By Steven Suskin
13 Jan 2013
Hitchcock started working in the new medium of talking pictures in 1929 with "Blackmail," learning and refining as he went along. "The Man Who Knew Too Much" was his eighth talkie, and it's here where everything comes together: a well-told story with distinctive characters, striking visuals, and a combination of thrills and humor that keep us engrossed. In this case, the title character stumbles upon a secret message hidden by a murdered British spy — as a result of which a ghoulish and vaguely middle-European villain kidnaps his young daughter to ensure his silence. The whole thing winds up with an assassination attempt at Royal Albert Hall — with the gunshot timed to a cymbal crash! — and a wild shootout in the East End.
Leslie Banks and Edna Best play the leading roles of the parents, with the child played by 14-year-old Nova Pilbeam (who three years later would be the heroine of "Young and Innocent"). The film is stolen, though, by what might be the first of the great Hitchcock performances. Peter Lorre, having just escaped from Nazi Germany, didn't even speak English yet; he learned his line phonetically, and he is chilling. (The Criterion catalogue also includes Fritz Lang's 1931 classic "M," in which Lorre is absolutely astonishing.)
"The Man Who Knew Too Much" does not quite make it onto the Hitchcockian Top Ten, but it is close. It clearly marked the start of his first string of great pictures, as it was closely followed by "The 39 Steps" (1935), "Young and Innocent" (1937) and "The Lady Vanishes" (1938). At which point Alfred went to Hollywood, where "Rebecca" (1940) began the next stage of his career.
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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)