Hitchcock's Knack for the Psychological Thriller in the Early Sound Era, as Evidenced in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The development of synchronized sound spurned instantaneous and permanent change in the film industry. Immediately, cinema buffs became concerned about the medium, worrying that perhaps “extensive dialogue scenes in adapted plays would eliminate the flexible camera movements and editing of the silent era” (Thompson and Bordwell 193). In other words, with moviegoing audiences clamoring for spoken dialogue in movies, critics feared that screenwriters and directors would focus on sculpting clever conversations and lose sight of what originally made movies unique: the aesthetic beauty of the moving picture itself.

Whether or not their fears came true is a debatable topic, but at least one up-and-coming director cast his vote of confidence in sound technology. Alfred Hitchcock said in 1933 that he “was greatly interested in music and films in the silent days,” adding that he “always believed that the coming of sound opened up a great new opportunity” (Thompson and Bordwell 193). Indeed, when one thinks about great movie music, he or she can scarce forget the screeching strings in Psycho’s suspenseful murder scenes. Thus, it only makes sense that he was glad for the “accompanying music [to come] at last entirely under the control of the people who made the picture.” No longer would Hitchcock need to worry that a live musical performer would interpret his films in ways distasteful to him. Instead, he could take more satisfaction in his work, knowing full well that everyone watching his films across the globe heard the same soundtrack. This enforced uniformity in everyone’s moviegoing experience, even if they watched Hitchcock’s films in different theaters on different days, weeks, months, or years.

Hitchcock demonstrates his interest of sound cinema in his 1934 film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Some critics consider this film his “comeback to the genre he knew best,” the psychological thriller, after having dabbled (against his will) in other movie categories, including the Gaumont-British-produced Waltzes From Vienna, a musical comedy. In many ways, The Man Who Knew Too Much set the standard for the rest of Hitchcock’s career, rising as an international household name known for his unique and suspenseful style (Harris 46-48). Thus, when he has his way, Hitchcock takes interest in sound and music in films not for the glamorous effect of the musical, but as a means of heightening the suspense in a tense situation.

Hitchcock enjoyed the production circumstances behind TMWKTM. Previously, he had worked with British International Pictures from 1927 and 1932, where Donald Spoto writes that Hitchcock “chafed under the supervision of John Maxwell and Walter Mycroft” (186). At the outset, being signed by BIP seemed like a great career move; he made 13,000 pounds per year, which tripled his salary at his previous studio, Gainsborough. According to Spoto, “It was the first time in British film history that the director received an even greater press than his stars,” making it clear that the public took Hitchcock’s trailblazing ambition seriously (92).

Nevertheless, Hitchcock believed that the producers of BIP did not allow him enough freedom to direct in his own style. All the money, fame, and recognition he earned by directing at a major film studio could not quench his thirst to create high cinematic art. While working under the overly strict conditions that Maxwell and Mycroft enforced, Hitchcock’s sole “refuge had been in the technical challenges of early sound film” (186). Even if he was ultimately answerable to the executives of BIP, learning how sound worked in movies benefited Hitchcock because he gained an early mastery of sound that he could capitalize on later in his career. A prototype for auteurist filmmaking, he yearned for more control, and found it when reuniting with producer Michael Balcon, who Hitchcock knew well from his years at Gainsborough. Balcon and co-producer Ivor Montagu “gave Hitchcock carte blanche to do what he wanted with [TMWKTM]” (Harris 43). Perhaps as a direct result of his newfound freedom to make films as he pleased, the film “was acclaimed around the world, and established a new high in the thriller genre” (Harris 43). After The Man Who Knew Too Much, no serious movie critic could ignore Hitchcock’s ingenious creative vision and prowess.

This leaves the important question of characterizing the much-acclaimed Hitchcockian style. What is it about his films that brand them as specifically and undeniably his? Is it his occasional and seemingly incidental cameos and the viewing audience’s anticipation of them? Is it the recurring theme of the blonde heroin; the man wrongfully accused of murder; the tendency of Hitchcock’s takes and cuts to assume a “machine gun pace” (Harris 48); or the vaguely effeminate male? Perhaps Hitchcock’s style depends on all of these, but the foremost Hitchcockian device that unifies his oeuvre is “his ability to frame and edit shots in such a way as to allow spectators to grasp characters’ thoughts” (Thompson and Bordwell 242). The Man Who Knew Too Much entertains its audience not just with its glimpses at brutal violence, its beautiful mise en scène, and its themes of motherly redemption and international espionage, but also with its knack for inviting viewers into the psyche of its main characters.

Before entering the specifics of Hitchcock’s style, however, one must first explain the film’s premise. The plot of The Man Who Knew Too Much begins in the Swiss Alps, where the Lawrence family watches their friend, Louis, ski in a competition, after which Jill Lawrence competes in a clay pigeon shooting contest. Both Louis and Jill fail in their respective tournaments—Louis because little Betty Lawrence’s dog jumped out of her arms and into Louis’ skiing path, Jill because Abbott (Peter Lorre), the film’s treacherous villain, entices Betty to ring a bell, which distracts Jill as she targets the airborne clay pigeon. Later that day, when Louis dances with Jill, an unseen sniper assassinates Louis by shooting him from outside the dance hall. In his dying moment, Louis begs a favor of Jill: make sure no one finds the confidential note he left in his shaving brush. Bob and Jill Lawrence soon find out from a secret agent that Louis had important intelligence about an assassination attempt on a public official to occur a few days later. Louis, therefore, is the title character. He knew too much, so Abbott had to order a henchman to kill him. The Lawrence family finds themselves sucked into the situation when Abbott kidnaps Betty to keep them quiet. Based on evidence from the paper scrap left in Louis’ shaving brush, Bob Lawrence and Betty’s Uncle Clive seek to save Betty and foil Abbott’s assassination attempt.

On a hunch, Bob Lawrence and Uncle Clive enter an occult church with a sun logo similar to an illustration on Louis’ note. The ensuing scene stands out as a prime example of Hitchcock’s use of skillful use of sound and shot framing and editing to acquaint the audience with characters’ psychology. Bob and Clive pick up hymnals and pretend to sing along with the music, but in actuality they are speaking lines of dialogue. The camera cuts back and forth from Bob and Clive to the church’s eerie congregation. “There’s trouble coming soon,” Bob says at the end of their conversation, voicing his words in a singsong tune mimicking the current hymn. Their singing conversation tells a lot about Bob and Clive. That they pick up hymnals and pretend to sing indicates their desire to remain incognito. If they fail to pretend they came for the service instead of detective work, one of Abbott’s men could notice them at the back of the church. As the dialogue goes on, it becomes more and more apparent in Bob’s spooked facial expression that he is nervous about being discovered and attacked. Sure enough, the church is run by Abbott’s henchmen, and the scene ends in a mad orgy of chair hurling. Without the presence of sound in the film, Hitchcock could not have provided the audience with the Lawrences’ singsong dialogue, which serves as a kind of simultaneously humorous and ominous foreshadowing of events to come. In addition, Hitchcock’s authorial choice of cutting quickly between the Lawrences and the congregation helps to amplify the suspense.

Hitchcock’s use of quick cutting in the film reaches its peak in the cinematic climax. Here he employs the Soviet Montage technique by showing multiple planes of action in quick succession—41 shots in two minutes. Holed up in their criminal headquarters, Abbott and his gang drop like flies in a shootout showdown against the police, while Bob tries to escape with his daughter. The franticness of the visuals add to the excitement, and they transpire as follows:

1. Abbott shoots out the window at the police with a handgun, and tells one of his men to “go and fetch” Betty.

2. Betty and her father begin their escape. They walk out of the door to the room where Abbott had held Betty captive.

3. Abbott explains that he wants to keep Betty close; if he gets shot, at least Betty will die, too.

4. Betty and Bob Lawrence continue down the corridor.

5. Abbott’s gunman turns around and spots them escaping.

6. Betty and Bob see that the gunman has discovered them, and they begin to run.

7. The gunman starts after them.

8. Bob watches his daughter escape to the roof by climbing a ladder.

9. The gunman shoots Bob, who did not escape soon enough.

10. Bob falls down to the floor, and the gunman heads toward the ladder.

11. Bob appears in close-up, holding his wounded wrist.

12. The gunman climbs onto the roof.

13. Betty lowers herself down another ladder from the roof and makes eye contact with the gunman.

14. A reverse shot shows the gunman’s face as he and Betty make eye contact.

15. An establishing shot zooms out and shows where the two stand in relation to each other.

16. The crowd, including Jill Lawrence watch the action on the roof.

17. Betty, in her white dress, appears as a bright speck in a long shot, her light-colored attire contrasting with the dark night sky and shadow-covered building. This establishes an eyeline match between the onlookers and Betty, accomplishing the Kuleshov effect.

18. The audience walks toward the building.

19. Shot 17 is nearly repeated, displaying Betty in her visual contrast with her surroundings.

20. The action from Shot 18 continues.

21. A police commander blows a whistle and orders his force to stop firing.

22. The gunman nears Betty.

23. The police commander points at the gunman and says, “Quick, get that man!”

24. The action of Shot 22 continues, this time with the police force sniper appearing out of focus in the foreground.

25. In a close-up of the police sniper, he admits, “I can’t sir.” He does not want to risk shooting the girl.

26. Betty, with her frizzed hair whipping in the wind, fills the screen.

27. In close-up, the gunman walks toward her.

28. Betty looks down at her feet.

29. An extreme close-up of her feet shows that she nears dangerously close to the edge of the rooftop.

30. Betty looks at her feet again, then at the gunman.

31. The gunman comes closer to the camera—and Betty.

32. Jill Lawrence snatches the gun from the policeman.

33. Betty starts in the shot, then moves out of it. For a brief instant, the screen is completely black. Then the gunman’s hand reaches through the black void.

34. Betty receives one last close-up.

35. Worried, Jill Lawrence lifts her gun and focuses on the thug assailing her daughter.

36. A gunshot pierces the air, and the gunman winces.

37. The gunman falls off the roof.

38. Jill Lawrence stands in shock, holding a smoking gun.

39. The mass of people watching moves toward the building, away from the camera.

40. The camera changes position, and now the masses storm toward it.

41. In a semi-jump cut, the camera shoots from almost the same angle, but a couple seconds must have lapsed, because the crowd fills up more of the screen, indicating they continued to come closer.

Thus, in a mere two minutes, the camera follows in detail the actions of Abbott, Abbott’s gunman, Bob and Betty, Jill, the police force, and the spectating masses. Hitchcock shoots these characters with a diverse variety of techniques, including establishing shots, facial close-ups, extreme close-ups of body parts, extreme long shots, eyeline matches, shot/reverse shot patterns, and a jump cut. The swift pace of the cuts, coupled with the motley assortment of shot and cut types, generate excitement and suspense, demonstrating Hitchcock’s ability to thrill his audience with his craft. Hitchcock chooses to not sugarcoat the scene with dramatic music, favoring instead the harsh sounds of alternately intermittent and rapid-fire gunshots. The lack of music and prominence of violent sound effects adds to the scene’s grittiness.

His adept method of prolonging suspense with Soviet montage ought to remind audiences of Battleship Potemkin. The action sequence of proletarian masses sprinting down the Odessa steps also flashed between the grim soldiers and the frightened faces of their victims. Like Eisenstein, Hitchcock shifted from a single character to a large group, and back, over and over. He used the same technique in the climax of The Lodger. The concerned citizens of London descend upon the film’s strange title character without realizing he did not actually perpetrate the chain of murders. The policeman who had accused him saves him and breaks up the violent crowd, but only after he suffered a tremendous beating at the hands of hundreds crushing him against a fence. In that sequence, Hitchcock cut between the surging urbanites, the sprinting lodger, the lodger’s worried girlfriend, and the policeman who called for an attack on the lodger. Once again, the masses become a kind of collective character individuated with occasional close-ups of sections of the crowd, just like in Battleship Potemkin and TMWKTM. Not coincidentally, these three montages all appear at the end of their respective films as the grand, momentous climaxes.

Fortunately, Hitchcock is no one-trick pony. He expresses character psychology not just with quick montage-style cutting, but also with long shots of actors’ expressions. Peter Lorre in particular deserves commendation for his work in TMWKTM. In a scene where he discovers that his gunman’s assassination attempt failed—he shot the targeted diplomat, but not fatally—his initial surprised expression hardens into wide-eyed fury, then softens into mellow worry, then firms again into anger before it finally resolves itself in high-strung nervousness. Lorre shows all of these expressions in a single long take.

In short, Hitchcock has a variety of methods at his disposal that indicate his mastery in the art of suspense, many of which he could not have used without the unconditional support of his producer, Michael Balcon. His sound techniques range from blaring dramatic themes to humorous hymns, from relentless volleys in drawn-out firefights to oddly sporadic lone blasts. His graphic techniques—montage, long takes, dark and light contrast, and many more—keep moviegoers interested and eager to see more. Although he proves his special interest in sound experimentation in The Man Who Knew Too Much, he also casts away any doubts that he lost sight of movies’ visual capabilities. “Refusing to surrender the camera movement and rapid editing of the silent era,” write Thompson and Bordwell, “Hitchcock avoided multiple-camera shooting, finding a variety of other ways to work sound into his scenes” (208). Unlike the “quota quickies” produced in Britain in the early sound era, Hitchcock willfully pressed on toward greater experimentation, refusing to forfeit his films’ deep meaningfulness and social relevance.

Works Cited

Harris, Robert A. and Michael S. Lasky. The Films of Alfred Hitchcock. Secausus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1976.

Spoto, Donald. The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1983.

Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.