The 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much really gives birth to the Alfred Hitchcock we are all familiar with. He gets this new era of his career started with a very brisk and economical thriller that sets the stage for his eventual superstar career.
A couple vacationing with their daughter find themselves involved in criminal activity. This is one of Hitchcock’s major recurring themes of people getting swept up into larger events. However what is ironic about that for this film is that while the events are big, Hitchcock continually manages to play it small. For example the scene at the restaurant in which Louis Bernard is shot. It is preceded by a pretty cool visual cue of a string being pulled that we would soon see indicates that his life is running out of time. Then there is the shot through the window shattering a picturesque view of the snow covered mountains. Once Bernard realizes what happens he tries to quietly sit down. These are all major moments in the story and Hitchcock manages to direct it without going into a large dramatic moment with hectic action and a huge musical score. This carries into the final sequence that’s a shootout with police. No score, but you feel one is there. It’s always great to see a director know that the scene in and of itself will stir the reaction needed.
The film’s major set piece of course is the scene at Albert Hall. Here he demonstrates again the theme of one small thing interrupting a grand plan. Normally with later Hitchcock films the audience gets the information that the characters do not and that builds the suspense. During this sequence, we don’t really have the information and do not know what the character of Jill is going to do. Does she let a man be assassinated? Does she warn him and risk dooming her husband and daughter? Jills brief scream throws off the big scheme these people were planning for the entire film. Again the little overtaking the big. It’s a fantastic scene from early in the career of a man who would give so many of the thrilling and suspenseful moments to cinema.
Hitchcock’s remake of this film in 1956 is bigger with more star power, but it’s very important to recognize this original version not just because it’s early Hitchcock and there is a historical value, but because it is also very well constructed thriller with pretty much no bloat. This is one of the early successes of Hitchcock’s British era. It’s efficient and subtle. The traits that Hitchcock carries to America in 1940 begin here and they are just as effective yet slyly incorporated.