitchcock, as is apparent from his later filmography, would tighten his technique so his films succeeded as a whole as soon as the following year, is still able to showcase his talents. The Man Who Knew Too Much is tense and funny in equal measure. It’s loose and breezy. It may not be among his very best efforts, but it’s a crisp 75 minutes that begs a watch.