I realized upon watching The Man Who Knew Too Much again that the movie deserves more credit than I had originally given it. I had seen it twice before, both times on a cheap videocassette with muffled audio that made it difficult to pick up the dialogue. As a result, I had always dismissed the film rather unfairly, ranking it a distant third in comparison to other early Hitchcock efforts such as The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Lady Vanishes. Now having just watched it on a cheap DVD with much better audio, I still rate the film behind those other two, but the difference is a great deal closer.
The film begins in Switzerland, where British couple Bob and Jill Lawrence are vacationing with their daughter Betty amid the grandeur of the Alps. In this cosmopolitan environment that mixes people from all parts of Europe, the Lawrences appear urbane and relaxed. We see them mingling with German and Frenchman alike with unconscious ease, unperturbed by any issues of national identity. This benign cosmopolitanism comes to an abrupt end, however, when Frenchman Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) dies in Jill’s arms, the result of a gunshot received while dancing with her.
His dying words to Jill are to go to his room and find a brush and take it to the British Consul. Suddenly we are enmeshed in the treacherous world of international espionage that pits one country against another. Husband Bob finds the brush and an obscurely-worded message within it, but just as he is about to report it to the British consul, he receives another note. This one warns him that his daughter has been kidnapped and will be killed if gives his message to the Consul. The trick is that if he does not report his findings, a diplomat will be assassinated with international chaos to ensue.
So begins the suspense. The acting is very good: Leslie Banks and Edna Best are convincing as the debonair-turned-distraught British couple, while Peter Lorre is captivating as the sinister German, Abbot. Hitchcock displays a deft hand with his camera shots and pacing as well, a sign of his increasing confidence as film director. There is a wonderful scene at the Royal Albert Hall, in which Jill attends a performance of Arthur Benjamin’s The Storm Cloud Cantata, having been warned in advance that something terrible is about to take place. She surveys the concert-hall and gradually realizes with horror the method by which the assassination plot of an attending diplomat is to be enacted. Hitchcock manipulates the performance skillfully, so that the outward, contrived drama of the chorus singing the cantata begins to mirror Jill’s own, very real, internal drama: her conflicted anguish between her desire to save her daughter and her awareness of what will take place if she does not interfere. It is quite wonderful.
This is not a perfect film. There are a few clumsy moments throughout the film that one must do one’s best to overlook. There is a scene, for example, in which the kidnappers telephone the Lawrences warning them yet again to keep mum with the authorities. In the course of the conversation, they put daughter Betty on the phone with Jill to assure her that her daughter is still alive – for now. As they talk, husband Bob stands close by, urging his wife to ask Betty where she is being held. The reason for this I cannot quite fathom. Does Bob think that his daughter will simply tell them the location and the mystery will be solved? The result is quite the opposite, of course. Upon Jill asking the question, a shriek is heard on the other side and the line goes dead.
Moreover, the final shootout at Sydney Street is artfully done. Nonetheless, one would think that as the number of spies whittles down from the 7 to 6 to 2, Scotland Yard might swarm in and overwhelm their opponents. But no, this does not happen. Rather, the pesky spies manage to stave off seemingly hundreds of policemen, even as they dwindle down to their last gun. Oh well. At least, this implausible device serves to guide us to a very satisfying climax.
Anyway, these are minor flaws in a very good film, one of Hitchcock’s best from his days at British studios. I have two things to add. The Man Who Knew Too Much was Peter Lorre’s first English-speaking role, and I think that anyone who sees the film will concur that his debut in British cinema comes not a moment too soon. Also, if you happen to see the 1956 remake of the film, be prepared for a vastly inferior movie. I hate Doris Day (just as an actress, mind you), and the climax to that film features her singing “Que Sera, Sera.” Ah…if only I were joking.Powered by Sidelines