Whilst holidaying in Switzerland, Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks), his wife Jill (Edna Best), and their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) befriend a man by the name of Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay). It transpires that Bernard is a government agent who is trying to thwart an assassination attempt on an important dignitary who is due to visit London. Bernard discovers some important information on the plot but is murdered before he can contact his superiors with the details. The Lawrence's are in possession of a scrap of paper — given to them by the murdered man — that may be vital, but the assassins kidnap Betty to stop them talking. Back in London, Bob and a family friend, Clive, set out to rescue Betty using a cryptic clue from Bernard's scrap of paper, but they soon find themselves right in the middle of criminal mastermind, 'Mr. Abbot's' (Peter Lorre) assassination plot!
"The Man Who Knew Too Much" comes at the very beginning of Hitchcock's great British phase of the thirties, and is a blueprint for the kind of movie he would be associated with during this period: glossy, entertainment thrillers, constructed around a profusion of elaborate, almost self-contained suspense set-pieces. The film had its origins in a project that Hitchcock conceived with Charles Bennett — the author of the play on which "Blackmail" had been based — when they had both still been working at British International. Hitchcock had always wanted to make a film based around a popular character called Bulldog Drummond, hero of a series of novels by Hector McNeil; so Bennett and Hitch came up with a treatment that involved the gentleman adventurer's daughter being kidnapped, and sold it to British International. However, Hitchcock's relations with John Maxwell (the head of BIP) where already rather sour due to Maxwell's reluctance to finance the kind of projects Hitchcock was interested in. After the failure of "Rich and Strange", the director found himself reduced to the level of making a cheap 'quota quickie' called "Number Seventeen" for the company; when it became apparent that Bulldog Drummond's Baby was never going to get made at all at BIP, Hitchcock knew it was time to leave. While at a loose end, he found himself in the unlikely situation of directing a musical, "Waltzes From Vienna" for independent producer, Tom Arnold at Gaumont-British. This company was the result of the joining of forces of Michael Balcon's Gainsborough Pictures with C.M. Woolf's renting company; Woolf was the managing director of the new company, and although he and Hitchock had never got on while the director had been at Gainsborough (Woolf shelved Hitch's first great masterpiece "The Lodger"), Hitch jumped at the chance to work at Gaumont-British when Michael Balcon visited him on the set of "Waltzes..." and offered him the chance to work on any project he liked! Hitchcock bought the Bulldog Drummond script from BIP and, together with Bennett, producer Ivor Montagu (an old friend from Hitch's early days who was also now working at Gaumont-British), and several other scriptwriters, set about rewriting the script — removing any reference to the Bulldog character and crafting several new scenes, among them the famous dentist's surgery sequence.
The film sees Hitchcock playing to his strengths all the way. All the most promising elements of his more successful early works are given the chance to shine in a context specifically created to showcase them to maximum effect: The technical trickery of the Schufftan process was once again employed (just as it was in "Blackmail") to give the illusion that the climatic assassination attempt was really taking place at the Albert Hall, when in reality everything was filmed in the cramped confines of Lime Grove studios; the expressionist-tinged cinematography with its shadowy lighting and odd camera angles, manages to give that silent movie feel while at the same time, sound now plays a central role in the story (with the assassination timed to coincide with a particular point in a piece of music so as to disguise the sound of the gun, and the criminal mastermind's musical watch giving him away at the end of the film) rather than it being just a gimmick plastered on top of the images. The film quickly establishes the basic formula that became synonymous with the name Alfred Hitchcock: a string of incongruous situations follow one after the other during the film's brief running time, with the audience required to figure out how a dentist's surgery with a padded door (in which clandestine meetings take place), and a strange sun worshipping cult, can possibly be connected. Hitchcock even created one scene around a real-life incident, the siege of Sydney Street, when in 1911, police tracked a criminal gang to their hideout and became involved in a protected gun battle. The finale involves the film's heroine, Jill Lawrence, saving the day by employing her skills as a marksman (established in the opening scene) to kill the assassin before he can harm Betty.
The film is rather superficial — and has been criticised for its apparent lack of emotional depth, since the two parents never seem to be particularly thrown by the danger their kidnapped daughter is facing. On the other hand Peter Lorre — whom Hitchcock had always envisioned in the role of Mr. Abbot the chief criminal, ever since seeing him play the child killer in Fritz Lang's "M" a few years earlier — gives a compelling performance, actually making what is on paper a rather cardboard cut-out villain seem both extremely likeable and entertaining, while still retaining that edge of menace and unpredictability the part requires.
Hitchcock continued to refine his formula with his next few British made movies, resulting in several masterpieces such as "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes". Debate now rages among Hitchcock fans over which is the best version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much": this one ... or the lavish 50s remake? In truth they are both so different in tone and pace that it seems quite hopeless to compare them, but if I were forced to choose, I for one would go with this original 1934 version. It doesn't muck around or get bogged down with extraneous material -- and still feels fresh today due to its ability to combine the best from the great silent era of visually based cinema with the excitement of new possibilities afforded by the new sound era.
Carlton Entertainment's Region 0 PAL disc is, like most versions of the film, rather a cut price affair. So far, TMWKTM has failed to get the Criterion Collectors treatment, leaving us with lots of rather scratchy versions of the film, this one being no exception; but it's watchable, and looks slightly better than it does on VHS. The disc contains just a theatrical trailer, but it retails at quite an affordable price which at least goes some way to make up for the rather lacklustre presentation this important film in Hitchcock's career has thus-far received.
Incredibly "The Man Who Knew Too Much" received similar treatment at the hands of Gaumont-British's director, C.M. Woolf, as "The Lodger" had almost a decade before. Woolf hated the film — and, even though it was a huge hit with critics and audiences, he first threatened to shelve it, and then finally released it — buried as the lower half of a double bill, effectively ensuring the film lost money despite the fact that everybody wanted to see it.