(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The MovieThe Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Where You Can Stream It: The Criterion Channel, HBO Max

The Pitch: On a family vacation in Switzerland, a couple (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) befriend a man staying in their hotel. But when they witness that man get assassinated, he passes on secret information to them, making them a target of a band of foreign assassins. To keep them silent, the assassins kidnap their daughter, forcing the couple to attempt to decode the information and find their daughter themselves.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: Peter Lorre, a few years removed from his career-defining role in the Fritz Lang thriller M, sports a massive facial scar and a bleach-blonde streak in his hair to set him apart from all the other lowly criminals in Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Man Who Knew Too Much, but he doesn’t need either. The German actor is a screen presence unto his own: a chilling, dead-eyed villain devoid of all empathy who you could believe is evil incarnate. It’s a performance not unlike his knockout turn in M, which was what earned him Hitchcock’s attention and landed him his first English-language role even though his command of the language was still limited (Lorre would end up learning his lines phonetically and he still killed it). Lorre is an unrivaled standout in The Man Who Knew Too Much, a solid early British thriller from the filmmaker, who would end up remaking the film 22 years later with a much more starry cast and a more confident handle of his skills. But without Lorre, the 1956 James Stewart-starring remake just doesn’t have the teeth of the original.

The Man Who Knew Too Much plays out much like one of Hitchcock’s many “wrong man” films — an ordinary couple gets caught in an international scheme against their will, and must use their wits to outsmart a group of terrorists, usually in a thrilling setpiece staged on as big a stage as possible. Hitchcock proved he already had a mastery of suspense in his early British films, but The Man Who Knew Too Much has a whopper of a setpiece in the form of its opera sequence (which has inspired everything from The Godfather: Part II to Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), in which Best’s panicked mother must foil an assassination attempt that will take place at the climax of the concert. It’s a setpiece that Hitchcock would return to in his 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much remake — upping the stakes, ramping up the tension, and generally showing off the skills he had accumulated in his 30-plus year career.

But the technical mastery of the remake can’t match the sheer nerve that Hitchcock displays in 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, nor the raw villainy of Lorre’s performance as Abbott, the leader of a group of international criminals intent on assassinating a European head of state. There’s a reason that Lorre is on the poster.

The Man Who Knew Too Much remains an underrated gem from Hitchcock — one that may not stand alongside his most venerated classics, but one that shows the power of a really good villain, and a great opera setpiece.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: