Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Man Who Knew Too Much: chills and laughs combine for great thriller

Director Alfred Hitchcock does an awful lot with this film's brief 75-minute running time.

There's about a dozen shots that either just look great or build suspense. This is a great early film from the British filmmaker's first decade of moviemaking and is highly recommended.

Lawrence and Jill (Leslie Banks and Edna Best), and daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam), are in Switzerland on vacation.

When a friend is shot when dancing, he shares a secret with Jill in his dying moments. He's an agent with the British government and has learned about a plot to kill a European diplomat about to visit England.

Realizing Lawrence and Jill know about the assassination plot, the conspirators kidnap Betty.
She will be killed, they are told, if they reveal what they know to authorities. British investigators warn the couple if they don't talk, the politician's death could trigger violence on a scale equivalent to the First World War.

Lawrence and Betty's uncle, Clive (Hugh Wakefield), decide to find Betty on their own.
There's a couple of great shots in the office of dentist George Barber (Henry Oscar). Is Barber part of the plot? Does he mean to harm Lawrence? Two early, great shots take place in his office.

Hitchcock repeatedly cuts away from scenes where a character's fate, usually Betty's, is being discussed. This jars the audience and keeps them off-base. Hitchcock makes great use of silence too to build suspense or create a sense something particularly nasty is about to happen.

Hitchcock was known for having a standout scene or two in each film, such as Janet Leigh's demise in the shower in Psycho or Cary Grant being chased by a crop-dusting plane in North By Northwest.

In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Betty is pursued on a roof when she tries to escape. Silence is used here again to great effect.

Peter Lorre (Abbott) is the ringleader of the conspirators in his first English-language film. He drifts between menacing, check out his facial scar and hair, and charming. He gets some great lines too. The diplomat is to be killed during a concert's climatic moment at a major English venue. The assassin is told no one will hear his gunshot. "I think the composer would have appreciated that," Abbott says.

British police are portrayed as bumbling, unaware and unorganized in The Man Who Knew Too Much, a theme Hitchcock would repeat in other films. During a final confrontation with the conspirators, police must wait for weapons to arrive before they can return fire.

The first five minutes of The Man Who Knew Too Much were daunting. It was difficult to make out what the actors were saying. That, thankfully, stopped early on. If you can spot Hitchcock's cameo, well done! I had to rely on a cameo feature included in the Madacy release I watched.

This film, released in 1934, would be remade by Hitchcock in 1956 with James Stewart and Doris Day. It's been a few years since I watched the second film, but the original The Man Who Knew Too Much is solid viewing.

As of this writing, Nova Pilbeam is still alive. She turned 91 on Nov. 15, 2010. Pilbeam, who also appeared in Hitchcock's Young and Innocent, made her last film (The Three Weird Sisters) in 1948.

Screenwriter Charles Bennett worked on several other scripts for Hitchcock including Foreign Correspondent, Sabotage and Secret Agent.

Rating for The Man Who Knew Too Much: 9/10

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