Classic Intel: The Man Who Knew Too Much - Online Review

'a disposable piece of interest to Hitchcock fans, rather than a must see classic'

Alfred Hitchcock's first of two attempts to adapt Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis' story (re-written for the 1956 version by John Michael Hayes) of mistaken identity and assassination attempts, this 1934 release of The Man Who Knew Too Much serves as an interesting example of the director's early work, rather than as a hugely successful film in its own right.

At certain moments, the director's famously meticulous crafting is highly visible. A trip to the dentist's chair for protagonist Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) soon turns into a prime example of Hitchcock's clever framing and lighting. Bob, realising he has walked into an enemy safe house, turns the tables on the dentist (Henry Oscar), setting the room up with the dentist's light shining on the entrance door to disguise his features. Hitchcock shows Banks swinging the light into the camera and then pushing it closer towards it, white-screening the viewer to replicate how anyone entering the office will view the scene. As this happens, the director cuts between an enemy agent climbing the stairs, simultaneously providing a prime example of the tension-building he would become so famous for.

A later scene at The Royal Albert Hall stands out even above the dentist scene as a prime example of Hitchcock at his early best. Bob's wife, Jill (Edna Best), sits in the audience, obviously conflicted over what to do about unfolding events. In one shot, Hitchcock starts on Best's face then pivots slowly to the right, in time with her head movement, to look up to a box where she suspects a would-be assassin is hiding. The curtain flutters. We see practically nothing. The shot pivots back to Best and then onwards with her gaze in the other direction towards a waiting policeman. In one simple shot, Hitchcock shows the internal trauma of Jill, as well as setting up the action element of the scene, building it up with the music the orchestra is playing until the inevitable end at the crescendo. It's a wonderful example of a confident director, intertwining clever shooting techniques with a tense musical scene that functions without a single piece of dialogue.

Elsewhere though, there are problems here - some related to the time in which the film was made - which make it easy to understand why the director revisited the material to try and better it in the fifties. The final scene, a horribly misjudged shoot-out, rings completely false and fails to fit with the mantra of quiet spy-play the film develops elsewhere. The acting too is spotty; at any point when a character is required to fall down (dead or otherwise) there are problems and the clipped accents of the day don't help the naturalism of the dialogue. Peter Lorre is menacing as the mysterious Abbott but his well-documented language problems are obvious and his henchmen mainly feel weak in comparison. Leslie Banks is entertaining in the lead but he lacks the charisma and delivery of later Hitchcock leading men, a criticism which the film also leaves itself open to, ending up as a disposable piece of interest to Hitchcock fans, rather than a must see classic.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is available free of charge with an appropriate Lovefilm subscription in the UK.

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