Whether it was a result of the limitation of the early sound era or a deliberate choice on Alfred Hitchcock’s part, the single bullet that sets the events into motion in 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much enters with a whisper. The sound drops out, a web forms around a small hole in an outside window, and a Frenchman gracefully sinks to his knees, his dress shirt stained with blood around the heart. Hitchcock would never be overly emphatic about the violence in his later work, but his early British sound films, like this one and classics like The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, are astoundingly dry and witty in the face of danger. The Man Who Knew Too Much contains murder, kidnapping, an attempted political assassination, and a villain of boundless venality, yet it strikes like that bullet, brisk and true and right on the bull’s eye. Hitchcock himself, in his own 1956 Technicolor remake, could do no better.
As Farran Smith Nehme’s superb liner-notes essay on the new Criterion edition informs us, Hitchcock’s career was at a perilous crossroads when he made The Man Who Knew Too Much. While he had enjoyed some success with the late-’20s silent films The Lodger and Blackmail, Hitchcock was coming off a few misfires, like 1931’s Rich And Strange and 1934’s Waltzes From Vienna, that played against his strengths and his interest. Produced for Gaumont British, The Man Who Knew Too Much finds the director firmly back in his wheelhouse, extracting all the wit and suspense he can from a pulpy exercise in abduction and conspiracy. All he needs are ordinary people pulled into danger, a McGuffin, and a great villain, and it’s off to the races.
Leslie Banks and Edna Best star as a British couple vacationing with their daughter in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where Best is competing in a shooting competition. (This is what they call “foreshadowing.”) They strike up a friendship with a charming French skier (Pierre Fresnay) that ends with the Frenchman taking a bullet while dancing with Best—and, with his dying breath, asking her to retrieve an important piece of information from his room. Enter the deliciously sinister Peter Lorre, in his first English-speaking role, as the leader of a group of assassins who will do anything to keep this piece of paper from reaching its intended destination. This means kidnapping Banks and Best’s daughter until they comply.
With the exception of the little girl, no one in The Man Who Knew Too Much breaks out in hysterics, so the cat-and-mouse game plays out with cool, rational calculation, with guns wielded less to establish power than position. On the rare occasion when order does break down—like an amazing melee between Banks and Lorre’s henchman where they hurl wooden chairs at each other—the effect is startling precisely because it’s not the gentlemanly thing to do. At 75 minutes, the film feels more like a tight, disciplined statement of principles than the multi-layered thrillers to come, but sequences like the opera climax are a master class in careful suspense-building, timing an assassination to a noise-blotting crescendo of percussion. It’s a reminder that then, and in the ensuing decades, no one spoke the language of cinema as articulately as Hitchcock.
Key features: A great package includes a commentary track by film historian Philip Kemp, an introduction by filmmaker and Hitchcock scholar Guillermo Del Toro, an interview with Hitchcock from 1972, and an audio excerpt from François Truffaut’s seminal interviews with Hitchcock.