Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) immediately followed the young director’s sole musical Waltzes from Vienna (1933). The musical was a genre Hitchcock felt unsuited toward and Waltzes a project he was deeply unhappy with and a box office failure to boot. Hitch was over a dozen films into his career yet still far from firmly established. Which means that The Man Who Knew Too Much couldn’t have come as more of a relief. It was a superb example of what would become Hitch’s characteristically pithy approach to the thriller and proved hugely popular both at home and abroad. This is the film that garnered Hitch’s first offers from Hollywood, the place that would eventually steal him from England more or less forever, and the place where he’d eventually remake The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1954. The latter version has often unfairly overshadowed the original, as Hitch’s US productions have tended to do to the British ones generally, but the original is now available on a terrific new DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion.

It opens in St. Moritz, where Bob (Leslie Banks) and Jill (Edna Best), an English couple, along with Betty (Nova Pilbeam), their adolescent daughter, are on holidays. The early scenes reveal an ongoing flirtation between Jill and Louis (Pierre Fresnay), a debonair foreigner and competitive skier who seems a far more exciting guy than Bob; then Louis, some hours after narrowly surviving a potentially fatal accident on the slopes caused by Betty and a dachshund who never reappears (the wiener vanishes!), is assassinated while dancing a fox-trot with Jill. Any implicit karmic causality is left up to the spectator to ponder; from this point the characters will be too busy negotiating their unexpected role in a complex web of criminality to pause for such moral abstractions. Turns out Louis was a spy; he utters some cryptic information to Jill with his dying breath; Betty’s kidnapped; Bob and Jill return to London, find out about another planned assassination to take place at Royal Albert Hall, and play cat and mouse with a motley array of heavies. There’s a memorable chair-throwing fight, undertaken when the bad guys worry that gunfire will draw too much attention—sound was still a new and dangerous thing in the movies in 1934. Key aspects of the plot, with its ordinary people as unwitting heroes, anticipates Hitch’s trademark “wrong man” films, the first of which, The 39 Steps (1935) is coming right up. Though in the case of this Man it is in fact the woman who’s the more interesting co-protagonist, a refreshingly resourceful Hitchcock blonde who just happens to be a champion sharpshooter.

Still, make no mistake, the enduring stars of The Man Who Knew Too Much are two others: Hitchcock himself, whose bracing economy, elegant montages, clever references to British reserve, startling imagery—see the shot of captive Betty, windswept and surrounded by fur—and deadpan approach to violence—the falling bodies in the final shoot-out aren’t dwelled over for a moment—enrich every scene, and actor Peter Lorre, fresh from stunning audiences as the child killer in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), sporting a flamboyant white streak in his hair, often smiling, laughing, seemingly high, embodying evil with precisely the sort of ease, sophistication and weird charisma that Hitch would favour when casting villains throughout his career.  

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