The Man Who
Knew Too Much
By Michael Wood
144 pages. $20. nolead ends
Reviewed by John Timpane
It's a rare pleasure for a book to carry you from cover to cover with wit, verve, and profit. That's what happens with this new overview by Michael Wood.
Wood is emeritus professor of comparative literature at Princeton. Erudition is not what he wants to show you - it's Alfred Hitchcock's life and movies. In this quick tour, there's much to cover in little space, much written in countless books. But in Wood's hands, it all seems unrushed, easy, and fresh.
There is Hitchcock's middle-class family, the beginnings of what would become "a frightened man who got his fears to work for him on film." There is his Jesuit schooling, his early days in the just-starting English film industry, and his crucial, life-making union with Alma Reville, wife and collaborator of a lifetime. Of her, Woods writes: "He would have been something without her, no doubt, but he would not have been the director we know as Hitchcock."
The movie, as Wood writes, "in which he became Hitchcock" was the 1926/27 silent The Lodger. Hitch's hallmarks emerge: the innocent man wrongly accused; the bloodlusty mob, ever bent on the wrong idea; human nerves strung between certainty and suspicion; the troubling, ambiguous treatment of women; and constant cinematic innovation, including (in this film) a glass floor so we see, from beneath, the mysterious lodger walking in his room.
Films such as The Lodger "can tell the right story only by telling, or seeming to tell, the wrong story first" (one of many keen, just-so Wood aperçus). Suspense is keenest when viewers (but not characters) know what's happening, or will, but not when. Dramatic irony married to helplessness. A bomb ticks down in a crowded bus in Sabotage (1936). Something's off about Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). The orchestra crescendos to the gunshot in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934/56). It involves fear, but it's far more than fear.
It's knowledge. In film after film, we run up against what we know and what we don't/can't (what the heck are those birds?). Wood writes that, in these films, "there seem to be only three options: to know too little, to know too much (however little that is), and to know a whole lot that is entirely plausible and completely wrong."
Thanks to his command of suspense, his knack of anticipating audience reactions, Hitchcock became famous, beyond his films, for mastery of human psychology. His work probed friendship, guilt, patriotism, love, obsession, the communal mania that attends war - and the communal shell-shock that follows.
Wood scants Spellbound but dwells lovingly on Vertigo. He does a spectacular job with Strangers on a Train, a "meticulously controlled picture of an out-of-control situation." Which stands for so much of Hitchcock's work.