With Alfred Hitchcock having worked through silent features to land in the talkie era with a somewhat mixed record, it was an unexpected delight that The Man Who Knew Too Much set him on the path to extraordinary success. The director had found himself on one of many “low ebbs” with Waltzes from Vienna and was in desperate need of something to revitalize what he saw as a sinking stone of a career.
Hitch had initially been writing a Bulldog Drummond tale with Charles Bennett, but the studio had trouble securing the rights to the Herman Cyril McNeile character and plans fell through. The filmmaker took the tale and dropped the character, reforming it into a piece about a kidnapping and international conspiracy. The Man Who Knew Too Much was born.
Bob (Leslie Banks) and Jill (Edna Best) are a couple on vacation in Switzerland with their young daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). Jill flirts openly with Louis (Pierre Fresnay), but he is shot to death. It turns out that Louis is (or was) a spy and has some vital information he wants Jill to pass along to the British consulate. Before she can get around to figuring out which way is up, Bob is told that Betty has been kidnapped.
Bob and Jill return to London and try to figure out what to do. Together with a family friend (Hugh Wakefield), they work to track down their daughter. This leads them to a gang led by the disreputable Abbot (Peter Lorre), a ruthless psychopath who’s kidnapped Betty to ensure that Bob and Jill don’t share information about an upcoming assassination.
The Man Who Knew Too Much really is a compilation of ideas from Hitchcock’s previous works. It pushes the elements further and is a much more eerie film, even as it packs threads of sinister humour and a surprising sense of informality. Despite carrying on about a kidnapping and featuring some brilliantly violent set pieces, Hitch keeps the mood relatively light.
This 1934 picture is often cited as one of the earliest appearances of the Master of Suspense – and for good reason. For all the tension built in films like The Lodger and Blackmail, this is the first of Hitchcock’s movies to date that really pushes the traditional elements of the genre under the lamplight.
One key marker of this is the appearance of an out-and-out villain in the form of Abbot. Lorre, in his first English role, delivers a staggering performance as one of Hitchcock’s most memorable bad guys. Some of the director’s earlier movies featured villains, but Abbot sets the stage profoundly and represents true evil. He is not a man nearing the edge of sanity; he has long toppled over the cliff.
Even though The Man Who Knew Too Much only runs about 75 or so minutes, Lorre’s Abbot could have entire books written about him. His character is penetratingly layered. He is a “child who preys on men,” as described by writer Farran Smith Nehme, a character intrinsically used to getting what he wants. He demeans members of his gang, save for his nurse (Cicely Oates), and hides out in a cultish temple.
Juxtaposed against the menace of Abbot is Bob, the father of Betty. Banks plays him casually and he pursues his missing daughter spiritedly. He and his wife demonstrate clear concern when they finally hear Betty’s voice on the phone, but their lack of direction and dismissal of the bigger picture proves vexing if not realistic.
There are wonderful moments in this picture, from the ultimate shootout to the sequence at Royal Albert Hall. In the latter, Hitch vividly sets up the moment of assassination by having Abbot tell the audience (and his gang) when the shot is supposed to take place. The filmmaker proceeds to frame it with mouth-watering expectancy, showing an orchestra member retrieving his cymbals.
With The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock pulls his career away from the brink. That he does so in such decisive, remarkable fashion is an indication of his imagination and resolve. He has clearly learned his lessons and seems primed to build on everything, even his mistakes. With a wonderful turn by Lorre and plenty of inspired suspense, this movie is Hitch’s first masterpiece.