Monday, January 14, 2013

Movie Monday: The Man Who Knew Too Much

This week's Movie Monday is Alfred Hitchcock's 1934 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much!

I recently finished reading Alfred Hitchcock: A Life In Darkness and Light, an excellent history of the man, focusing primarily on his legendary career. Arguably the most famous movie director of all time (maybe, at this point, he's been surpassed by Spielberg?), Hitch carved out a identity for himself and his films that remains unmatched.

The main takeaway I had from the book was wanting to either watch--or in many cases re-watch--all of his films. I had seen almost everyone from the 40s and 50s, with bigger gaps in the bracketing decades. So I've decided to rectify that, and so every so often--about once a month or so--I'm going to devote a Movie Monday to one of the man's films.

I didn't want to start with the silents--not only are they really hard to find, but I just have a very tough time, still, watching silent films. So I put those Hitchcocs aside for the moment, deciding to start with a story of which I was familiar, but had not seen this version of: The Man Who Knew Too Much, from 1934: 
The film opens in Switzerland, where a young British couple, Bob and Jill Lawrence (Banks and Best), are on vacation with their young daughter (the wonderfully named Nova Pilbeam). Jill is an expert marksman (already we're in odd territory), participating in a clay pigeon shooting contest.

They befriend a French man staying in the same hotel, and at a party that night, Jill dances with the man, only to watch him be assassinated in front of her very eyes:
Turns out the man in a spy, and in his last moments he passes some secret information to her, which he says must reach the British Consul. The assassins in question are led by the creepy Abbott (Peter Lorre, who else?), and to make sure they don't talk, they kidnap young Betty:
At the same time, if Bob and Jill do not deliver the information, an important diplomat is scheduled to be assassinated, as well. Feeling they are on their own, the Lawrences return to England, following the only clue they have as to their daughter's whereabouts, a secret message hidden in the spy's room.

There are so many scenes in the film that are what would become known as pure Hitchcock that I can only imagine how they came across to an unsuspecting audience: a scene set in a dentist's office (featuring Bob and a friend of his) starts off with a shot of grotesque teeth, slowly panning out to reveal they're just a prop sign:
There's another scene, set in dark room full of Sun worshippers(!) that feels goofy and creepy at the same time. These people aren't a threat, exactly, but they're so odd that it gives you the creeps, even when Hitchcock indulges in near-slapstick during a fight scene.

Bob finds out that Abbott is the ringleader, and is also taken hostage. Bob's friend though escapes, telling Jill where the assassination is to take place--the Albert Hall. While she sits in the audience, trying to decide what to do, Abbott and his men (plus his girlfriend, Nurse Agnes) listen to the concert on the radio, knowing that when a certain note is hit, the shot will be fired.

Apparently at this point in his career, Lorre knew almost no English, having learned all his lines phonetically (!!). Nevertheless--or maybe because of that--Lorre is dynamite in the movie. Always looking like he's about to burst into laughs, he never overplays and while he always seems threatening, it's a kind of laid-back threatening:
There's a final shootout between the police and the gang, ending with Jill's sharpshooting skills coming back into play (women are doing it for themselves!). The film ends with the family being reunited, but there's something haunting about this "happy ending": take a look at young Betty in the final moments. She looks absolutely shell-shocked, like a zombie. Sure, everyone is back together, but you get the sense that this young girl is in for years, maybe a lifetime, of therapy having gone through this experience.

At 75 minutes, The Man Who Knew Too Much moves at a lightning pace, and features some truly amazing scenes. Hitchcock's mastery of tension is already completely in place: the scene in the dentist's office is as unsettling in it's own way as the more famous sequence from The Marathon Man ("Is it safe?"), just less graphic. The penultimate scene at the Albert Hall is Classic Hitchcock: a horrendous scene of anticipatory violence happening amid a crowd of people who don't know what's going on.

I will admit, the film suffers a bit from it's age--the bits of comedy don't work as well, but that was simply the style back then. There might be creepy murderers and spys running about, but you also had stiff-upper-lip British guys phumphering around and getting laughs (or at least trying to). And Nova Pilbeam (that name!) seems a little too old to be playing a precocious, Shirley Temple-type tot. Maybe putting someone younger through some of the scenes would have been considered bad taste, so they had to go a bit older (Pilbeam was 16 when she made this).

But those are minor complaints--overall The Man Who Knew Too Much is a blast, and a great way to start my run, any run, of Hitchcock films. If you like the Master's work and haven't seen this one, I unreservedly endorse seeking it out.


Robert M. Lindsey said...

I agree, great movie. Such a great Hitchcock like premise, I can see why he did it again.

Septorinoplasti drew said...

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