The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)


*. That’s Leslie Banks as Bob Lawrence and Edna Best as his wife Jill. You may know Banks from The Most Dangerous Game and Henry V. He’s the one who looks like a loaf of bread. You probably don’t know Best. You almost certainly don’t care about either of them here. This movie belongs to Peter Lorre.
*. It was Lorre’s first English film, and despite being shaky with the language Hitchcock saw what he wanted: an unsettling mixture of nastiness and vulnerability. Where had we seen such an insouciant, jokey killer before this? Lorre’s Abbott must be among the first.
*. It’s also considered by some to be the first Hitchcock film. At least that’s how he described it (though he said the same thing about The Lodger). More precisely, he called it “the real start of my career.” In the words of Guillermo del Toro, it’s the film where Hitchcock “first births himself.”
*. What does this mean? In terms of genre: a suspense thriller with lots of comic moments. In terms of theme: the innocent man caught up in a web of villainous intrigue. In terms of structure: a near total indifference to plot so that the story progresses through a series of set-piece sequences.


*. Pauline Kael complained that “Hitchcock seems sloppily unconcerned about the unconvincing material in between the tricks and jokes (a fault that persisted in the later, stodgier version, he he made in 1955).” But surely this was a fault that characterized Hitchcock’s entire career. Few of his film are convincing in terms of their general plot. The plot is nonsense, just an excuse to move us from the dentist, to the temple of the sun worshippers, to the Royal Albert Hall, to the climactic siege.
*. I think this is one of the things that makes Hitchcock such an attractive figure for critics to write about. It’s almost like there aren’t any individual stories being told, but just one undifferentiated oeuvre where these climaxes can be discussed independently, or only in relation to “Hitchcock” in general: the shower scene, the crop duster scene, the Royal Albert Hall scene, etc.
*. Yes, Bob and Edna are decent people in over their heads. But the flipside of this Hitchcock theme is also in play, as it usually is: ordinary, decent-seeming people who are actually evil.
*. The temple of the sun worshippers is the best example. They seem like a bunch of harmless eccentrics, not a gang of thugs. But then a sweet little old lady sticks a pistol in Bob’s back when he tries to leave. And it’s noteworthy that when he escapes and finds a policeman, the cop takes the word of Lorre and his “Nurse” over that of Clive. You know you’re failing a normalcy test badly when those two weirdos are more convincing as upstanding, law-abiding citizens than you are.
*. In the script, the character of Abbott was originally described as “an elderly, genial Englishman.” This would have reinforced the theme of villainy concealed beneath a “normal” exterior. But Lorre introduced a different note altogether. As if he wasn’t suspicious enough already, his appearance is enhanced with that long scar and a crazy punk stripe in his hair.
*. I take it, by the way, that the cut over Bob’s eye after the fight is meant to echo Abbott’s scar. They are blood brothers now, but fighting on opposite sides.
*. Is it so surprising that Clive can’t convince the policeman of what’s going on in the temple? Who is Clive anyway? He may be a figure of fun, what with his blank mind and thing for playing with toy trains, but he’s still creepy. And what is his relation to the Lawrences? Indeed, what is with the Lawrences marriage? Is it “open”? Who is Louis Bernard? Even little Betty seems to sense the ambiguity there, calling him “Uncle” (because “you’re just like an uncle, aren’t you?”) and insisting how much her mother likes him.


*. Criterion did a nice job restoring this film, as they often do. Perhaps too good? After Bob and Jill kiss in one scene you can clearly see a strand of saliva hanging between their lips. I didn’t need to see that!
*. I wonder if audiences have changed, or if Hitchcock overestimated our ability to register subtle cues. Example: I didn’t pick up on the significance of Ramon’s slick hair or Abbott’s musical pocket watch until second and third viewings. These cues meant nothing to me the first time I saw the film.
*. I also thought it inadequate to just play a few seconds of music on the phonograph to give Ramon (and the audience) the cue for the assassination. This doesn’t serve its intended purpose because there isn’t enough of the music, and it isn’t memorable enough, to build suspense. In the Albert Hall scene we’re only going off of visual cues (the gun barrel extending past the curtain, the cymbals getting ready to be struck), not musical cues. Hitch in his Truffaut interview seems to have thought that he had given enough of a musical cue but he had not. He resolved to do more in the remake.
*. I feel much the same way about the use of music in The Lady Vanishes, where I didn’t recognize the code tune in its various renditions. But perhaps I’m just not very musical.
*. The Rules of the Game is often held up, on Renoir’s word, as a portrait of a society “dancing on a volcano.” In fact, it seems to me that Hitchcock in the ’30s was more in tune with the anxieties of the day. This is obvious in the political message his films have, with German spies and the threat of war looming (Gibson draws in the parallel of the attempt to assassinate Ropa with Sarajevo in 1914), but it’s also there in that general sense of uncertainty and bubbling danger, of innocent people caught up in a vortex.


*. What is the “thin crust” (John Buchan) of civilization that holds us over the abyss? What is it that keeps us from falling off the ledge of the building (in our pyjamas)? The amibivalence in Hitchcock’s answer is what I find most interesting about his work.
*. The short answer would be a respect for order, a recognition of the proper forms. But the police are . . . the police. They represent authority, but they’re not to be trusted. And British respectability and keeping up appearances isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. Even Charters and Caldicott aren’t all Charters and Caldicott. Furthermore, as we’ve already seen, what seems decent and respectable is often only a dangerous facade.
*. That British sense of aplomb under pressure can be both annoying and dangerous. It’s akin to the kind of thing Monty Python would send up in The Meaning of Life: the stiff upper lip as sometimes comic, sometimes obnoxious, obtuseness.
*. Or perhaps it’s not British aplomb so much as a class thing. Notice how elegantly Louis Benard (who was not originally supposed to be French) dies at the beginning. Why, he barely notices at first that a high-powered rifle has shot him in the chest. That blood stain will likely ruin his shirt.
*. But isn’t this the anxiety behind every suspense film? Where are safety and security to be found? In Hitchcock there’s nothing we can be sure of.


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