Thursday 31 October 2013

Hitchcock Halloween: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

At an affluent Swiss hotel, husband and wife Lawrence (Leslie Banks) and Jill (Edna Best) and their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) enjoy the relaxation and recreation of their skiing holiday. They are joined by long term friend Louis (Pierre Fresnay), a person they haven’t seen in a while. They are surrounded by other guests the mysterious, yet jolly Turk, Abbott, (Peter Lorre) and Ramon (Frank Vosper) with whom Jill is involved in a fierce shooting competition. One night at a hotel party, the flirty and gay Jill dances with Louis, taunting and teasing her husband for attention. They play with a half-knitted jumper, untwining it through the dancing couples, tangling and tripping the guests. All of a sudden Louis stops and opens his jacket revealing a deep red gunshot wound in his chest. He collapses onto Jill; before losing consciousness he whispers to Jill to find a note hidden in his room and give it to the British Consulate. Before she can speak, Louis dies. His words prove truthful and Lawrence finds a note curled up in a shaving brush in Louis’ room. On it appears a list of meaningless words: WAPPING, G. BARBOR MAKE CONTACT, A. HALL, MARCH 21st.

He is immediately accosted by Ramon also looking for a mysterious message apparently left by Louis but Lawrence conceals its existence from both Ramon and the police. Louis body is still warm and Jill and Lawrence, still in evening clothes discover their daughter has been kidnapped. Frightened and bewildered, the couple leave Switzerland for England waiting for instructions from the unknown kidnappers. They and Jill’s brother Clive (Hugh Wakefield) instead are contacted by a member of the British Secret Service pleading for any information on the death and the disappearance of Betty. He reveals Louis was a spy working to prevent the assassination of a foreign statesman named Roper and that the death of this man could be catastrophic to world stability and peace. Thinking only of the safety of their daughter, they refuse to divulge the contents of the note and decide to find Betty themselves.
The bullet that killed Louis
Lawrence and Clive start in the town of Wapping, to a dentist practise run by a G. Barbor. They innocently enter both complaining to suffer toothache. While Lawrence is being examined, from the corner of his eye he notices Abbott enter – identified only by an unusual pocket watch – and exit to a back room. After a struggle, Lawrence sedates the dentist with gas, puts on his white coat and waits for a meeting to take place. Ramon appears and talking to Abbott reveals, unknowingly, to Lawrence that they have kidnapped the “mouse” (aka Betty) and are holding her in an adjourning building. Lawrence slinks out, finding Clive, they retreat to a bizarre, neighbouring church with a leader proficient in hypnosis. It is a front for Abbott’s organisation with Clive deep in subconsciousness – having willingly been hypnotised - Lawrence can’t escape and he is captured by Abbott. Clive, gaining consciousness, flees to a nearby telephone box urgently telling Jill to meet him at the Royal Albert Hall (A. Hall) for the March 22nd Celebrity Concert – the intended day and venue for the murder. He is taken to jail for disorderly conduct and drunkenness after relaying the message.
Jill ready to witness murder
Meanwhile, Lawrence and Betty are reunited; however, Abbott tells them their time together as well as Jill’s on this earth is short as he plans to kills them after the assassination is successful. Jill arrives, dutifully waiting for a signal from Clive.  She bumps into Ramon who gives her a broach once belonging to Betty. The concert begins and she sits and waits. A woman screams. The singing stops. Roper has been shot but he has survived. Calm and calculated, Abbott lounges in an apartment close by, lighting a cigarette and waiting. The police surround the apartment, Ramon immediately begins shooting rapidly from an upstairs window. The police gather their weapons and attempt to enter the building by force. Two of Abbott’s group are killed and, in desperation, Abbott orders Ramon to get Betty to use as a shield. During the commotion, Lawrence escapes and finding Betty attempt to flee to the roof. They are discovered by Ramon who shoots Lawrence and follows Betty to the roof. They are in full view of Jill and hoards of police officers with Ramon menacingly pointing a gun to Betty’s face. They are too far away for a clear shot and with Abbott still wildly – yet with a strange calm – raining bullets from the window, the film is set for a hopeless ending. 
Abbott, Lawrence and Betty
Unlike many of Hitchcock’s later classic films, the villain is the centre of the film. Whether this was done deliberately or accidently, Peter Lorre as the unwavering Abbott steals the picture. His physical appearance is shocking with a long scar over one eye, a thick grey streak down the middle of his head and deep bulging eyes he is the quintessential evil genius. Lorre’s Abbott is unnervingly calm and calculated and never without a cigarette dropping casually to the side of his mouth. His presence is added with Hitchcock’s brilliance, misrepresenting him as being a jolly, charming and exuberant character in the films first scene slowly altering this perception as the movie progresses. The director is visually hampered, however, by the lack of sound technology. There is minimal dialogue and sounds with the legendary Hitchcock using an abundance of extreme close-ups and suggestive visuals to depict meaning to the audience. He is in this film learning his craft. ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ is not in its plotline a horror worthy of Halloween, but one look at Peter Lorre would frighten any moviegoer.       

The great Peter Lorre

This is my contribution to Backlots Halloween inspired appreciation of all things Hitchcock. For a list of other posts click here:


1 comment:

  1. Yet some moments in the 1956 remake are more tense, I also love this one, especially for Peter Lorre. Hitchcock knew that villains can be much more interesting! Another thing I observe is that the woman, played here by Edna Best, has a more prominent role, I mean, she is more important to the ending than Doris Day in 1956 (come on, Edna shoots a gun!). And the chair fight is probably one of my favorite sequences ever.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)