Twenty two years before everyone’s favourite everyman James Stewart and a warbling Doris Day found themselves embroiled in a plot of political intrigue in Marrakesh, an English couple suffered a similar fate in the Swiss Alps at the hands of a gang led by the peerless Peter Lorre who are looking to assassinate an influential statesman and kidnap their child in the process. Hitchcock, plying his trade this side of the Pond before beginning his domination of Hollywood in the post-war period, was in his early thirties for the first production of The Man Who Knew Too Much but the telltale signs of his suspenseful brilliance, backed up by strong performances, make it just as worthy of attention as the famous 1956 remake.
The first man to know too much was Leslie Banks as the unwitting fish out of water Bob Lawrence. His sassy, clay pigeon shooting wife, Jill (played by Edna Best), is decidedly more ballsy than Doris Day’s incarnation of the role, despite the odd moment of wan reflection; although that’s to be expected when your daughter has been kidnapped. One cannot always maintain one’s stiff upper lip.
An early moment of pure brilliance at an evening formal dance sees the mischievous Lawrence tie one end of an unravelling knitted scarf around Uncle Louis’ coat tail as he dances with Jill. The web ensnares everyone but amusement quickly turns to shock as Louis – played by a charming Pierre Fresnay, most well known for his role in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion – is shot. As is the case with so much of Hitch’s work, the film teeters on the edge of hilarity and catastrophe before well and truly falling over the edge.
Louis’ cryptic final words to Jill speak of a brush located in his room. Bob finds a concealed note, Betty is kidnapped and the plot thickens…
Having starred most notably in Fritz Lang’s M three years previously, Hitchcock’s thriller was Peter Lorre’s first English-speaking film. Although his character, Abbott, ironically excuses his poor English in an opening exchange, the actor’s distinct tone and delivery are unmistakeable. Coupled with this are the physical attributes of a scarred cheek and a streak of white in his dark hair; he is a quietly sinister and malevolent mastermind.
Further Hitchcock masterstrokes include the assassination sequence at the Royal Albert Hall where events are beyond the control of the lady who knows too much. Forced into non-action by the threat to her child’s life, she suffers the same anxious powerlessness as an audience while the live music builds to its crescendo and a gunman waits in the wings.
The dramatic finale brings the film to an appropriate climax. At only a little over an hour, it is not a long picture but contains all the ingredients for what would come to be known as classic Hitchcock – superb storytelling, questions of morality, dark humour and the mastery of suspense.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is released on Blu-ray on 19th January 2015; it includes an introduction from film historian Charles Barr and an interview with Hitchcock on the 1972 Arts programme, Aquarius: Alfred the Great.