The Man Who Knew Too Much is an action thriller. It doesn’t start as an action thriller—it begins with an English family (dad Leslie Banks, mom Edna Best, daughter Nova Pilbeam) vacationing in Switzerland. Their vacation has almost come to an end, and they’re saying goodbye to some of their trip friends. Their good trip friend is flirty Frenchman Pierre Fresnay, but they’re also friendly with Peter Lorre and Frank Vosper. Lorre’s just another guest, while Vosper competes with Best in a shooting competition.
Then everyone gets together for dinner and dancing, while Best and Fresnay flirt in front of Banks—just for laughs—and so on. Except then Fresnay gets shot and drops dead, but not before he passes a message for Banks on to Best. Best relays the dying request to Banks, who has an intrigue scene before discovering someone has kidnapped daughter Pilbeam and, unless Best and Banks behave, they’ll never see her again.
At this point, the film moves back to England—the British agents know Banks knows something about Fresnay’s death, in addition to realizing the daughter’s been kidnapped and the parents aren’t participating. Slightly less obtuse agent George Curzon tries getting through to Banks but still gets the stonewall. Best and Banks have family friend Hugh Wakefield around to help with moral and adventuring support.
Curzon will only be significant in the film because it forgets about him. The film also forgets about Wakefield, but he does get to participate in some of the eventual action set pieces—always as comic relief. The film can function without Wakefield; he leaves just as Lorre takes over. But the Curzon situation’s more interesting. If the film didn’t forget about Curzon, it wouldn’t have a third act. See, Curzon knows Banks knows something. No one else in the movie will ever think Banks knows anything. He’s the Man Who Knew Too Much and all… but Too Much is a very relative term.
When Banks and Wakefield go investigating, trying to beat Curzon to the punch (silly, since his arc isn’t a thing), they discover a strange church of sun-worshippers who have something to do with Fresnay’s death and maybe Pilbeam’s kidnapping.
At this point, just over halfway through, the film becomes an action thriller with continuous action. It’s one set piece after another, including a hypnotizing scene, a brawl scene, a big shootout, and a complicated assassination scene. The film’s just a series of action set pieces, barely taped together with the characters and their respective plights. By the third act, almost all the heroes are in eminent danger—whether they know it or not—and the bad guys are getting desperate.
As an action thriller, Knew is superb–great direction from Hitchcock, who keeps the film and its proceedings incredibly quiet. There are no slam-bang sound effects during the fight scenes or the pile-ups, and Arthur Benjamin’s music always falls silent when it’s time for someone to do something dastardly. Or to fight back against dastardly doings. The film’s distinct and confident. Great photography from Curt Courant too. And Hugh Stewart’s editing is superb.
Unfortunately, there’s almost no story once the consecutive plotting takes over. There’s no character development; there’s no drama outside what will be solved through action violence. The film’s screenplay involved many hands–and five credited writers in one capacity or another (Charles Bennett, D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, Edwin Greenwood, A.R. Rawlinson, and Emlyn Williams). Not one of them gave it a story, which would be more impressive if the first act didn’t promise there was some grand conspiracy to unravel. Worse, we don’t know there wasn’t some grand conspiracy; we just know the writers and Hitchcock didn’t think it was worth delivering on that early promise at all. Or to even acknowledge it.
Luckily, there’s some outstanding acting to carry things along. Banks and Best are both excellent, though they never get to be excellent together. Instead, Banks gets his showcase in one location, and Best gets hers in another. Lorre’s spellbinding. Once he gets going, he sets the entire tone of the film. Hitchcock waits a while to hand it over, instead starting with Cicely Oates as his ominous companion. There are hints at Lorre, implications he’s going to be worth the wait, then he’s quadruple any of those promises. He’s exceptional.
Wakefield is good as the sidekick. Oates is good. Pilbeam’s fine. She’s a teenager in peril. She’s fine. She plays it really scared, though, which ends up making Knew seem insensitive to her. She’s British; she can’t experience trauma. Vosper’s barely okay, which is a bummer. He seems like he’ll have some depth, then doesn’t. Since the script’s not giving it to anyone, all dimension is thanks to the actors. Just not Vosper. He’s more than happy to play it flat.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is a tight, taut seventy-six minutes. Great production, great performances, great pacing… lukewarm plotting.