Spy 100, #25: The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) is important early Hitchcock, indicative of his future work, but it’s not one of my favorites. The premise is classic, though: when a British couple (Leslie Banks and Edna Best), vacationing in Switzerland, stumbles across evidence of a forthcoming assassination plot, they attempt to alert the authorities. Then they find their daughter has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers threaten to kill her if the plot is exposed. Returning to England, the couple works to rescue their daughter and foil the assassination on their own, which pits them against the cheerfully evil Abbott (Peter Lorre).

It’s good early Hitchcock, but feels pretty overrated this high on the list. Aside from a nicely clocked point of attack and the artfully executed Albert Hall sequence, the film on the whole feels inelegant, especially when held up against Hitchcock’s better films.The pacing is uneven, unfolding in wonky stages, the most awkward being a protracted “pew-fight” in a church and an interminable shootout finale. There is, of course, Peter Lorre’s unforgettable villainy, usually worth the price of admission. But on the whole, even with its formative suspense techniques, I came away underwhelmed. (I think I may even have preferred the much maligned, Hitchcock-directed remake with James Stewart and Doris Day; also flawed, but much more visually compelling.)

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