We just watched The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and we can’t stop thinking about it.
This thriller, directed by Alfred Hitchcock in his pre-Hollywood career, is about a family vacationing at a resort in St. Moritz.
Alas! The family witnesses a murder and – what’s more unfortunate – their daughter is kidnapped, because her father (Leslie Banks) discovers a Clue that will interfere with the Bad Guys.
It’s a good film, although we do prefer the 1956 version starring James Stewart and Doris Day (also directed by Hitchcock). The 1934 version is a more modest affair, but no less tense, and it features Peter Lorre as a Villain.
About the abduction: The girl is taken from her room at the resort, and her parents return to England to search for her. When they arrive home, they find, to their dismay, that everyone already knows Their Business, and look! Here’s a man from the Foreign Office sitting in their living room, asking them to be part of a Sting Operation.
It’s a terrific script with wonderful actors. Even if you didn’t know Hitchcock directed this film, you would easily spot his handiwork.
But the thing that got to us is the kidnapped girl. She’s the face of the underlying terror in this film.
The daughter, played by Nova Pilbeam, is a young, free-spirited teenager. Her parents indulge her whims and are rarely cross with her.
For example, during a ski race in St. Moritz, Pilbeam allows her dog to run onto the downhill track, causing an oncoming racer to fall and be disqualified. No one’s angry: What a lark!
In another scene, Pilbeam’s mother (Edna Best) is in a skeet-shooting contest – Hint: Foreshadowing – and Pilbeam rushes to her just as she’s aiming to shoot. This causes Best to miss the shot and lose the contest, but no matter. We’re on vacation!
So, given a willful girl who disregards boundaries and doesn’t care what The Adults say, how on earth did criminals manage to kidnap her?
And how did they keep her captive? It’s almost implausible that she should be kept prisoner by anyone.
However, when we see Pilbeam later in the film, she’s a different person. She’s not the sassy, devil-may-care girl Hitchcock introduced us to at the St. Moritz resort. This girl is terrified.
What happened after she was wrested from the care of her parents?
Hitchcock doesn’t say. It is enough that she suffered the fate of so many children then, and now: To be treated as currency by adults for their own purposes.
The title of The Man Who Knew Too Much is borrowed from a series of G.K. Chesterton stories about a man related to several high-ranking politicians, which, naturally, gives him Too Much Information about those Goings On.
The film received good reviews, according to IMDb, although producer C.M. Woolf reportedly “hated” it, and stuck it at the end of a double feature.
Hitchcock needed this film to be a success because his previous work, Waltzes from Vienna (1933), was poorly received. Hitchcock famously said Waltzes, a musical about Johann Strauss, was “the lowest ebb” of his career.
The Man Who Knew Too Much was Peter Lorre’s second English-speaking film, if you count the English version of M (1931). Lorre wasn’t yet fluent in English, and he learned most of his lines phonetically.
Fellow cast member and child actress Nova Pilbeam was 15 years old when she appeared in this film. She quit acting temporarily when she married in 1939. However, she returned to acting after her husband was killed in WWII, then permanently retired in 1951.
Some regard the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much as superior to the 1956 film. But let’s not quibble. Let’s have a party with both films and celebrate their merits with fondue and champagne. Who’s in?
This post is part of The Odd or Even Blogathon, hosted by Taking Up Room and Realweegiemidget Reviews.
The Man Who Knew Too Much: starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Written by Charles Bennett, D.B. Wyndham-Lewis & Edwin Greenwood. Gaumont British Picture Corporation, 1934 B&W, 76 mins.