Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1934): Hitchcock’s First Masterpiece

The_Man_Who_Knew_Too_Much_posterOne of the most successful and critically acclaimed films of Hitchcock’s British era, The Man Who Knew Too Much was made in 1934, six years before he left for the U.S. (His first American movie was Rebecca, which won the 1940 Best Picture Oscar).

Hitchcock remade the film with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day in 1956, but the two films are very different in tone, setting, characters (the kidnapped in the 1934 feature was a girl, not a boy) and in many plot details.

 

Our Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

In the book-length interview Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967), the French director states that aspects of the remake were by far superior, to Hitchcock replied, “Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.”

The film borrows its title from G. K. Chesterton’s 1922 collection of detective stories of the same name. Hitchcock decided to use the title because he owned the rights for some of the stories.

As the story begins, the married couple, Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Banks) are on vacation in the Swiss Alps, with their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). Jill, a strong, skillful woman, is participating in a clay pigeon shooting contest.

While there, they befriend a foreigner, Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay), who is staying in their hotel. One evening, as Jill dances with Louis, she witnesses his assassination as a French spy. Before dying, the spy passes on to her a vital information to be delivered to the British consul.

To ensure their silence, the assassins, led by the dangerous Abbott (Peter Lorre), kidnap the daughter.  Fearing to seek help from the police, the couple return to England. They discover that the group intends to assassinate the head of state of an unidentified European country during a concert at London’s famous Royal Albert Hall.

Risking her life, Jill attends the concert, and to distract the gunman, she screams at the crucial moment.

Last Act

The assassins are tracked to a working-class in the London district of Wapping near the docks, where they hide-out in a temple of sun-worshipping cult. Bob had entered the temple as he searched for Betty; both are being held prisoner in the adjoining house, in separate rooms. The police surround the buildings, and a major gunfight ensues. The criminals hold out until their ammunition runs low and nearly all of them have been killed.

Betty climbs up to the roof, fleeing from Ramon, who follows her. A police marksman dares not attempt to shoot him, as he is standing so close to Betty. Jill grabs the rifle and her sharpshooting skills finally triumph, she shoots Ramon, who falls off the roof.

The police storm the building. Abbott, the criminal mastermind, is still alive and hiding behind a door, but he is betrayed by the chiming of his watch, and is shot and killed by the police.

Happy Ending

In the happy ending, the ordeal is over and Betty is reunited with her parents.

The project began when Hitchcock and Charles Bennett tried to adapt a “Bulldog Drummond story about international conspiracies and a baby kidnapping; its original title was Bulldog Drummond’s Baby. As the deal fell through, the frame of the plot was reused for The Man Who Knew Too Much, the title taken from an unrelated Chetterton’s compilation.

The story is credited to Bennett and D.B. Wyndham Lewis, but Bennett claims that Lewis had been hired to write dialogue, which was never used.

Having recently fled from Nazi Germany, Peter Lorre was unable to speak English; he learned his lines phonetically.

The shoot-out was based on the Sidney Street Siege, a real-life incident which took place in London’s East End (where Hitchcock grew up) in January 1911.

Hitchcock hired Australian composer Arthur Benjamin to write a piece of music especially for the climax at Royal Albert Hall. The music, a chorale titled “Storm Clouds Cantata,” is used in the 1934 version and in the 1956 remake, albeit in a more elaborate and detailed version.  This chorale was written for the assassination scene. In the 1934 version, the London Symphony Orchestra was directed by H. Wynn Reeves. In the 1956 edition, the London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by the composer Bernard Herrmann, and the chorus is the Covent Garden Opera Chorus with soloist Barbara Howitt

The Cantata ranges about 9 minutes, starting with a Lento in three-quarter time in C major. The first half of the chorale is Lento, at 108 beats per minute. Then begins the Allegro agitato, characterized by rhythmic strokes of the timpani. The conclusion is very fast both in the chorus and in the orchestra.

The Man Who Knew Too Much opened in London in December 1934, and in the U.S. on March 21, 1935

Hitchcock Cameo:

Hitchcock appears about 33 minutes into the film, seen crossing the street from right to left in a black trench coat before the couple enter the Chapel.

 

Credits

Running time: 75 minutes

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by Charles Bennett and D. B. Wyndham-Lewis

Associate Producer: Ivor Montagu

Camera (b/w): Curt Courant

Editor: H. St. C. J. Stewart

Music: Arthur Benjamin

 

Cast

Leslie Banks as Bob

Edna Best as Jill

Peter Lorre as Abbott

Frank Vosper as Ramon

Hugh Wakefield as Clive

Nova Pilbeam as Betty Lawrence

Pierre Fresnay as Louis

Cicely Oates as Nurse Agnes

B. A. Clarke Smith as Binstead

George Curzon as Gibson