Before Alfred Hitchcock was dubbed the "master of suspense" and before he became considered arguably the greatest director to ever live, he was a young director exploring his style. That is exactly what he does with The Man Who Knew Too Much; it being his first major critical success since he had moved to "talkies" in 1930, we really get to see his talents before they fully matured. Time has not been the kindest to this film; the quality is in need of some restoration. It was a must-see when released, but quickly faded due to his future successes and now takes the very back seat to his later classics. Working with some of the Hitchcock essentials that would bring him so much success and admiration; wealthy, naive people forced to make tough decisions and confront the darker-sides of life, hidden criminal organizations, mistaken identities, assassination plots, and a well-paced shootout.
Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are on vacation in Switzerland with their daughter Betty (Nova Pillbeam). They befriend Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) who turns out to be a spy; when he is killed he passes on information about an assassination plot. When Betty is kidnapped, the Lawrence's are forced to keep silent about the plot and must search the dark underbelly of Britain in order to save their daughter. The film then slows down and becomes quite uneventful, Bob follows some leads and meets a devious dentist. He then stumbles upon a mysterious religious sermon where he and his partner Clive (Hugh Wakefield) use a series of tricks -- including singing hints in the tone of the sermon's chants -- to confront the suspicious group.
It seems as if Hitchcock is just going through a usual routine with how he shows Bob's search for his daughter; obviously he wasn't at the time, but watching it now just doesn't isn't as fresh as it was back in 1935. After a very comedic chair-battle we are finally introduced to the criminal mastermind of the film, Abbot. Peter Lorre is at home with another villain role, his rodent-like role is perfect for him -- this role coming 4 years after his brilliant role as the child-murderer in Fritz Lang's, M (1931). His heavy German accent, along with perfect dialogue, make him sound like a vampire drawing his prey into a deadly trap. That performance is one of the bright spots of the film, unfortunately even with Lorre's presence, the slow, exhausted plot drags and will struggle to keep viewer's interests.
A lot of this film's flaws are due to Hitchcock having used the same themes, plot qualities, and technical tricks in later films -- and them working much better in them. Bob's character is easily the most reused character in future Hitchcock films -- most notably Cary Grant's performance in North by Northwest (1959). Ignorant to everything outside his rich lifestyle, but when put into desperate situations he always seems to know what to do. Another common quality in Hitchcock films that are used here is the secret criminal organization. He doesn't do much with his criminal organization in this film which is a shame with how brilliant Lorre is. When looking at this film, it is impossible not to compare them to his others; it is very interesting to watch a film where you can see him try of different camera tricks, and also see him trying out qualities that are now known as his trademark. I respect all of that, but that doesn't change the fact that watching this film today is a dull experience
The final leg of the film is when Hitchcock finally shines; starting with a scene in Royal Albert Hall where Jill is sitting in the stands looking for her daughter. We already know that a sharpshooter is hiding with orders to kill on a specific note from the opera. She does not know that, but the escalating tension and her feeling of being watched cause her to panic. Hitchcock's camera cuts and scans the stands with a quickening speed that immediately brings an end to the previous dullness. Each note from the opera is another chance for someone to be murdered and the climax is perfectly timed. With the assassination failed now the cops are on a manhunt for the shooter which leads to an elaborate and shootout with plenty of thrills. Hitchcock's camera is once again takes a life of its own; revealing the panic within the crowds and in the nearby homes as well as giving us the perfect angles to view the action from.
The Man Who Knew Too Much showcases the talent that Hitchcock would bring to his future classics. Slow and forgettable until Hitchcock finally loosens up and let his natural talents at creating suspense and deceptive camera movements take shape and control the impressive finale. Although I was not impressed by this film itself, I do respect it for what Hitchcock was able to do when his talents were still in development. After watching this, and reminiscing about the very thrilling finale, you can let really see where the greatness of Hithcock began to take form.