An ordinary British couple vacationing in Switzerland suddenly find themselves embroiled in a case of international intrigue when their daughter is kidnapped by spies plotting a political assassination
All save the child – all save the child.
Around whose head screaming,
The night-birds wheeled and shot away.
Finding release from that which drove them onward like their prey.
Finding release the storm-clouds broke.
And drowned the dying moon.
The storm-clouds broke — the storm clouds broke.
Excerpt from ‘Storm Clouds Cantata’, written by Arthur Benjamin for The Man Who Knew Too Much
“Hitchcock spells out the film’s vocabulary swiftly, framing Jill through a large picture window edged with lacy frost – a postcard, in effect – as she prepares for a shooting match against a hulking opponent, Ramon (Frank Vosper), who we soon learn is in league with the spies. A later scene in the hotel restaurant opens with the camera looking out the window at the mountains, another postcard view, which will be shattered when Louis meets his fate. Jill has brought her knitting to this evening of dinner and dancing, an odd thing to do in the 1930s or any other age, but it sets up a gorgeously sinister visual joke. Bob, in mock indignation over his wife’s dancing with another man, attaches a strand of yarn from a scarf Jill is working on to a back button of Louis’ dinner jacket. As Jill and Louis dance, the scarf unravels and the yarn loops around the other couples on the floor, twining their knees together and forcing them to step over it like a trip wire. Naturally, Abbott is in the restaurant too, laughing wildly at the people entangled in the web. And, with poetic precision, the moment Louis notices that the web has caught him is the moment when a neat cut to the window shows a gunshot coming through. A circle of fingers points to the delicate hole the bullet has punched in the glass. For the rest of the movie, windows will mean menace. [...]
Nowadays, Hitchcock’s 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much remake is often judged the superior picture, largely for its darker tone and greater complexity, two qualities beloved by critics. The marriage is rockier and fraught with psychological conflict, the vacation setting more remote and dangerous, the boy’s peril and the mother’s dilemma considerably more emphasized. There are some of us, however, who stubbornly prefer the original, for its mordant wit, its overcast snowscapes and London nighttimes, its economy of plot and barreling momentum. And not even Hitchcock can keep us from mourning when confronted with a new villain in place of Peter Lorre.
Farran Smith Nehme1
“Others would disagree with me, but nearly forty years of living with this film hasn’t made me change my mind. The Man Who Knew Too Much is Hitchcock’s first thoroughgoing masterpiece.”
- 1Farran Smith Nehme, “The Man Who Knew Too Much: Wish You Were Here,” The Criterion Collection, January 16 2013.
- 2David Bordwell, “Sir Alfred simply must have his set pieces: THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934),” Observations on film art, February 14 2013.