Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Title: The Man Who Knew Too Much
Year: 1934
Studio: Gaumont-British Picture corporation Ltd
Screenplay: Charles Bennett, D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, Edwin Greenwood,A.R. Rawlinson & Emlyn Williams.
Source Material: Although an original screenplay, the title was acquired from a collection of stories by G.K. Chesterton.
Running Time: 72 minutes
A black & white picture

Thursday 23rd September, 2:30pm
I thought, seeing as I am taking some annual leave this week and I'll be away for the majority of the weekend visiting friends, I ought to plunge into the next movie whilst I have the time. I spent this morning making a delicious dark fruit cake which is cooling on a wire rack beside me as I type. It smells wonderful, even if I say so myself. It is near impossible to buy decent cakes in stores today - everything tastes so artificial - so it is always best to make one's own.
So, as the cake began its cooling down period, I positioned myself on the settee wearing my new running shoes - gosh, they do look smart, I am sure they'll look even better when I am doing exercise - and watched The Man Who Knew Too Much...
This is where Hitchcock really gets into his stride.

Bob Lawrence - Leslie Banks
Jill Lawrence - Edna Best
Abott - Peter Lorre
Ramon - Frank Vosper
Clive - Hugh Wakefield
Betty Lawrence - Nova Pilbeam
Louis Bernard - Pierre Fresnay
Nurse Agnes - Cicely Oates
Binstead - D.A. Clarke Smith
Gibson - George Curzon

During a family holiday in St Moritz, Switzerland, The Lawrence family befriend a skier named Louis Bernard. Little do they know he is a member of Special Services. they are all staying at the same hotel where they are enjoying a variety of winter sports. Also at the hotel are some gentlemen - Abbott and Vosper -with whom they get on amiably.
However, one night whilst dancing after dinner, Bernard is shot - with his dying breaths, he tells Jill a cryptic message and the family are plunged into a deadly conspiracy. Louis' message leads Bill to the dead man's hotel room where he finds a note hidden within the handle of a shaving brush. It has a symbol at the top that looks like a rising sun and the note reads:


The police are called in and everyone is being questioned about the events including Jill and Bob Lawrence who later receive an anonymous note which reads:

Say nothing of what you found or you will never see your child again.

Jill faints at this and Bill manages to tear away the note and burns it in the fireplace before the authorities can see it.
They return to England without their daughter and the police are already on the trail, although Bob refuses to admit his daughter, Betty, has been kidnapped.
Bob decides he is going to take matters into his own hands, despite an attempted intervention by a man named Gibson from the consulate.
Bob and his friend Clive follow the clues themselves and come across George Barbor's Dentistry. When inside, Bob manages to overpower the crooked dentist and poses as the professional so he can overhear details from the rest of the gang.
He and Clive then discover the Tabernacle of the Sun whose emblem matches the one on the note found in Louis' shaving brush. Inside the chapel, they are discovered by the gang of crooks and a fight breaks out with chairs being flung.
Clive gets away and is able to telephone Jill and warn her about the assassination at the Royal Albert Hall. Bob, however, is held captive.
The plan is for Ramon to shoot Ropa, the foreign statesman, at a specific point during a concert - at a point where the music is loud enough to cover the sound of a gunshot.
Jill arrives and Ramon palms her the brooch that Betty had been wearing. During the concert, Jill is petrified and she sees Ramon hiding in one of the boxes and when the moment comes, she screams. This is enough for him to miss his target slightly - only he is not aware of the fact until he returns to the gang's hideout and they hear the news on the radio.
Thanks to quick thinking from Jill, the police are hot on the heels of Ramon and soon have the hideout surrounded (with Betty and Bob still held captive inside). There is a phenomenal shoot-out and many lives are lost on both side. Bob helps Betty escape through a window leading to the roof, but he is wounded by one of Ramon's shots. Ramon then follows Betty out onto the rooftop. A crowd has formed below and no one dares to fire in case they hit Betty instead of Ramon - however, Jill grabs a rifle and uses her own skills to perfect use and protects her daughter with one perfect shot. Ramon plunges to the street below.
The police storm the building. Everyone is fatally wounded except for Bob and Abbott who is hiding behind a door. However, his pocket-watch gives his position away and he is killed. The Lawrence family are finally reunited and the drama is over.
The End.

Great Lines
Gibson's reasoning to Bob's unwillingness to co-operate due to his daughter's involvement is perfect:

Bob Lawrence: "'s her (Betty's) life against this fellow Ropa's. Why should we care if some foreign statesman we've never even heard of were assassinated?"

Gibson: "Tell me, in June 1914, had you ever heard of a place called Sarajevo? Course you hadn't. I doubt you'd even heard of the Arch Duke Ferdinand. But in a months time, because a man you'd never heard of killed another man you'd never heard of in a place you'd never heard of, this country was at war!"

Hitchcock must have liked jigsaws. He once told of how he came to make this film. He wanted to do a picture that involved winter sports, the East End of London, a chapel and the Albert Hall. All he had to do was build a story with those pieces. Well, it worked. It certainly makes a complete picture.

My main concern about this film is, ironically, a lack of concern - from Leslie Banks' character. Here he is, returning to London after a horrible ending to a family holiday sans child and he broaches the subject with all the dour demeanour of a vaudeville comedian. There doesn't seem to be the slightest ounce of desperation (unlike Jimmy Stewart's portrayal in the remake). Don't get me wrong, I think there are some superb performances here, particularly from Nova Pilbeam, Peter Lorre and Edna Best, but Leslie is too cavalier about the whole thing - and frankly, I blame Hitch - love him as I do. I think his love of black comedy is slightly misplaced when it is concerning the abduction of a child.
Other placements of comedy work well, during the (slightly ludicrous) chair-fight scene (the chairs were made of balsa wood) one of the female members of the gang plays at the organ so no one could hear the noises from outside. That's very Hitchcock!

Two films ago, I mentioned how I liked Hitch's way of blurring the screen when seeing something from the viewpoint of someone crying - he did it in Rich and Strange and he does it again here when Jill is at the Albert Hall anticipating the crescendo and worrying about her daughter. It's a very effective technique.

I do love the threads which weave their way through the narrative and actually pay off at the end. Little things like the brooch Betty receives from her mother at the beginning eventually becomes a symbol of her capture and the hold the captors have over Jill. The chiming of Abbott's watch signals his presence three times, innocently initially, but then ominously midway through the movie and tragically (for him) at the denouement.
Finally, the clay-pigeon shooting match at the start is not merely a scene for witty banter and mock rivalry, it foreshadows the ironic death of Ramon who is shot down from the rooftop by expert-shot Jill.

Although the film is expertly constructed on many levels, I find the big shoot-out scene goes on for just a minute or two too long. Maybe it's my 21st century brain demanding something pacier...

My Verdict
I shan't deny it. I am much more fond of Hitchcock's own remake in 1956, but this has a lot going for it too. I don't think it's as perfect as other critics make out.

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