Skip to main content

He's got too many teeth – and too much Brilliantine.

The Man Who Knew Too Much 
(1934)

(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”.



Popular posts from this blog

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

I don’t think Wimpys still exist.

Last Night in Soho (2021) (SPOILERS) Last Night in Soho is a cautionary lesson in one’s reach extending one’s grasp. It isn’t that Edgar Wright shouldn’t attempt to stretch himself, it’s simply that he needs the self-awareness to realise which moves are going to throw his back out and leave him in a floundering and enfeebled heap on the studio floor. Wright’s an uber-geek, one with a very specific comfort zone, and there’s no shame in that. He evidently was shamed, though, hence this response to criticisms of a lack of maturity and – obviously – lack of versatility with female characters. Last Night in Soho goes broke for woke, and in so doing exposes his new clothes in the least flattering light. Because Edgar is in no way woke, his attempts to prove his progressive mettle lead to a lurid, muddled mess, one that will satisfy no one. Well, perhaps his most ardent fans, but no one else.

It looks like a digital walkout.

Free Guy (2021) (SPOILERS) Ostensibly a twenty-first century refresh of The Truman Show , in which an oblivious innocent realises his life is a lie, and that he is simply a puppet engineered for the entertainment of his creators/controllers/the masses, Free Guy lends itself to similar readings regarding the metaphysical underpinnings of our reality, of who sets the paradigm and how conscious we are of its limitations. But there’s an additional layer in there too, a more insidious one than using a Hollywood movie to “tell us how it really is”.

The voice from the outer world who will lead them to paradise.

Dune (2021) (SPOILERS) For someone who has increasingly dug himself a science-fiction groove, Denis Villeneuve isn’t terribly imaginative. Dune looks perfect, in the manner of the cool, clinical, calculating and above all glacial rendering of concept design and novel cover art in the most doggedly literal fashion. And that’s the problem. David Lynch’s edition may have had its problems, but it was inimitably the product of a mind brimming with sensibility. Villeneuve’s version announces itself as so determinedly faithful to Frank Herbert, it needs two movies to tell one book, and yet all it really has to show for itself are gargantuan vistas.

Give poor, starving Gurgi munchings and crunchings.

The Black Cauldron (1985) (SPOILERS) Dark Disney? I guess… Kind of . I don’t think I ever got round to seeing this previously. The Fox and the Hound , sure. Basil the Great Mouse Detective , most certainly. Even Oliver and Company , so I wasn’t that selective. But I must have missed The Black Cauldron , the one that nearly broke Disney, for the same reason everyone else did. But what reason was that? Perhaps nothing leaping out about it, when the same summer kids could see The Goonies , or Back to the Future , or Pee Wee’s Big Adventure . It seemed like a soup of other, better-executed ideas and past Disney movies, stirred up in a cauldron and slopped out into an environment where audiences now wanted something a touch more sophisticated.

Monster nom nom?

The Suicide Squad (2021) (SPOILERS) This is what you get from James Gunn when he hasn’t been fed through the Disney rainbow filter. Pure, unadulterated charmlessness, as if he’s been raiding his deleted Twitter account for inspiration. The Suicide Squad has none of the “heart” of Guardians of Galaxy , barely a trace of structure, and revels in the kind of gross out previously found in Slither ; granted an R rating, Gunn revels in this freedom with juvenile glee, but such carte blanche only occasionally pays off, and more commonly leads to a kind of playground repetition. He gets to taunt everyone, and then kill them. Critics applauded; general audiences resisted. They were right to.

It becomes easier each time… until it kills you.

The X-Files 4.9: Terma Oh dear. After an engaging opener, the second part of this story drops through the floor, and even the usually spirited Rob Bowman can’t save the lethargic mess Carter and Spotnitz make of some actually pretty promising plot threads.

Three. Two. One. Lift with your neck.

Red Notice  (2021) (SPOILERS) Red Notice rather epitomises Netflix output. Not the 95% that is dismissible, subgrade filler no one is watching but is nevertheless churned out as original “content”. No, this would be the other, more select tier constituting Hollywood names and non-negligible budgets. Most such fare still fails to justify its existence in any way, shape or form, singularly lacking discernible quality control or “studio” oversight. Albeit, one might make similar accusations of a selection of legit actual studio product too, but it’s the sheer consistency of unleavened movies that sets Netflix apart. So it is with Red Notice . Largely lambasted by the critics, in much the manner of, say 6 Underground or Army of the Dead , it is in fact, and just like those, no more and no less than okay.

Oh hello, loves, what year is it?

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) (SPOILERS) Simu Lui must surely be the least charismatic lead in a major motion picture since… er, Taylor Lautner? He isn’t aggressively bad, like Lautner was/is, but he’s so blank, so nondescript, he makes Marvel’s super-spiffy new superhero Shang-Chi a superplank by osmosis. Just looking at him makes me sleepy, so it’s lucky Akwafina is wired enough for the both of them. At least, until she gets saddled with standard sidekick support heroics and any discernible personality promptly dissolves. And so, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings continues Kevin Feige’s bold journey into wokesense, seemingly at the expense of any interest in dramatically engaging the viewer.

What about the panties?

Sliver (1993) (SPOILERS) It must have seemed like a no-brainer. Sharon Stone, fresh from flashing her way to one of the biggest hits of 1992, starring in a movie nourished with a screenplay from the writer of one of the biggest hits of 1992. That Sliver is one Stone’s better performing movies says more about how no one took her to their bosom rather than her ability to appeal outside of working with Paul Verhoeven. Attempting to replicate the erotic lure of Basic Instinct , but without the Dutch director’s shameless revelry and unrepentant glee (and divested of Michael Douglas’ sweaters), it flounders, a stupid movie with vague pretensions to depth made even more stupid by reshoots that changed the killer’s identity and exposed the cluelessness of the studio behind it. Philip Noyce isn’t a stupid filmmaker, of course. He’s a more-than-competent journeyman when it comes to Hollywood blockbuster fare ( Clear and Present Danger , Salt ) also adept at “smart” smaller pict