#12 in my Ranking of Alfred Hitchcock’s films.
This is the first movie Hitchcock made since The Lodger that feels Hitchcockian. He’d made good films in between (The Farmer’s Wife, Downhill, and The Skin Game just to name a few), but he was very much a contract director just doing assignments as they came. He was still that at this point, but this is where Hitchcock’s career turned from technically adept craftsman and started to become a distinctive cinematic voice of his own.
A married couple and their young daughter are in the Alps for a winter sports competition. The father, Bob, enjoys the sights, but the mother, Jill, competes in a clay pigeon contest which she loses because Abbott, an onlooker, shows her daughter, Betty, a chiming watch and ends up being a bit of a distraction. Jill loses in good natured fashion, playfully disowning her child and going to dinner with a friend of the family, Louis, a French skier. At dinner, a gala affair supposedly marking the end of the games, Louis gets shot through a window, hands his room key to Jill with instructions to get something from his brush. Jill tells Bob who finds the brush just as the authorities burst into the room. He gets out, but the shooter who beat Jill in the contest is right there, ready to demand the contents of the brush, but the authorities are right there and pull Bob away for questioning. As the married couple answer the questions, a note comes telling them that their daughter has been kidnapped and will die if they say anything.
So begins the really entertaining Hitchcockian adventure where the everyman gets wrapped up in a larger conspiracy and cannot simply walk up to a policeman and fix his problems. It’s a very mechanical exercise, but it’s filled with enough characterization so that it doesn’t become a plot-dominated slog. Characterization is key to making these sorts of adventures work. Look up at the previous paragraph. That’s just a load of actions that describe the first half hour or so of the film, but the people performing the actions don’t feel like lifeless automatons who exist for the purpose of the plot. It’s one advantage of the “wrong man” model that Hitchcock ended up using repeatedly. You give the main character(s) a life of their own and then inject them into something they don’t want to be a part of but have no choice about. It creates a friction, a tension, about where the characters want to be and where they are that the movie thrives on. Graham Greene, the author, was a film critic in Britain at the time that Hitchcock was making this, and he was not a fan, calling Hitchcock’s films mechanical exercises. He’s not really wrong, but he seemed to fail to see the human side that was very evident, providing the grease to the mechanisms so that they ran smoothly.
The principals are all quite good, but it’s Peter Lorre who really steals the show. On the run from the rising Nazi power, he barely spoke any English and learned his part phonetically, but there’s an ease to his performance that masks a dangerous truth underneath. He’s almost always smiling, but there’s always the sense that he would happily hurt Bob or Betty if it came to it. It’s a wonderfully slimy performance that may be accidental but is entirely there.
When I say that this movie feels Hitchcockian, it’s not just about how the story falls, although that is a large part of it. What makes it feel Hitchcockian is that this is the first sound film Hitchcock made that feels completely cinematic. Almost everything up to this point in the sound era had been based on plays, limited in location and preventing Hitchcock from using his camera as much as he might have wanted to. The closest was Murder! (and Mary, of course), but those were hampered by meandering stories that held things back. The Man Who Knew Too Much, though, has a camera that moves around physical spaces with confidence. Sound design never feels tacked on or extraneous but a natural extension of the storytelling. The Albert Hall sequence is great. Bob and Jill’s efforts to find Betty are tense, as is their effort to keep their knowledge out of the hands of law enforcement.
The final shootout, though, does feel a bit tacked on. Once Bob gets to the hideout and finds Betty, the movie slows down and turns into a shootout that doesn’t feel quite right. The stakes aren’t in alignment anymore. It’s finely filmed and shallowly exciting, but it doesn’t seem to quite fit.
A final little note about story structure, nothing big. There are two seeds of ideas planted at the very beginning of the movie that pay off later. The first is a pin that Jill buys Betty. It’s used later by the bad guys, handing it to her without a word, and it tells Jill everything about the stakes of what’s happening in Albert Hall. The fact that it’s done wordlessly and with the confidence that the audience will recall it is great. The other is Jill’s shooting ability. She takes a final shot to end the shootout, and I actually took a second to recall that they had set up her ability with a rifle early. It turned what I had instinctively imagined to be a cheap moment into a rewarding one. They set things up to pay them off later. It’s tight storytelling.
Barring a couple of small flaws, this is Hitchcock’s best movie up to this point in his career. It’s exciting and fun, filled with wonderful little human moments (my favorite being a police officer sneaking a sweet from a shop at the start of the shootout), and really well built. This Hitchcock character may have a future in the movies.