The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: At a Swiss mountain resort, Lawrence and Jill Lawrence are on a sporting holiday with their daughter Betty. After the mysterious death of family friend Louis Bernard, who manages to hand vital information about a political assassination into Lawrence’s hands, Betty is kidnapped by Abbott and his nefarious gang, and the parents must find a way to rescue her without involving the authorities.
Jason: The first thing I have to say about The Man Who Knew Too Much is that it’s a much more simple, streamlined story than I expected. I don’t know why, but I expected a James Bond-type tale of intrigue and complexity, when it’s really just a story about a kidnapping and rescue.
Jason: The construction of the film is interesting, the way it moves from gorgeous, brilliantly lit Switzerland to seedy, dark England, and in each setting, it has an elaborate sequence involving very little dialog. In the Switzerland sequences, I enjoyed trying to decipher the relationship between Jill (Edna Best) and Louis (Pierre Fresnay), as they flirt and dance. Lawrence (Leslie Banks) seems to look on with a little jealousy, finally tying a thread from Jill’s knitting to Louis’s jacket, and the thread winds its way among all the dancers. I liked the way these thoughts—of possible infidelity and humor—made us totally unprepared for the shooting death of Louis. (You know what I was reminded of when he was shot? That opening scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, when the waiter is shot above his tray, and the blood appears on his chest. I think that must have been an homage to this film.)
James: Well said, my friend. You nailed a lot of what I was thinking. Infidelity definitely rears its head again, but not overtly.
Jason: In England, we get the big Albert Hall sequence, which is really spectacular. With no words at all, we see the assassin hand Jill a trinket that reminds us of her captive daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam), and we see the hall fill up, and we see Jill scan the private booths nervously, and as the music builds to its fateful crescendo (when we know the assassin will fire his shot), we’re feeling all her anxiety. I think this is the most impressive “big” sequence we’ve seen yet.
James: That ending is great, but I kept thinking about the remake, which I’ve seen before, and I believe the later film does it better. I think we should watch a double feature with the remake at some point. But anyway, I thought this scene showed just how Hitch was coming into his own.
Jason: I also liked how the skeet-shooting match in Switzerland foreshadows the end of the film. In Switzerland, Jill is bested at target shooting by Abbott’s henchman Ramon (Frank Vosper), and if I remember right, she says something like “I’ll beat you next time.” And, of course, she does, when it matters most. I was very surprised by how Jill is really the hero and woman of action in this movie, while Lawrence is powerless. I mean, this is an incredibly early instance of a very capable heroine, and even though I laughed a little when she grabbed that policeman’s rifle and took aim, I was impressed that Hitch let the gal save the day.
James: The woman as heroine is a great idea. And actually it’s something I wasn’t expecting. I can’t think of another film in which Hitch has the female save the day, which is odd because all of his lead women are strong characters.
Jason: I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.
James: You know, I thoroughly enjoyed this film, but there were a few problems. First, the daughter getting in the way of the skier and then later interrupting her mom. All the while she’s smiling and laughing. I don’t think so. She’d be smacked for that. But although I didn’t really care for the scene in which she makes her mom lose her concentration, it did help make the climax at Albert Hall more realistic. I doubt a scream would ruin the sharpshooter’s aim, but that was set up a bit in the early scene in Switzerland.
Jason: I had the same complaints about the daughter. She interrupts two important sporting events in a big way and is just treated like some delightfully mischievous child. Even “Uncle Louis,” after she gets in his way on the slope, says playfully, “Your fault,” and he’s all smiles. You’re right: Nope.
James: Second, the struggle at the dentist’s office looked terrible.
Jason: I agree. The struggle in the chair was a bit laughable, but I liked the idea of it. Reminded me of Marathon Man: “Is it safe?” Have you seen that film? Horrifying. I think Hitch could have done a lot more with this sequence. But I did like the scene that follows Lawrence’s friend Clive getting his tooth pulled. Lawrence tells him, “Keep your mouth shut!” while the guy is moaning with pain.
James: However, those are two minor problems in an otherwise great film. I think the remake does a better job of making the story dramatic and tense, but this one has all of the elements we’ve come to love from a Hitchcock film.
Jason: I wanted to mention a couple other sequences that I found interesting. The first is the Tabernacle of the Sun scene, in which Lawrence and Clive enter a strange chapel and find themselves observing some kind of exclusive ritual. This ominous priestess knows they’re strangers, and ends up messing with Clive’s head somehow. It’s such a weird scene, and I wondered what it had to do with the rest of the film. That being said, I cracked up as the two of them sang to each other in code about the priestess.
James: I laughed out loud at the tabernacle scene where they sang. That was hilarious. And I thought it was odd that the woman messes with Clive. It worked, and I thought it added a sense of dread and mystery to the film, but then it was brushed under the rug. Did they ever explain why they were staying in the church? I would’ve liked that tidied up a bit.
Jason: I just read something very interesting in Hitchcock/Truffaut. Apparently, that Tabernacle of the Sun scene was originally intended for Jill, where she would be hypnotized and directed to carry out the assassination herself, thanks to her expert marksmanship. But at the last minute, Hitch wasn’t sure that she’d be a good, focused shot while hypnotized, so he changed it. I thought that was fascinating, and it makes you wonder even more why that Tabernacle sequence was left in.
James: I’m sure Hitch left that Tabernacle scene in simply because it was written and he was there. Unless you mean that he changed his mind during the writing stage. Hmmm, that’s interesting. If she were the assassin, that would totally change the film . . . possibly for the better. Wow, that would be great to see.
Jason: Now that I think about it, why didn’t Abbott (Peter Lorre) just kill Lawrence? Why bother with the kidnapping at all?
James: Well, I think that was more of a story gimmick than anything. I see only two reasons. First, it makes the villain less menacing and theoretically more likable. I know that Hitch always tried to make his bad guys friendly and likable. Second, without Lawrence, the story would lose some of the suspense and mystery. After all, he’s the guy doing most of the action in the film. As for the kidnapping, that had to happen because Abbott doesn’t kill Lawrence before the police are involved.
Jason: I suppose Peter Lorre was likeable, if only because he was “deliciously” creepy. Even though he was repellent, I found myself really enjoying the character. I was so impressed by Lorre. What an incredibly sinister villain. Loved the strange white streak in his hair. I would say a huge part of the success of the film is due to him. And he did have some humanity to him, as when he reacted to his girl’s death at the end. Lorre had recently played in Fritz Lang’s M. Apparently, Hitch loved the performance and had to sign him for The Man Who Knew Too Much. He makes such an impact in this film that I’ll be interested to observe the caliber of Hitch’s villains from here on out. I wouldn’t be surprised if the casting of Lorre in this movie represented a major turning point in Hitchcock’s films in general. Does Hitch’s sense of “delicious evil” have its roots in Peter Lorre?
James: Maybe. You ever notice that in many Hitch films the good guy drinks with the bad guy? It’s funny how civilized they are to one another. That’s kind of what I meant when I said the Hitch villains are likable. They share palaver with the good guys. Have a smoke. A drink. Talk pleasantly about killing and whatnot. But I think Lorre is one of the best. I like the way he speaks, and his face is perfectly memorable.
Jason: That’s a funny observation about the villain and hero talking pleasantly about killing. I don’t think it’s something we’ve seen too much of until now, but you’re right, I think it becomes a big part of his movies later.
James: Pop quiz: What cartoon character was based on Peter Lorre?
Jason: Cartoon character?
James: According to IMDB, Peter Lorre “was a favorite characterization in several Warner Brothers cartoons where he tangled with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Was also portrayed as a fish once in a Dr. Seuss/Warner Brothers cartoon!”
Jason: Now that you mention it, I do remember those characters. I thought you meant he was the inspiration for a particular character. But yeah, he was all over those Looney Tunes, kind of a token bad guy. I also read that Lorre hardly knew English at all, and spoke most of his lines phonetically. And speaking of language barriers, did you notice the scene in which Lawrence tries to get information from that German guard, who doesn’t speak English? Lawrence adopts a German accent and talks louder in hopes of being understood. I chuckled at that, but I read later that it might symbolize growing unrest in Europe about the increasingly volatile German presence.
James: You know, speaking of that scene, there was some surprisingly good humor in this film. I like that about this film.
Jason: Yes, you can tell that Hitch is letting the humor flow from the characters. In this movie, I thought Lawrence was kind of a flippant protagonist, dry and sarcastic, and it seems that Hitch likes that kind of humor. Robert Donat will have the same kind of thing going on in Hitch’s next movie, The 39 Steps, and it just seems like a common type that leads to some very funny situations.
James: And it’s not so much comic relief as we see it today, but some of the situations are humorous while in the heat of drama and tension.
Jason: I was also impressed and intrigued by that big shootout at the end, mostly taken aback because I had no idea firearms were so rampant in the UK at the time. I mean, this was like something out of a John Woo film, yet I thought the UK was nearly devoid of guns. And I must admit I was shocked when it appeared Lawrence had been killed while rescuing his daughter, and damn if that girl didn’t look absolutely traumatized with fright in a few sequences near the end. I felt bad for her!
James: I don’t think I liked the shootout that much. Something bugged me about it. Most likely, it was the way the people died. But I did enjoy watching the police take over the neighborhood and just shoot at will. And that old guy in the tanktop is funny, as the cops move his piano. I’m not sure about the guns. Were guns prevalent back then?
Jason: I read that the sequence gave Hitch trouble with the British censors, who objected to the use of the guns. They suggested he use firehoses instead! Apparently, the sequence was based on a historical event involving Winston Churchill, and at the time (1910), Churchill himself advocated firehoses, so it would have been historically accurate. But Hitchcock thought the whole argument was ridiculous, and ended up using the guns.
James: Firehoses. That’s hilarious.
Jason: One cool thing about The Man Who Knew Too Much is that it’s the first real use of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin—the thing that motivates the plot and puts the characters on their path but really has no significance in the story. The political-assassination plot is totally secondary to the actual plot of the family rescuing their daughter. That’s not to say the assassination doesn’t play a part in the film. In fact, it’s part of the climax. But the resolution of the plot is the rescuing of the daughter, not the foiling of the assassination.
James: I guess I thought the killer in The Lodger was a MacGuffin. I mean, the story was about the lodger and his relationship with the girl, not the killer so much. I mean, at the end, we didn’t even see the killer, and the whole thing was wrapped up really quick, just like the other MacGuffin plot threads. But yeah, it was certainly more pronounced here since the evil group had no real explanation.
Jason: Yes, the killer in The Lodger could be considered a MacGuffin, but what I’m getting at is that this is the first instance where the MacGuffin is the more common “ominous political element that turns out to be inconsequential.” Seems to me, there are a few different types of MacGuffins, and this is the one that seems most prevalent in his films, or at least it’s what the MacGuffin really came to signify. Am I making sense?
James: I understand what you’re saying about the “political” MacGuffin, but that’s too narrow of a definition for me. Certainly, he uses that style of MacGuffin throughout his films, but that’s not the only kind (not that you’re saying it is). I think that the political or secret agency style of MacGuffin is just more obvious and noticeable.
Jason: Point taken.
James: A couple of things really quick: Did you notice the brandy? The lingerie scene? Hitch’s cameo?
Jason: I wasn’t paying attention for the brandy, and I didn’t notice a Hitch cameo. Did you notice either? I did notice a completely gratuitous shot of a woman in lingerie, just a throwaway shot of a scantily clad woman at a window, told by the police to move out of harm’s way.
James: The brandy scene comes when Lawrence is talking to the British consulate. He pours everyone a drink and hands them out. I think, but I’m not positive, that Hitch is one of those guys. I never went back to freeze frame, but if he is, he’s onscreen for the briefest of moments in the lower right corner.
Jason: I just did a web search concerning a Hitch cameo in this film and found a page that says there was no cameo in this film. Not sure if it’s reliable.
James: No Hitch? I believe it. Say, did you notice the cutaway to the toy train? Right when the police ask the father if his daughter has been kidnapped.
Jason: I did notice that cutaway, and I remember thinking, “Well done!” The scene with the assassin handing Jill the trinket has a similar effect, reminding us of the daughter symbolically, attaching an emotion to an object. Seems to me like yet another visual technique Hitch probably learned from his silent days.
James: It’s nearly as effective as the scream cutaway to the train in The 39 Steps, which is coming up next.
Jason: Hitch seemed to continue trying new things in the camera. At first, in the opening shots, the rear-projection of the skiing looked a little awkward, but I guessed it was probably effective for its time. It’s interesting to realize that he continued to use these kinds of process shots throughout his career. He preferred fake backdrops—in other words, a kind of staginess—to real location shooting. As we go along, we’ll have to talk about whether that’s a cool stylistic device that becomes uniquely Hitchcock, or whether it’s a handicap.
James: I don’t like Hitch’s use of fake backgrounds, but that’s not something we can really fault him for. I’m sure that back then it was just as cool as the Lord of the Rings CG work is today. I’m not sure why he didn’t like going on location.
Jason: I see your point about the comparison, but what I meant is that he essentially used the same technique throughout his career, even when he had the opportunity to do location shooting. It’s an odd choice, and I wonder if it was a deliberate stylistic look he was going for, or if he was just lazy.
James: I think it wasn’t so much a deliberate stylistic look. I vaguely remember him saying that you can’t control nature and that he wanted to make sure all of his shots were controllable. That’s why he always used studios. That makes sense since he was a control freak.
Jason: Yes, that makes sense. I think I remember hearing that before, as well. Probably in a documentary on one of the later DVDs. But let’s keep it in the back of our minds as we go forward: Is his “control freak” nature a plus or a minus in particular shots?
James: I know that’s a rhetorical question, but I think it’s a hindrance.
Jason: Did you notice the weird zoom out from the assassin’s head after the murder scene at dinner? And what about the scene where Jill faints after learning of the kidnapping? There’s a brief world-spinning effect that seems truncated and not very effective to me. On the other hand, I really liked her performance there, kind of a slow swoon.
James: I don’t remember the zoom after the murder, but I do remember that swooning, spinning thing when the woman faints. That was interesting, but the performance was good enough not to need anything extra in terms of camera work or gimmicks.