"Money buys a man's silence for a time. A bolt in the heart buys it forever."
Somebody is involved in something dirty, or just did something nasty
. Could be The Government
, could be The Mafia
or The Syndicate
, could be General Ripper
, a Corrupt Corporate Executive
, or an Ancient Conspiracy
. No matter what bad guy was involved, somebody saw it all, heard it all, or somehow caught wind of what's going down (or what went down), and the bad guy in question has found out about the witness.
Since the witness now knows too much, the bad guy's entire scheme may come crashing down, so they aim to "silence" the witness in some manner, through bribery, blackmail, intimidation, or even murder.
A common variant is that the person who purportedly knows too much doesn't actually know anything at all (or at least, doesn't understand what knowledge they have) — but the overly paranoid conspirators believe that they do, thus leading to their campaign of persecution. There's a good chance the hero will eventually get sick of being relentlessly hounded/threatened/shot at by the conspirators and start fighting back. In the process, they usually learn the "real" secret anyway by constantly coming into contact with said conspirators at every turn and eventually will find a way to bring the plan to ruin. The ironic conclusion, of course, is that if the Big Bad had just relaxed and left the person alone, they'd have succeeded
If it isn't the hero getting persecuted, it will likely be someone the hero cares about
, which will usually prompt either a bodyguard scenario as the hero tries to protect them against the bad guys, or a Roaring Rampage of Revenge
if the loved one is killed. Either way, it's an excellent MacGuffin
most common motive for bad guys to go after innocent people and the reason that the FBI has the Witness Protection Program
. (Well, maybe a third of the reason; it's also to protect people from revenge after they testify.)
Another, less sympathetic variation occurs when a character learns a guilty secret possessed by another character and decides it would be a profitable enterprise to blackmail
the second character in exchange for their silence. This one usually overlaps with Asshole Victim
, since the second character understandably won't like the idea of being on the hook to a sleazy blackmailer for the rest of their life, and is likely to decide that getting rid of the blackmailer will cost them less in the long run than paying up. If the blackmail victim's guilty secret is that they are a murderer, this may also add elements of Too Dumb to Live
to the blackmailer — after all, someone who's already killed at least one person is unlikely to have many qualms about bumping off someone else, particularly if that someone else is trying to exploit them for money.
See Revealing Coverup
, Killed to Uphold the Masquerade
, Have You Told Anyone Else?
, and His Name Is...
. See also Leave No Witnesses
for those situations where a roomful of people all Learn Too Much at once. Where the knowledge itself
is harmful, see These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know
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Anime & Manga
- In Top 10, pop star and former science-hero sidekick Glenn Garland is killed because he was going to tell the media about the illegal and repulsive actions of a group which he used to be a part of. The Vigilante from Venus also expressed concern that they were going to try to kill her before she went to trial, for fear that she would incriminate them in her testimony.
- This trope is what sets the whole plot of the first Sin City story "The Hard Goodbye" in motion, as Goldie is killed on orders from another character after she discovered his nasty secret habit. Another character dies after mistaking a death squad for honest cops and telling them everything.
- In Watchmen, two people knew the same thing:
- One is killed because he knows the details of a plan, even though he had no intention of revealing it; he had told Moloch, who simply didn't understand what he heard and would be no threat to its success even if he did understand it.
- The other (not Moloch, by the way) is killed because he knows the plan and is going to reveal it. His murder may have been pointless, though, because he'd mailed his journal to the "New Frontiersman". Whether anyone of importance would believe what that Conspiracy Theorist tabloid reports is unclear, though.
- This is essentially the reason that The Boys haven't been brutally butchered by ruthless "superheroes" the Seven; the only reason they aren't dead is that they have even more damaging information on someone that The Seven fear more.
- As the lead geneticist in the Facility's attempts to clone Wolverine, Dr. Sarah Kinney knows everything about the X-23 project, particularly after Rice reveals that additional clones are currently in production, with the plan being to sell them to the highest bidders. After firing her, Rice decides to ensure her silence about the project by arranging to have X-23 kill her by contaminating Sarah with the trigger scent (that, and because he's a tremendous dick). Unfortunately for him, Sarah's final act is to turn X-23 loose against the Facility itself...
- Magnificent Kamen in Sailor Nothing allows no witness to escape to reveal the Masquerade. The fact that he's a Yamiko probably has something to do with that.
- In Winter War, Hisagi kills Iemura for discovering that he is a Fake Defector, even though they were (theoretically) on the same side and Iemura was offering his support, because he didn't believe that Iemura could keep the secret. The guilt eventually drives the killer into Heroic BSOD to the point where his zanpakutou has to take over his body just to keep him alive.
- In Pages Of Harmony, Twilight ends up kidnapping and killing Spike and Sweetie Belle because she fears they'll learn too much about her plans involving the Elements - the former because he hangs around the library and starts to get suspicious, and the latter because she witnesses Rarity being kidnapped.
- Alfred Hitchcock was fond of this trope, which he used as the key plot element in films such as The Man Who Knew Too Much, North By Northwest, and The Saboteur.
- The main action of the Brandon Lee movie Rapid Fire starts when Brandon's character witnesses a bad guy in the act of taking out a rival.
- In a movie about the presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio's assassination in Tijuana called Colosio: El Asesinato, the main character is a police officer who works undercover and is asked by the president's former brother-in-law José Francisco Ruiz Massieu to investigate the murder. After a series of investigations, he concludes that the very same party killed Colosio. At the same time, someone is killing everyone involved with the case and murder, including the murderer and anyone who dares to seek the truth. As a result, the main character gets killed in the end as well as his pregnant wife, his partner, the police chief in Tijuana, and Ruiz Massieu, all because of this trope.
- Snakes on a Plane: The catalytic event for the eponymous serpents upon the aircraft.
- Subverted slightly in Adventures in Babysitting — one of the kids had taken a Playboy magazine that could get the crime boss put away, and the presumption the criminals made, of course, was that the kids had read it, plus the fact that they'd met at all meant they knew too much. The magazine was returned, and the crime boss' underling resigned, knocking him out along the way.
- The Hong Kong action movie Sha Po Lang (known in the US as "Killzone") kicks off with the murder of a witness ordered by a Triad crimelord so that his testimony could not be given and the crimelord would be set free. This sets four cops against him, all with their own reasons for wanting to take him down.
- In Lethal Weapon, Riggs is tortured by the bad guys to find out what he knows about their impending shipment, which is nothing.
- In Serenity, the Operative is sent after River because she picked up the secret of Miranda, which has been buried for twelve years, from the heads of top members of the Alliance's Parliament who came to the Academy to see her. The nature of the secret in question means that Parliament wants more than anything to keep it buried, even if it means River must die.
- This is a perfect example of the variant, since River was totally crazy, so she couldn't have communicated what she knew to anybody who could do anything about it. The Operative coming after her and the crew compelled them to find out the truth.
- The Man With One Red Shoe (the American remake of the French Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe) has the scheming deputy head of the CIA trying to frame the actual head, so that he can have his job. The head knows this, and lets slip that someone who can foil this plan very simply will be arriving at the airport. He then sends his aide to meet any random person at the airport, so that the deputy and his men will follow them and try to find out what he knows. The aide picks a rather head-in-the-clouds musician, who's wearing a pair of mismatched shoes because of a practical joke.
- The Hero in Marathon Man is one of the actually-know-nothing kind.
- Governor Swann is killed in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End because he finds out what really happens when someone stabs Davy Jones' heart.
- It's pretty strongly implied that the "villain" of The Hunted was just acting in self defense, pursued by government assassins over his past black-ops experience.
- Robert's justification for killing Leroy and Destiny in Mystery Team.
- In Captain America: The First Avenger, Col Phillips warns a captured Zola that Schmitt will see him this way.
- In the sequel, a maid walks in on her employer briefing the Winter Soldier, and is regretfully shot dead.
- In Drive, a gangster uses a crew of low level criminals to rip off a Mafia boss with the intent to later kill them and take the money for himself. When the plan blows up in his face, he and his partner decide that everyone involved Knows Too Much and must die so the Mafia never finds out who was really responsible. Ironically, the only survivor of the crew actually does not know anything and was about to leave town.
- Mushnik in Little Shop of Horrors, adapted from the stage musical. This trope did not apply to the original film.
- Inverted in Diamonds Are Forever concerning the diamond smuggling ring. When one of your own passes you fake diamonds, he knows too much about the circumstances to die. This is demonstrated when Shady Tree rescues James Bond (who had assumed the identity of Peter Franks, a fellow diamond smuggler who Bond had killed) from a retort to question him about where he hid the real diamonds, only for Bond to use leverage against him to the tune of $50,000 ("You bring me the real money, and I'll bring you the real diamonds."), and then Zig Zagged when Albert R. Saxby reminds Wint and Kidd that they "didn't get the real diamonds. So we need Tree, alive." Wint and Kidd remark on how "that's most annoying" because they had already cut Tree down, as revealed when Bond shows up in his dressing room.
- All over the place in The Fourth Protocol, about a Soviet plot to set off a nuclear bomb outside a US airbase in Britain and Make It Look Like an Accident. The implications of this plan being exposed are so serious that the KGB sleeper agent and the scientist who assembles the bomb are set up to be killed. The film takes this up to another level for dramatic purposes — it opens with traitor Kim Philby (who planned the operation) being shot, the man who shot Philby getting his neck broken, and an innocent bystander who walks in on an exchange of a smuggled component gets stabbed.
- In American Beauty, Col. Fitts kills Lester to make sure he doesn't tell anyone that he's gay.
- Page quote: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: The two crewmen who killed the Klingon Chancellor are then killed by Lt. Valaris.
- In Cube 2: Hypercube, this appears to be the entire reason why almost everyone was thrown into the hypercube to die, as they all have some sort of connection to the hypercube's controllers. Except for Sasha, who it's revealed went inside willingly to hide, and Kate, who's an operative sent in with a mission. It's also why Kate's superiors summarily execute her when she returns with her mission accomplished.
- In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Shredder orders his Foot Clan to kill April O'Neil when she begins to dig too deep into his group.
- The Conspiracy kicks off when the subject of a conspiracy theorist documentary goes missing, and Jim is killed and Aaron threatened into silence after being found out at the Tarsus Club.
- The President's Analyst is privy to the innermost thoughts of the President - when the strain of the job becomes too much he skips town, pursued by foreign agents wanting to tap his mind, and domestic agents who, because he knows too much, want to bring him in or kill him.
- I Come in Peace: Larry's FBI boss tries to kill his subordinate after Larry hands over the energy weapon which he retrieved from the alien cop, but Larry's local partner Jack saves him by shooting the guy first.
- A KGB agent is questioned by his superior: "How much is 2 plus 2?" - "Four." - "And how much is 3 times 5?" - "Fifteen." - "And how much is the square root of 9?" - "Three." At the moment, the superior draws his gun and shoots the agent. "Comrades, I had to neutralize him, he knew too much!"
- The Home Guard Auxilary Units were stay-behind units trained in the event of a German invasion of Britain during World War II. Each patrol consisted of local men recommended by their Chief Constable. They had secret orders only to be opened in the event of an invasion. One man opened his anyway and found to his shock that his first mission was to assassinate the Chief Constable, as he was the only man who knew the identity of the unit members.
- In Grisaia No Rakuen the designer of the Thanatos system had a little accident after he tried selling the system to the terrorist Heath Oslo. Most of the people who are left don't really know the limits of the system as a result, which allowed Kazuki freedom to use the system in highly unintended ways until she blew her cover.
- In Terra fighter pilot Alexis Hawke's CO has serious misgivings about their fighter squadron's mission to destroy a Resistance base. After two fighters and four crew don't come back (two Red Shirts were killed, Alex and Rick were shot down and rescued by the Resistance) he voices his concerns openly to the general, who shoots him.
- Vampire Cheerleaders: In vol.1, Leonard becomes suspicious of Lori and her cheerleading squad and spends weeks secretly observing them. Once he had sufficient evidence, he confronted them and threatened to expose them as vampires. Lori's immediate response was to try to kill him, but he'd taken the precaution of eating plenty of garlic and drinking Listerine, which made his blood toxic to her. So she resorted to the next best thing: buy his silence by having the cheerleading squad screw him.
- In GuildedAge, when one of his employees finds out about the players hidden in the basement who can't be removed from their Deep-Immersion Gaming, HR kills him.
- Parodied in an episode of Jackie Chan Adventures, appropriately titled "The Chan Who Knew Too Much". A cabal of wizards repeatedly states that Jackie "knows too much" when he finds out any of the cabal's secrets... their name, their plans for Stonehenge, or even the location of the bathrooms in their secret lair. ("He's privy to our privies!") To make it even better, Jackie really didn't know anything at all about when he first accidentally dropped in on all of them — for all he knew, they could have just been wannabe satanists or something. They pretty much told Jackie everything themselves, e.g showing him that they knew magic by trying to kill him with it.
- Gloriously lampshaded when Jade claims to know their magic words, but can't cast their spells. The man gloats that she 'knows nothing' and Jackie cries out, "That's what I've been trying to tell you!"
- In Batman Beyond: Said in its entirety by Inque about Terry McGinnis. It is also motive behind Derek Powers's murder of Terry's father, which prompted Terry to become Batman.
- Played with in The Simpsons:
- Homer followed his coworkers to the Stonecutters' headquarters. He gets inside by falling through the skylight and is instantly surrounded. They declare that he has seen to much and must pay "the ultimate penalty". So they toss him out the front door.
- In "New Kids on the Bleech", after Lisa discovers the Navy's conspiracy to recruit people via Subliminal Seduction, Lt. Smash says ominously "Well, now that you know, I'm afraid I can't let you leave." But Lisa already left.
- In The Spectacular Spider-Man, Punch Clock Villain Doctor Otto Octavius is entirely correct to fear that someone will discover his involvement in the creation of Supervillains made to antagonize Spider-Man. Indeed, Green Goblin engineers a Freak Lab Accident to silence the doctor for good. The catch? Octavius lives, though he's become much less meek and a lot more megalomaniacal. Unfortunately, the newly-christened Doctor Octopus assumes Spider-Man is the culprit.
- Transformers Animated has Blurr, who was offed by the traitor for knowing to much.
- Spoofed in the Looney Tunes short "Bugs and Thugs", where gangster Rocky decides that Bugs "knows too much" when he, among other things, correctly identifies Carson City as the capital of the state of Nevada.
- Lampshaded in Scooby-Doo and the Alien Invaders, where the villains say this as they prepare to kill Fred, Velma, and Daphne. Fred grumbles "That's always our problem..." in response.
- In Futurama, a robotic toilet the crew is throwing away offers them "Happy Poopy Time" if they spare it. Fry simply says "You know too much."
- An episode of The Venture Bros. has Dr. Orpheus about to reveal the truth of why The Monarch was arrested. As he's about to spill the beans, Phantom Limb calls in the Strangers to freeze everyone in ice and administer either memory wipes or hypnotic suggestions to the room, thereby making Orpheus declare that Monarch is guilty of crimes he didn't commit.
- Nicodemus inverts this in a discussion with Mrs. Frisby in The Secret of NIMH; instead of using it as an excuse to die, he utilizes this fact as a reason to survive by leaving their colony. "My child, we can no longer live as rats... we know too much."
- The true Big Bad of Monsters, Inc., Mr. Waternoose, says this, and unfortunately for him, Mike gets it on tape.
- In Baxter Stockman's debut in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, after he's made a master control for the hundreds of Mousers Shredder forced him to make, Shred-head decides that "He knows too much" and sends his Foot Soldiers to eliminate Baxter. Only the Turtles' timely intervention prevent the Foot from succeeding.
- In 1942, the Russians arranged an assassination of Von Papen, the German ambassador to Turkey. They gave the would-be assassin a package which they said was a smoke bomb to cover his escape. The assassin decided that attacking under cover of the smoke was a better plan and so set it off early: it exploded killing the assassin but leaving von Papen unharmed except for the gore splattered on his suit. The Russians of course intended him to do this after shooting the target, thus preventing him from telling who was the guilty party.
- This gambit was also used by Irish terrorist groups, such as the Provisional IRA, to eliminate members whose trust was in doubt, those suspected of being double agents for British security services. Terrorists in this position might be instructed to drive a car bomb to a certain location. But the bomb would be on a short fuse and explode long before they got there. It is suspected that British Intelligence exploited this by deliberately planting doubts in the IRA leadership's mind as to the reliability of certain members, thus eliminating terrorists, without the irksome need of proving a case that would stand up in court.
- This is the reason why, in a lot of urban neighborhoods, people won't talk to the police about crimes they saw, and is also the basis of the "snitches get stitches" saying.
- Not at all helpful are the anti-"tattle tale" rules that are in most schools, teaching children the wonderful lesson to never bring a wrong doing to the proper authorities no matter what they see.
- The scene in Goodfellas when Robert DeNiro's character systemically kills all of the participants in the Lufthansa Heist at JFK was an accurate representation of real life in which gangster James Burke did just that.
- In Polish Resistance member Jan Karski's autobiography, he tells the story of being rescued from the Gestapo, and being told by his rescuers shortly after escape "We were given two orders. The first one was to save you at any price; the other was to shoot you in case we did not succeed."
- According to legend, the slaves that built the tomb of Genghis Khan were killed by the soldiers guarding them, and these in turn by other soldiers, to ensure that people could never find his burial place.