February 26, 2017


The Man Who Knew Too Much – 1934 | 84mins | Thriller| B&W


Plot Synopsis

The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Man Who Knew Too Much, was the film that triggered Hitchcock’s reputation as the master of suspense. Producers Michael Balcon and Ivor Montagu gave Hitchcock carte blanche to do what he wanted with his project. The product was acclaimed around the world, and established a new high in the thriller genre. It was only a preview, however, of the films Hitchcock would make from then on. Released directly after Waltzes from Vienna, The Man Who Knew Too Much was Hitchcock’s comeback to the genre he knew best. Actually, the screenplay had already been prepared when he was asked to take on the directing chore of Waltzes from Vienna in 1933. The Man Who Knew Too Much was in many ways indicative of what we could expect from Hitchcock from then on. It is a small, tightly woven film-only 84 minutes-which includes a generous portion of Hitchcockian humour and a more than adequate amount of suspense. Although he was given only a limited budget, he knew the technical tricks which could camouflage the fact. The gripping Albert Hall sequence in which a diplomat is about to be assassinated was actually shot in the Lime Grove studio. A painting by the academician Fortunino Matania reflected with a mirror into the camera lens served as most of the Albert Hall audience.

While the script is not as polished as the screenplays for his later pictures, it did capture one’s attention. Playwright Emlyn Williams, who later appeared in Jamaica Inn, assisted by writing some additional dialogue. The story is about Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best), who are on vacation in Switzerland with their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). They are befriended by a Frenchman, Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay). When he is killed, he whispers to Bob an international secret about the intended assassination of a diplomat, which will embarrass the British government. To prevent Bob from revealing what he knows, the conspirators kidnap Betty as a hostage. The hired assassin is Abbott (Peter Lorre), who will shoot the diplomat during a concert at Albert Hall. The film is primarily concerned with the dilemma of kidnapping-how to get Betty back safely. The subplot about the assassination is just the set-up, or MacGuffin, as Hitchcock refers to it. Jill goes to Albert Hall and at the last minute foils the assassination by screaming in the auditorium. A chase follows to the hideout where Betty is held captive, and a gunfight ensues. The climax is reached when Jill, already established in the first scene as an excellent markswoman, shoots a spy who is about to kill her daughter. This final scene, based on the Sidney street siege, forced Hitchcock into a position in which he had to show the police as being unfamiliar with the weapons delivered to them, supposedly taken from gun shops or possibly sportsmen living in the area. It was thought to be politically improper for the police to be, or seem to be, knowledgeable in the use of firearms.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is a breathless escapade which, considering the infancy of sound film, was far ahead of its time. The death of Louis Bernard comes suddenly and points out that death comes when we least expect it. Hitchcock devised a comic episode leading up to it. We are invited to laugh as we watch Nova Pilbeam and Leslie Banks attach the end of an unravelling sweater onto a dancer in the night-club. The humour is direct, slapstick, and obvious, but it is cut short by a bullet plunging into the chest of Pierre Fresnay. His death, unexplained and surprising, becomes all the more bothersome in the middle of our laughter. The Man Who Knew Too Much lacks grace and rhythm between the suspense and the jokes, and Hitchcock concedes that the film was the creation of a “talented amateur.” The critics differed, however, and the film has garnered unanimous praise as one of the best British films and best thrillers ever.

The cast was similarly praised, with special mention of Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking film. Lorre was introduced to the director by Sidney Bernstein, with whom Hitchcock would later be partnered. Lorre had appeared earlier in Fritz Lang’s German classic, M, and was perfect for the role of the anarchist. Nova Pilbeam, who appeared as a child, went on to be cast in 1937 as the lead in Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent. The Man Who Knew Too Much is an archetype of the Alfred Hitchcock thriller. It was his favourite type of story, which may explain why he remade the film in 1956, adding forty-five minutes onto the story. The debate continues as to which is a better version, but both hold up equally well. No comparisons are really necessary.

ExtractŠ Richard A. Harris, Michael S. Lasky: The Complete Films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Production Team

Alfred Hitchcock: Director
Peter Proud: Art Director
Alfred Junge: Art Director
Ivor Montagu: Associate Producer
Curt Courant: Cinematography
Arthur Benjamin: Music
Louis Levy: Music Direction
Michael Balcon: Producer
Charles Bennett: Script
Edwin Greenwood: Script
AR Rawlinson: Script
DB Wyndham Lewis: Script
F McNally: Sound


Leslie Banks: Bob Lawrence
Edna Best: Jill Lawrence
Peter Lorre: Abbott
Frank Vosper: Ramon
Hugh Wakefield: Clive
Nova Pilbeam: Betty Lawrence
Pierre Fresnay: Louis Bernard

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