The Man Who Knew Too Much
(SPOILERS) The 39 Steps gets all the credit, but this year-prior Hitchcock is probably the true forbear of the action movie, delivering set piece after set piece while barely pausing for breath. If it isn’t quite as assured or satisfying in construction as the film that followed, it’s nevertheless the first of the director’s pictures that feels like a Hitchcock “production”, hatched with the assuredness of a master talent delivering precision-timed thrills and mischief to an expectant audience.
The story was based on a Bulldog Drummond (Sapper) by Charles Bennett, who previously provided the source material for Blackmail and would be involved in five further Hitch pictures over the next few years. Following the slump of Waltzes from Vienna, it was “the picture that re-established my creative prestige” and it feels from the off as if the director is emboldened, energised and inspired by the material. Pauline Kael rated the “ingenuity and flair and sneaky wit” on display but suggested “Hitchcock seems sloppily unconcerned about the unconvincing material in between the tricks and jokes”. I’d disagree with the assessment. There’s very little here that doesn’t count, and Hitch wastes no time between the tricks and jokes.
The introductory scenes are perfectly pitched, notably in a manner that is both playful and laying the groundwork for the climax. Ironically, given the way modern remakes tend to swap out genders, here we have proactive, can-do wife Jill (Edna Best) – she’s competing in a clay pigeon shooting contest – and a bit of dilettante of a husband Bob (Leslie Banks). Oh, and daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam, who’d graduate to lead duties in Young and Innocent a few years later).
The couple’s relationship has a playful, Thin Man vibe, as bob expresses mock jealousy at Jill’s “I’m just going off with another man” flirtation with dashing Frenchman Louis (Pierre Fresnay), pointedly so when conversing with eventually-revealed villain Ramon (Frank Vospeer): “Sir, you have beaten my wife and she has gone off with another man. You are a dirty dog”. When Louis is shot while dancing with Jill – a fine sequence in which he doesn’t immediately realise his fate – he tells her of the location of a vital note before dying. A superbly-but-casually tense scene follows, in which Bob retrieves the note from a hairbrush as villains and authorities descend on Louis’ hotel room.
Banks displays a marvellously stiff-upper off-handedness, even as his daughter is kidnapped and we never really buy him as a thoroughbred hero. As such, while he has a quip for any occasion, it’s entirely in keeping that the not-quite hero should be held captive during the climax. This was “corrected” for the remake, but leads to the sequence in which Betty has escaped onto the roof of a besieged house while pursued by Ramon; Jill takes a rifle from the reluctant police marksman, promptly dispatching the villain herself. It lends the picture a neat symmetry, since earlier Ramon had bested her at shooting – only thanks to her daughter causing a distraction – and now she bests him at shooting.
This comes after Bob assumes the traditional proactive male role at the outset and Jill faints on hearing of her daughter’s abduction; it’s to the picture’s credit that there’s never a sense of succumbing to expectations of who should being do what. Bob is equal parts capable and inept, particularly when accompanied by Hugh Wakefield’s “Uncle” Clive as he follows the trail of clues back in London. Clive his Watson to Bob’s Holmes. A trip to Henry Oscar’s dentist – a precursor to both Marathon Man and 12 Monkeys – results in Clive coming out wailing, clutching his cheek. Mission incomplete, Bob then suggests “Better look at mine while you’re about it. I’ve had terrible toothache today”. The examination that follows leads to a battle with a nitrous oxide mask.
Later, there’s a trip to a bizarre cover-coven of sun-worshippers (The Tabernacle of the One Sun, who stage their activities per a traditional church service) in which Clive once again draws the short straw and is hypnotised by formidable head frau Nurse Agnes (Cicely Oates). Initiation into the circle of the mysteries of the first circle of the seventh old ray – making the group sound like some sort of sub-theosophical set up – is required, which involves Clive being instructed “Your mind is becoming quite blank. You feel that, don’t you? Quite, quite blank”. In the original script, the plan was to hypnotise the marksman mother in order to make her shoot the ambassador – very Manchurian Candidate – but Hitch ditched it because “I felt that even a crack shot might not aim accurately while in a hypnotic trance” (instead, Jill saves the ambassador with a scream and saves her daughter with a sharp shot).
I also liked the gun-wielding old gal who stops Bob making a run for it (“You’re not going to leave your friend sir, are you?” rather recalling the machine gun wielding biddy in From Russia with Love). Indeed, the whole church sequence is a delight, with Bob throwing chairs at his would-be captors (reluctant to shoot him and so bring the authorities), Clive’s attempts to alert the authorities falling foul of accusations of drunkenness (“disorderly behaviour in a sacred edifice”), and the subsequent exchanges between Bob (“Hello!”) and an all-smiles – except when irked – Peter Lorre as chief plotter Abbott.
Ah yes, baby-faced Lorre. Hitched insisted on having him, impressed by M (“He had a very sharp sense of humour”). With his facial scar and blonde stripe, he brings an arresting air of sweaty queasiness along with meticulous politeness and a distinctive laugh. “Sorry, please forgive me” he apologises after hitting Bob. Villains are always more fun when they have time for the hero (see also James Mason in North by Northwest), and Abbott’s affability is a key part of the picture’s appeal.
While it’s easy to rag on a plot that is nothing if not expedient, the way elements that might bog The Man Who Knew Too Much down are turned to its advantage is also in its favour; while Betty’s kidnapping means her parents are forced to turn amateur sleuths, the extent to which she is used as a handicap to their prevailing is strictly limited. Indeed, the gambit of a call to prevent Jill going to the Albert Hall falls through thanks to a tensely-constructed sequence in which Clive phones her first and she has already left by the time Nurse Agnes gets through.
Truffaut, being a terrible old buffo, was either fawning or had smoked a few too many Galouises when he professed to prefer the remake: “In the construction as well as in the rigorous attention to detail, the remake is by far superior to the original”. He said of the ending “the second version was better because the husband’s arrival on the scene during the playing of the cantata made it possible to extend the suspense”. I suspect few would agree with that statement today, and even Hitch gave a very coded response (“Let’s say that the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional”). As Tom Milne said in Time Out, “At two-thirds the length of the remake, it’s twice the fun”.