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Hitchcock Reviews

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks), is holidaying in Switzerland with his wife Jill (Edna Best) and daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). A Frenchman they have befriended is murdered in front of him, whispering about a planned assassination that wil put the British government in jeopardy. Betty is abducted to ensure Bob’s silence until after the assassin (Peter Lorre) has carried out his grim task in the planned setting of the Albert Hall. How can Bob do his patriotic duty but at the same time keep his daughter out of danger?

Paul Merton recently called this the first proper Hitchcock movie, after his run of silent films culminated in using sound for the first time in the previous film, Blackmail. That’s as maybe, but it has dated in many respects.

The first half is quite laborious, with the very strange overly relaxed 30s attitudes; a young girl almost causes a fatal accident, then ruins her mum’s chances in a shooting competition, yet they all just laugh and call her a cheeky scamp. Relationships are fuzzy, though I bet if you watch closely enough, that must have been shocking to 30s sensibilities. Later, our reluctant hero on the trail of the kidnappers never forgets his polite humour with Peter Lorre’s fantastic villain, without a trace of irony, even in the middle of a scrap. It’s the old British spirit taken a little too far! In The Lady Vanishes, there are two cricket fans that fall into this style, but they’re funny because of the contrast. Still, a cracking cast able to produce a lot of humour from a serious yarn.

Once the plot is firmly underway though and the action moves back to England, it’s a tour de force displaying many of what would become signature traits. Normal people in terrible peril and involved in a plot much bigger than them (causes a tangible moral dilemma here); fully rounded supporting characters (check out the character details in people turned out of their homes by the police); gags before violence (a wonderful, indulgent scene with wool); gags during violence (chair fight!); an East End gun-fight with police that Michael Mann has probably seen a few times and the magnificent Albert Hall just before it (a plot point recently borrowed for Eagle Eye).

It is a great story, with a delicious premise, in many ways a definitive Hitchcock template, balancing several big set-pieces in multiple locations. It’s just tough for modern audiences to watch and I think one of Hitchcock’s greatest traits has yet to really show: the deep, black humour, which can verge on cruel.