The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The Man Who Knew Too Much
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis (scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlinson; additional dialogue by Emlyn Williams)
Stars: Leslie Banks (Bob Lawrence), Edna Best (Jill Lawrence), Peter Lorre (Abbott), Frank Vosper (Ramon), Hugh Wakefield (Clive), Nova Pilbeam (Betty Lawrence), Pierre Fresnay (Louis Bernard), Cicely Oates (Nurse Agnes), D.A. Clarke-Smith (Police Inspector Binstead), George Curzon (Gibson)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1934
Country: U.K.
The Man Who Knew Too Much Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Man Who Knew Too MuchWhen Alfred Hitchcock made The Man Who Knew Too Much, which is arguably his first quintessentially Hitchcockian film, he had already directed more than 15 features, four of which were thrillers: The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Lodger (1927), Blackmail (1929), and Murder! (1930). However, at the time he was coming off two box-office disappointments in a row—Number 17 (1932) and Strauss’ Great Waltz (1934)—and was in fear of becoming unemployable. Thus, it was some kind of divine fate that the pieces for The Man Who Knew Too Much, which was based on an idea Hitchcock had concocted several years earlier with screenwriter Charles Bennett, came together when they did, providing Hitch with exactly the kind of material he needed to fully establish himself as a masterful manipulator of tension, suspense, and black comedy.

Interestingly, The Man Who Knew Too Much is not a particularly great film (which is why he remade it in Hollywood two decades later), although it is filled with isolated moments of greatness and hints of masterpieces to come. Throughout the film you can sense Hitchcock coming into his own as he works his way through the kinds of bravura techniques that would come to define his particular brand of cinema; the fact that the story has some rough edges and a few awkward sequences doesn’t take away from the film’s sheer enjoyment, although it does point up the fact that Hitchcock, despite nearly a decade of filmmaking experience at several studios, was still a work in progress (he described himself at this point as a “talented amateur”), albeit one who was only a few years away from stepping into the pantheon of greatness.

The story opens in Switzerland, where we are introduced to the happy, well-to-do Lawrence family—husband Bob (Leslie Banks, ever the unflappable and refined British gent), wife Jill (Edna Best), and adolescent daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam)—who are on vacation. With great narrative economy, screenwriters Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis introduce virtually all of the main characters—not just the Lawrences, but also Abbott (Peter Lorre), the film’s villain, his sharp-shooting henchman Ramon (Frank Vosper), and Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay), a Frenchman whose murder will set the plot in motion—as well as several important bits of narrative information that will come into play later (while it seems somewhat random that Edna is participating in a skeet shooting competition, her skills with a rifle are not to be forgotten).

It turns out that Louis, unbeknownst to Bob and Jill, is a spy, and when he is shot in the first of the film’s stand-out sequences, he begs Jill with his dying words to slip into his hotel room and retrieve a piece of paper from inside his shaving brush. The cryptic information on that piece of paper is of great threat to Abbott and his gang of spies, who are planning to assassinate a political figure back in England, so they kidnap Betty to keep Bob and Jill silent. The plan works, as Bob and Jill withhold information from the authorities once they’re back in England, although Bob cannot resist trying to track down his child’s kidnappers, which he does with the help of his bumbling friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield).

Their search for Betty leads them down some dark London alleys and into the dank offices of a dentist fronting for Abbott’s spies and a church of sun worshippers that doubles as their hideout. The film reaches the first of its two climaxes in London’s Royal Albert Hall, where Jill is torn between alerting the authorities to the assassination attempt, which is set to take place during a particular cymbal crash, and therefore endanger Betty’s life, or keep her silence and allow the murder to take place. The moral dilemma faced by the Lawrences—save their daughter and sacrifice a political figure whose death could very well lead to much larger world events, or foil the plot and potentially risk their daughter being killed—courses beneath the film’s surface, although it is not engaged as much as it could be (something Hitchcock remedied in his 1956 remake with James Stewart and Doris Day).

At a brisk 75 minutes, The Man Who Knew Too Much breezes along easily enough, and Hitchcock adorns it with just enough mordant touches—a bizarre set of grinning teeth outside the dentist’s office, Abbott’s scowling “nurse” Agnes (Cicely Oates)—and moments of dark humor to keep it consistently intriguing, as well as entertaining. The Royal Albert Hall sequence, with its wordless cutting among an increasingly exasperated Jill, the potential assassination victim, the assassin’s gun, and the cymbal we know will soon crash, is an early gem of Hitchcockian suspense, and the sequence in which Louis is shot through a window displays an elegant sense of economy.

The film’s most memorable component, though, is Peter Lorre, the Austrian-born actor who had already cemented his place in cinema history portraying the pathetic child murderer in Fritz Lang’s masterful M (1931) and was here making his English-language debut (his English was so poor at the time that he had to learn his lines phonetically). Lorre’s Abbott is the first in a long line of Hitchcockian villains who mix sophistication and sadism, hiding their villainy behind a seemingly benign exterior. With his short, rotund body, man-child face, and lilting voice, Lorre would seem to be the furthest thing from threatening, yet he is so adept at shifting tones and moods that his very instability becomes the film’s most frightening asset. He would go on to a long career in Hollywood, most notably in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942), but outside of Lang and Karl Freund, who cast him as a psychotic surgeon in Mad Love (1935), no one used Lorre’s unique screen presence better than Hitchcock.

The Man Who Knew Too Much Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Man Who Knew Too Much is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by film historian Philip Kemp
  • Interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro
  • “The Illustrated Hitchcock,” an extensive interview with director Alfred Hitchcock from 1972, conducted by journalist Pia Lindstrom and film historian William K. Everson
  • Audio excerpts from filmmaker François Truffaut’s 1962 interviews with Hitchcock
  • Restoration demonstration
  • Essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 15, 2013

    The new 2K high-definition transfer of The Man Who Knew Too Much was made by the BFI National Archive in London from a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master positive held in the archive’s vaults (apparently, the original negative has been long lost). For a film that is nearly 80 years old, it looks spectacular, with barely any signs of age or wear to suggest its age. It is particularly gratifying to have the film on home video looking so good since all previous DVDs were lousy-looking public domain releases sourced from beat-up, overly worn prints that made the film virtually unwatchable. By contrast, Criterion’s image is sharp and clear, with a good presence of grain that never detracts from the detail. Contrast and black levels are excellent throughout. The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from an original 35mm optical track print given by David O. Selznick to film preservationist Robert Harris. Digital restoration has cleaned up the track immensely, and while it is fairly thin and tinny by modern standards, it is still decidedly clear and free of ambient hiss and aural artifacts.
    Criterion has put together a strong set of supplements to complement this important Hitchcock film. Film historian Philip Kemp provides a well-researched and deeply informative audio commentary that elaborates on the film’s placement in Hitchcock’s oeuvre and also provides some intriguing trivia regarding the film’s development and production (turns out that the bizarre detail of Jill having her knitting at a black-tie dinner is left over from the removal of two spinster characters). Director and Hitchcock admirer Guillermo del Toro contributes a 20-minute interview in which he discusses the film, and the Master of Suspense himself appears in “The Illustrated Hitchcock,” a nearly hour-long 1972 interview with the director conducted by journalist Pia Lindstrom and film historian William K. Everson. The disc also includes audio excerpts from filmmaker François Truffaut’s 1962 interviews with Hitchcock and a three-minute restoration demonstration.

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    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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