Alfred Hitchcock once told François Truffaut that the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much “is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional” but most film critics would disagree. The original British version is a lean and moody thriller that is full of suspense, while the 1956 remake is a completely different beast and one of the Master’s lesser works (maybe Hitch preferred the later version because he had a cameo in it). The original also marks the British debut of one of the great screen villains, Peter Lorre.
Following his directorial duties on the Johann Strauss biopic Waltzes From Vienna, Hitchcock found himself on more familiar ground with The Man Who Knew Too Much (made a year before his archetypal British thriller, The 39 Steps ). The action starts off in Switzerland, where Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are on holiday with their young daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). When a Frenchman (Pierre Fresnay) they’ve befriended is murdered at a party, his final act is to tell Bob about a message in his room warning about the planned assassination of a British diplomat. To prevent Bob revealing his secret, the conspirators kidnap Betty and threaten to kill her if he talks to the authorities. Back in London, Bob and Jill frantically search for both their daughter and the would-be target, while the hired assassin, Abbott (Lorre), makes plans to shoot a diplomat at the Royal Albert Hall. In classic fashion, the elements are in place for a dramatic and breathless denouement.
With a final scene based on an actual event – the gun battle that raged at the Sidney Street siege in London – and strong performances from the cast (particularly Pilbeam, who went on to play the romantic lead four years later in the enchanting Young And Innocent), this is arguably the first of Hitchcock’s great thrillers. Variety described it as an “unusually fine dramatic story, with a lot of melodramatic suspense added”, while Time Out called it “vintage Hitchcock… pacy, exciting and with superb settings.”
UK / 1934
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: AR Rawlinson, Charles Bennett, DB Wyndham Lewis, Edwin Greenwood, Emlyn Williams
Cast: Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, Nova Pilbeam, Frank Vosper, Hugh Wakefield