Although Hitchcock did many riffs off the same themes, he very rarely tried to do the same film twice over. The Man Who Knew Too Much might be the one exception and even then if you place these two thrillers from 1934 and 1956 up next to each other, they’re similarities are fairly nominal.
The bare-bones plot involving international espionage, a pair of unassuming parents, and the kidnapping of their child remains the same. But most everything else is drastically different.
Thus, it becomes an interesting exercise in juxtaposition. It really depends on what the viewer deems definitive in a quality film mixed with personal preference. Without question, this initial offering from a younger director is grittier and less made up but it’s subsequently a less technical sound achievement with also little score to speak of. We trade out James Stewart and Doris Day’s singing for the less remembered pair of Leslie Banks and Edna Best. But nevertheless, this version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is an enjoyable international adventure crossing the globe from the Swiss Alps to England.
The Lawrences are on a lively vacation complete with skiing and skeet shooting with their precocious daughter (Nova Pilbeam) but after an acquaintance winds up murdered, the family finds themselves embroiled in a treacherous world of espionage. The dead Frenchmen left them a message to pass on to his contact but that knowledge finds them deeply distressed when their daughter is kidnapped. From that point, the intentions of the story are fairly straightforward. It’s simply a matter of watching Hitchcock at work.
Peter Lorre fresh off his emigration from Nazi Germany in the wake of Hitler, ironically plays the quintessential international menace, cigarette curled between his lips. It was so recent in fact that the man who made a name for himself as slimy undesirables learned all his lines phonetically because he still had yet to gain full command of the English language. But thank goodness we had him for this film and many to come. He perennially made movies more interesting by his mere presence. That marvelous face of his is one in a million.
There are some wonderful sequences and typical touches of Hitchcockian style and subversion, namely a sun-worshipping cult hiding out in a cathedral but, overall, it’s not always a cohesive exhibition in suspense. His greatest achievements always seem to fit together seamlessly to the perfect crescendo like a thrilling piece of clockwork. Whereas sometimes it feels as if a few of these scenes are strung together.
But that does not take away from some of the better set pieces namely Hitchcock’s original Royal Albert Hall sequence and a different finale altogether with a final shootout that is still harrowing in its own right. And of course, the foreboding clangs of Peter Lorre’s pocket watch leave their mark on this film just as his eerie whistling became his arbiter in Lang’s M (1931). Hitch would only continue to fine tune his formula but there’s no question that The Man Who Knew Too Much is a diverting thriller and the first in a lineup of six consecutive successes from the director during the 1930s.