So this month, I was asked by Rob of Movierob to decide which genre should be covered for his Genre Grandeur series and, as anyone who’s been reading my stuff for a while can tell through my Politic-a-Thons, I am a big fan of political thrillers so that’s the sub-genre I chose. Now it’s taken me a while to get this review written as between giving Rob the genre and writing this I needed to move down to Cheltenham for my new job, but that gave me more time to think of a film I hadn’t reviewed before and, after seeing that The Man Who Knew Too Much was on BFI Player, I decided to use this to expand my knowledge of Alfred Hitchcock and give it a go.
The film focuses on a British couple, Bob and Jill Lawrence, who, whilst on holiday in Switzerland, become friends with French skier Louis Bernard. During an evening party in their hotel, Bernard gets shot and tells Jill to get a note from his room to deliver to the British consul. Bob and Jill find the note, which contains hints for a major crime, but before they can tell the British consul, their daughter, Betty, gets kidnapped, with the kidnapper threatening to kill Betty if the note is passed to the British consul. Once they get back to London, Bob and Jill have to find their daughter and find some way of stopping the crime the note warned about. Now starting with the positives, being a Hitchcock film, there is a great deal of tension throughout the film, particularly in the second act and around the crime in question, the assassination of the Head of State of a European country, and this element of tension helps to keep the film interesting. However, there is a severe pacing issue in the film, the first act moving way too fast and the third act being too slow. Now the third act being slow is something that can work for people, but the first act moving so fast means that there isn’t enough time to get to know the characters before the plot kicks in. We don’t get to know Bernard before he is killed, we don’t get to know Betty before she is kidnapped and there isn’t enough time to let the events of the first act breathe before we are thrust into the assassination plot, something which I guess Hitchcock realised since his remake of the film in 1956 was almost twice the length of this version. We also don’t get a real understanding as to why the assassination is being carried out, something which again helps to make the characters feel underdeveloped, and also removes a lot of the intrigue from the film, an exploration of the politics involved could have served to increase the tension and give the film more dramatic weight.
The performances help to salvage the film though. The standout is Peter Lorre as Abbott, the leader of the assassination conspiracy. There’s an air of cool menace to his performance, knowing that there’s a sense of danger in every word he says and every action he takes, but doing so in a calm, civilised manner which gives his words even more menace. Leslie Banks and Edna Best as Bob and Jill Lawrence meanwhile sell their confusion over the situation, fear for their daughter and their intelligence in finding a way to resolve all of the problems effectively whilst making sure no harm comes to their daughter well. The only real weak link in the cast is Nova Pilbeam as Betty, who is good, but, at 14/15 at the time of filming, is too old for the part, her performance, and the way the character was written, feeling more suited for a character around 6-9 years old.
Overall, there is solid tension and a good idea at the heart of The Man Who Knew Too Much, but the 75 minute run time is what really harms the film. It just moves too fast in the opening to give us any grounding for the events to follow in the film. There was the potential for a great film in there, which Hitchcock seemingly followed through on in his remake, but here, that idea, and the political element that should help to drive the film, just isn’t given the time it needs to properly develop.
My Rating: 3/5