The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997)

Country: United States / Germany
Directed by Jon Amiel Bill Murray, Peter Gallagher, Joanne Whalley , Alfred Molina, Anna Chancellor, Richard Wilson, Geraldine James, Terry O’Neill Music by Christopher Young Based on the novel ‘Watch That Man’ by Robert Farrar

The name for this film is obviously a play on Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, but as the titles unfold, it’s apparent that this film borrows from plenty of other sources too. The animated text that runs over the screen looks like the legs of an animated stick figure, which recalls The Saint. Another portion looks like a lit fuse recalling the titles for Mission: Impossible. All the time, the theme tune playing over the top is reminiscent of composer Henry Mancini’s work, and reminds us of Charade or possibly even The Pink Panther – and this out of all the subtle references is the most appropriate, because this film plays out as a lighthearted farce in the Blake Edwards tradition.

In the film, Wallace Ritchie (Bill Murray) is an insecure and lonely American who works in a Blockbuster video store in Demoines. His brother James (Peter Gallagher), on the other hand is a successful young businessman who is based in London. On his birthday, Wallace flies to London and un-announced turns up on James doorstep. Normally this would not be a problem, but on this particular evening, James and his wife, Barbara (Anna Chancellor) are hosting an elaborate dinner for some of James’ potential clients. During the course of the evening, James intends to pitch his company and services to the businessmen assembled. This is an environment where it would be better if Wallace was not around. James and Barbara have to quickly arrange an evening out on the town for Wallace – one which will keep him out of harms way until the dinner is over.

The latest craze sweeping London is a production called ‘Theatre Of Life’, which is an interactive theatre show. In it, regular people can participate in dramatic fantasy situations surrounded by professional actors who can guide them through the scenario. Unlike regular shows, the ‘Theatre Of Life’ does not take place in a theatre – it takes place in normal locations, such as the streets and in houses. James and Barbara decide that this is the perfect distraction for Wallace and arrange for him to participate that evening.

Wallace’s interactive evening of adventure is to begin at a phone booth. From there he will be contacted by the ‘Theatre Of Life’ team and given an address where the show will begin. Wallace doesn’t have to wait long at the booth. The phone soon rings and the caller asks for a man named Spenser. Wallace believes that ‘Spenser’ must be his character’s name in the theatre production, so he assumes that identity, and is promptly given an address.

Wallace makes his way to what he believes is the starting line for the ‘Theatre Of Life’, but in reality he has intercepted the wrong call. Spenser is a real person – not some character in a fictional theatre piece. He also happens to be a hit man – and the address that Wallace has been given is the address of the target.

You can see where this is leading, can’t you? Yep, Wallace gets involved in a real-life espionage adventure, but the whole time believes he is playing a role in an elaborate game, oblivious to the dangers that face him.

Okay, it’s a pretty contrived set up, but Bill Murray makes the film work. He can play this kind of role in his sleep, and does so here. Well, that’s not fair – Murray’s quite good, but we have seen him in this type of role a bit too often. Still, he carries this film, and if you’re a fan of Bill Murray, you find a lot to like here, but it does lack the sparkling one liners of some of his earlier work like Stripes or even Ghostbusters.

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