The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, Alfred Hitchcock)

Some boring rich vacationers casually befriend a spy who is immediately killed, shot whilst dancing. Their daughter is kidnapped to shut them up. The couple (Leslie Banks, star of The Fire Raisers the same year, and Edna Best of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) sulks back to Britain sans daughter, deciding that if they can’t tell the police, at least they can solve the case themselves. Actually, espionage and adventure isn’t for ladies, so Banks goes off on his own.

Banks and Wakefield go to the dentist:

A sinister dentist is dispatched with his own gas, and I didn’t exactly get the involvement of a basement-dwelling cult (“The Tabernacle of the Sun”), but wooden chairs prove to be good defence against revolvers, and the place gets trashed. Some delightful villains emerge, much more colorful than the heroes (despite an aborted attempt to involve a monocled uncle, Hugh Wakefield of Blithe Spirit, as comic relief). Prominently-chinned Frank Vosper (who’d soon die falling off an ocean liner) and frown-mouthed nurse Cicely Oates would’ve been fine, but Peter Lorre…


Frank Vosper is a good sleazoid bad guy (the only obvious thing Hitch took from Waltzes), but obviously Peter Lorre is the important character here. Although the plot throws out a whole gallery of malefactors, including an old lady with a revolver, a threatening dentist, and an evil hypnotist, Lorre dominates effortlessly, just by constantly making strange. Still sporting the carnival-float head of solid fat he modeled in Lang’s M, and decorated with a skunk-like white stripe and a dueling scar to match Banks’, Lorre as “Abbott” drools cigarette-smoke and apologises to the hero after striking him. He’s good-naturedly contemptuous of his own hired hitman, devoted to his nurse, and prefers to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, but his goal is to plunge the world into war.

Trying to rescue his daughter, Banks gets kidnapped too, caught in the villains’ hideout during a massive police shootout after an Edna Best-thwarted assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall. Best then shows up at the shootout and saves her own daughter from Vosper, some 70 minutes after the movie pointedly established her as a celebrated sharpshooter.

Pilbeam and Oates:

No insufferable child actor, daughter Nova Pilbeam is a daughter worth saving, out-acting both of her parents at times. She would return as star of Hitch’s Young and Innocent. This was the first of Hitch’s six Gaumont movies, and Lady Vanishes (more vacationers caught up with spy rings and kidnappings) was the last. Must now watch the ones in between.