Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), was his first film for Gaumont British studios, which gave him more freedom to try out his ideas. Although his directorial resume had started in the silent era and already included twenty films, it was with this effort that he began to display the extraordinary narrative vitality that was to make him famous. It also introduced two significant Continental European actors to English-speaking audiences: Peter Lorre (who had recently appeared in Fritz Lang’s M and who would soon appear in von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment) and Pierre Fresnay (who would later appear in Jean Renoir’s 1937 film Le Grande Illusion).
The story concerns a British couple who become inadvertently entangled in an international political assassination plot. This story plot inaugurated a theme that was become common to many subsequent Hitchcock films, wherein an ordinary polite and unassuming middle-class man is caught up in a threatening situation from which he must somehow manage to extricate himself without assistance. The plot has six somewhat implausibly strung-together sequences:
- St. Moritz. In the first section, the urbane British couple, Bob and Jill Lawrence, are vacationing with their teenage daughter, Betty, at the St. Moritz ski resort. Jill is evidently a crack markswoman and competes for a skeet-shooting trophy against another marksman, Ramon, but a distracting noise causes her to miss the last shot and lose the match. The couple engage in witty social banter with other upper-class vacationers, including a smooth-talking foreigner, Mr. Abbott (played by Peter Lorre), and a competitive French skier, Louis Bernard (played by Pierre Fresnay). That evening at the hotel while Jill is dancing with Louis and trying to make her husband a bit jealous, a shot rings out and Louis slowly falls to the floor. The genteel, upper-class comedy that has so far been on display has suddenly turned into a murder/adventure story. In the few seconds before he dies, Louise slips Jill his hotel room key and urges her to get a secret document from his hotel room and give it to the British Foreign Office. Bob then goes to the room and finds the document, which is a cryptic message with the words “Wapping G Barbor Make Contact A. Hall March 21st”, rolled up in Louis’s shaving brush. Others apparently want that piece of paper, too, though, including Ramon, and almost immediately Bob and Jill are informed that their daughter has been kidnapped and will be killed if they reveal the contents of the secret message. Outcome: Bob and Jill have the secret paper, but Betty has been kidnapped.
- Back in London. Bob and Jill are questioned by the police and the Foreign Office, who inform them that Louis was a spy working for the British government and trying to prevent a politically-motivated assassination of an important foreign official. Fearful of the threats to their daughter’s safety, however, Bob and Jill refuse to reveal what they know. Bob then sets out with the cryptic message to the Wapping area to see if he can use it to find his daughter. At this point, 26 minutes into the 75-minute film, the key conflict has been established. Outcome: Bob and Jill know about the Foreign assassination plot, but they decide to go it alone (without confiding with the Foreign Office).
- The Dentist’s Office. Bob and family friend, Clive, discover a dentist’s office with the name of “George Barbor” in the Wapping area, and they pretend to seek dental treatment in order to investigate. This is a compact and tense scene, during which Bob manages to resist an attack on his life, escape detection, and learn that two people he had seen in St. Moritz, Ramon and Mr. Abbott, are involved in some intrigue with Mr. Barbor. Outcome: Bob knows that Abbott and Ramon are involved and has escaped detection.
- The Religious Cult. Nearby the dentist’s office, Bob and Clive find a tabernacle identifying a sun-worshipers’ cult that has the same building markings as on Louis Bernard’s secret paper. The vaguely sinister-appearing cult members inside are soon suspicious of the two interlopers and refuse to let them leave. Abbott and Ramon then show up, and it is soon clear that Abbott is the gang ringleader and that Betty is being held prisoner there. Ramon, the marksman and presumed killer of Louis, is now dispatched to the Royal Albert Hall to carry out the planned assassination at a concert that night. But Bob causes enough chaos to enable Clive to escape and inform Jill to rush to the Albert Hall. Outcome: Jill now knows to go the Albert Hall, but Bob is now a prisoner with Betty.
- The Albert Hall. The celebrated six-minute scene at the Albert Hall is the most gripping and satisfying sequence in the film. It’s all about pace and built-up tension, as Jill, sitting in the audience, grapples with indecision concerning what she should do. Ramon has already approached her in the lobby and given her a brooch that belongs to her daughter, thereby reminding her that her daughter’s life hangs in the balance if she makes any move. During the concert with Jill sitting in the audience and the orchestral music building up to a deafening crescendo, the pressure becomes unbearable, and Jill screams, which startles Ramon’s intended target and prevents Ramon’s shot from being lethal. After the fired shot, Ramon rushes from the building, with the police and Jill in hot pursuit. Outcome: the assassination attempt has been thwarted by Jill’s scream.
- The Siege at the Tabernacle. The final sequence is an extended police siege and shootout at the tabernacle, with the gang firing shots from upstairs windows. The entire scene was inspired by the famous Sidney Street Siege of 1911 in London, which Alfred Hitchcock undoubtedly heard about when he was growing up. During the commotion of the shootout in which many policemen and gang members are killed, Bob helps Betty to get up on the roof of the building. But Ramon follows her up there, too, and aims his gun at her. The police marksman can’t get a bead on Ramon – he’s too close to Betty and he can’t get a good aim – but Jill grabs his gun and this time wins the decisive battle against Ramon: she shoots him dead. The police then storm the building and discover that the rest of the gang have been killed. Outcome: Bob and Betty have been saved and the gang has been annihilated.
But Hitchcock’s style of cinematic narrative is compelling. Each of the six episodes has a certain closure, a story-within-story aspect, that brings satisfaction as each one is brought to fruition. Yet all these episodes are linked together by the overall narrative thread, which frequently features an artifact that supplies a visual motif for forward and back referencing. (This is sometimes referred to as a “MacGuffin”, which is based on a remark that Hitchcock once made, but this term has been so overused and perhaps misapplied to such varied cinematic circumstances that is now only a source of confusion.) In this film, the key narrative thread for the Lawrences is to rescue Betty, and secondarily to halt a murder plot. But there are small artifacts that reappear at various points in the film. The secret piece of paper extracted from the shaving brush, of course, is one such artifact; but there are others: the brooch that Jill gives to Betty early on, as well as Abbott’s tune-playing pocket watch also serve as iconic artifacts to facilitate the episode linkages. Also, the early, seemingly incidental, gun-shooting event, when a noise distracts Betty from hitting her clay pidgeon target in the skeet-shooting competition, is recalled later at the Albert Hall when Betty’s scream interferes with Ramon’s assassination attempt. And there is the fascinating and satisfying plot resolution twist that, despite the male gender referenced in the title and the considerable screen time given to Bob’s activities, it is the woman, Jill, who makes the decisive actions and saves the day.
In addition to the artful stringing-together of the episodes into a coherent fabric, Hitchcock’s structurings of action within the episodes show strikingly dramatic changes of pace. Throughout three of the first four episodes, there are sudden, disarming moments of humor that intermingle with the desperate activities of the principal characters. In a similar alteration of tempo, after many of the principal characters are killed with an explosive gunshot, there is a sudden, near cessation of action, as the victim very slowly crumples to the floor. The same dramatic swing in the tempo occurs when Jill learns of her daughter’s kidnapping and freezes for a few moments before feinting. All these back-and-forth alterations in the pace of dramatic movement keep the viewer off balance, like a roller coaster. Those slowed-down moments have the shadow of previous dramatic action cast over them, and this both sustains the anticipation for upcoming events and enables one to overlook some of the implausibilities of the plot.
Much has been made of Hitchcock’s dismissal of actors and his famous remark that actors are like cattle. But this is probably not so much an expression of contempt for acting as it was a reflection of his disinterest in overly-theatrical acting that was prevalent on the stage (particularly the British stage). He generally did make effective use of many actors who had a compelling screen personae and who could fit within the tight cinematic framework that he had devised. Here, in The Man Who Knew Too Much, is a perfect example. The Abbott character is played by Peter Lorre, in his first screen role before English-speaking audiences. Lorre’s knowledge of English was minimal at this time, and he had to memorize his lines verbatim. But he still offers a powerful and seductive screen presence in this film, and that adds an element of fascination to the assassination gang side of the story.
Hitchcock remade the same story of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956, and that later film had the advantageous luxuries of a much larger budget and being shot in Technicolor, plus exotic locations (Morocco), big-name international stars (Doris Day and James Stewart), an Academy-Award-winning song (Que Sera Sera), and an extra half-hour of running time. One would have expected that later film to be the superior version, but it wasn’t. Hitchcock, himself, may have been conscious of the low-budget rough edges that appear in this earlier version when he dismissed it as the product of a talented amateur and said the 1956-version was the work of a professional. Yet it was Hitchcock’s bold cinematic and narrative gestures of this 1934 version of the story that emphatically made it the superior viewing experience. With the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock was just now coming into his own and establishing mastery over the full range of his techniques. His next outing, The 39 Steps (1935), would be his great masterpiece.