Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which he remade with superior results in 1956, is a solid, suspenseful thriller. I saw the picture at a screening in Sid Grauman’s recently renovated movie theater on Hollywood Boulevard, The Egyptian, on a nitrate print owned by David O. Selznick and featured at TCM’s Classic Film Festival. The British movie was introduced by director Martin Scorsese (Silence, Raging Bull, The Aviator).
A couple vacationing in Switzerland with their only child becomes ensnared in an intriguing assassination plot that leads to their daughter being kidnapped, a frantic attempt to get her back from the evil kidnappers in a London church and a volatile climax in which mother, father and daughter are potentially caught in the crossfire in a shootout between police and assassins. The black and white, 75-minute movie begins with a thrilling and elegant series of scenes in the Swiss Alps, establishing the efficacy of the mother (Edna Best), moving to police headquarters, a dentist’s office in London and a church cult in working class London where the freakish leader Abbott (Germany’s Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role since fleeing National Socialism) and his freakish female companion Agnes (Cicely Oates) lure and confront the heroic father (Leslie Banks, shining in the role). A tense scene at the Royal Albert Hall uses the same cymbal-themed music as the 1956 remake with Doris Day and James Stewart.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is a brisk, lucid and economic exercise in filmmaking and it is involving but at times it does feel like an exercise. By the time Best’s mother character does her mea culpa for having castigated the wayward daughter (Nova Pilbeam, the last surviving cast member until she died last summer) early in the movie, the gunfight has gone on too long and at the expense of the drama. The motherhood theme is nonetheless powerful, though her character emotionally pitches too soon at Albert Hall without a properly threaded and balanced exposition. Best aces the pivotal street scene, which elicited triumphant applause during the screening at the Egyptian, and Banks, too, in a chair-smashing scene at the Tabernacle of the Sun, is breathtaking. The most absorbing psychological progression, however, occurs between Agnes and Abbott during the showdown with London police.
This takes place after curiously engaging set-up scenes at church, where Banks’s father and Lorre’s child-robber go back and forth over the mind becoming blank, courtesy of a character named Clive (Hugh Wakefield) who functions here as a light comic relief. Clive, too, develops the plot-theme of redemption for authority after his passionate attempts to convince policemen are laughed off and rejected—he is dismissed as a kook or conspiracy theorist, as how could harm come to a child in church?—until police must face the deadly consequences of their denial.
Indeed, given how The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) ends, it plays as a serious reproach of London police, who literally miss the mark when it matters. Trust and count on no one (especially the government), both Hitchcock movie versions really say, above your own reasoning mind, judgment and skill. I prefer his Americanized 1956 version, which I agree with the master of suspense is the better movie. But the original is also extremely good.