Classic Film Club: 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' (1934)

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Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' (1934)

By the time he came to direct this original version of ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’, Alfred Hitchcock had been in something of a slump for half a decade. Despite pioneering the use of film sound in his 1929 film ‘Blackmail’, Hitch had in fact suffered under the new regime of sound stages and huge, unwieldy equipment: the fluidity and invention of his early silents was all but gone, replaced by stiff, motionless scenes of drawing-room theatricality. The previous year, his Strauss biopic ‘Waltzes in Vienna’ had suffered both critically and commercially, and Hitch seemed destined to follow many of his fellow silent masters into ignominy and decline.

The Man Who Knew Too Much’ was the film that turned this process around. Not overnight: it would take ‘The 39 Steps’ the following year before the director really proved himself, but ‘The Man…’ was a solid start. It seems Hitchcock himself was unhappy with the film, remaking it as a sprawling, star-studded technicolour Hollywood epic in 1956, complete with a bumbling Jimmy Stewart, and Doris Day crooning ‘Que Sera Sera’ out the window of her Moroccan hotel. He needn’t have bothered: the original film is far superior; tight, gripping and unpredictable, with memorable setpieces and an enchanting sense of the bizarre.

The plot of both films is roughly the same: holidaying overseas, the father of a young girl stumbles upon a secret of international importance. In order to keep him quiet, devious foreign agents kidnap the child and ship her back to London, where the father and his long-suffering wife pick up the trail and track down the villains. But here the similarities end: where the remake seemed steeped in a stifling, almost Victorian sense of propriety, the original film seems far darker, seedier, and more compelling. The female heroines, for example, couldn’t be more different: while Doris Day’s Jo was a dutiful, caring wife and mother, Edna Best’s Jill is a sharpshooting action heroine who holds her own in the company of men, and saves her husband’s life at the climax.

The 1934 version of the film also feels more politically relevant: in the coming years, Hitchcock would make progressively more direct and pointed attacks on Hitler’s Germany, but ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ feels like the first salvo: it’s star villain, Peter Lorre, had just fled the Reich himself, and there’s a pervasive sense, particularly in the later scenes, of England’s growing isolation as Europe darkens. This feeds into the film’s most peculiar scene, set (somewhat incongruously) in a church filled with 'Stepford'-style sun-worshippers, a sort of miniature Wicker Man cult in the midst of East End grime. Parts of the scene are played for laughs – as when hero Leslie Banks and his bumbling, avuncular sidekick Clive (Hugh Wakefield) sing instructions to one another to the tune of an old hymn. But there’s also a palpable sense of threat, of a mysterious and inexplicable but highly organised force already at work in the land.

Oddly for Hitchcock, some scenes in ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ actually suffer from a seemingly intentional lack of suspense. The first scenes back in London, for example, seem almost casual; the family seem calm about the loss of their only daughter. Partly this is just good old-fashioned British stiff-upper-lippedness, but it also feels as though there’s a fundamental lack of interest, on Hitchcock’s part, in the human aspects of the story, as opposed to the mechanics of the plot. This accusation would dog the director throughout his career, but its rarely been as starkly noticeable as here.

On the other hand, plot mechanics are what Hitchcock does best, and ‘The Man…’ showcases a filmmaker keenly honing his technique, moving rapidly towards the most creatively rewarding period of his career. With its remarkable, offbeat set-pieces (the opening shooting match, a deeply worrying dentist scene), fluid direction, unfussy editing and some beautifully sketched characters, this is first-rate Hitchcock.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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