Criterion // 1934 // 75 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 11th, 2013
Lord High Minister of Everything Sinister!
"Tell her that they may soon be leaving us. Leaving us for a long, long journey. How is it that Shakespeare says? 'From which no traveler returns.' Great poet?"
Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks, The Most Dangerous Game) and his wife Jill (Edna Best, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) are a British couple vacationing in Switzerland. One fateful evening, Jill happens to witness the murder of a French spy named Louis (Pierre Fresne, La Grand Illusion). Just before passing away, the spy gives Jill some important information that he insists must be passed on to his British contacts. Unfortunately, Louis' assassins are well aware of Jill's involvement, and kidnap her daughter Bette (Nova Pilbeam, Tudor Rose) in order to ensure that the Lawrences will remain silent. Will Bob and Jill get to the bottom of this fiendish scheme and rescue their beloved child?
Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much is one of the most fascinating remakes in cinema history. After all, it's not very often that a director will remake his own film (much less a great director), but clearly Hitch felt a need to return to his earliest critically-acclaimed work and fine-tune it. Despite the remake's larger budget, bigger stars and greater popularity, many cinephiles still insist that the director's lean, chilly 1934 version remains the superior take on the tale. Each version has its virtues, but it's hard to disagree with the notion that this version is simply more satisfying.
Hitchcock had developed a reputation as a talented filmmaker with early efforts like The Lodger and The Ring, but he hadn't really established his identity yet. Before The Man Who Knew Too Much, he found himself working on such diverse projects as a musical biopic (Strauss' Great Waltz), a family drama set against the backdrop of the Irish revolution (The Shame of Mary Boyle) and a Noel Coward adaptation (Easy Virtue). However, The Man Who Knew Too Much is arguably the first movie that feels genuinely, "Hitchcockian." It's a thriller loaded with generous doses of tension and wit, a fine entertainment that occasionally approaches greatness.
Whatever strengths the remake of the film may have (and it certainly has some, from the enjoyably sour central turn by Jimmy Stewart to the spectacular update of the Albert Hall sequence), it doesn't contain anything as eerily memorable as Peter Lorre's work as this version's central villain. The film was Lorre's first English-language role (he didn't have a fluent command of the language at the time and had to learn his lines phonetically), and the actor brings charismatic chills to the film every time he appears onscreen. It's a wonderfully slimy performance, one that helped to ensure that Lorre would become a distinctive fixture in Hollywood (where he moved shortly after finishing The Man Who Knew Too Much) for the next three decades.
Leslie Banks and Edna Best also do fine work as the central couple of the film, and their calm, level-headed British spirit gives the film a much different flavor than the remake (which featured American protagonists). Banks eventually wanders into two of the film's most entertaining set pieces: a ridiculous yet undeniably fun sequence in a dentist's office and a delightfully playful visit to the ceremony of a secret cult (the scene in which Banks and a friend are not-so-subtly communicating with each other by changing the lyrics to a dirge-like hymn is hysterical). Best plays a crucial role in the film's climax, which builds to one of the film's most preposterous yet dramatically powerful moments. So much of The Man Who Knew Too Much defies common sense, and yet almost all of it works regardless thanks to the skill of Hitchcock and his cast.
The Man Who Knew Too Much: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/Full Frame transfer. It looks pretty sharp for a film made nearly eighty years ago, with only a modest amount of grain present and very few scratches or flecks. The image does turn quite soft on occasion, but rarely to a distracting degree. It would be easy to convince most viewers that the film had been made a couple of decades later than it was. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track isn't quite as dazzling, but very few films from this era sound particularly crisp today. The dialogue tends to be kind of muffled at times -- never badly enough that you can't make out what everyone is saying, but sometimes you have to listen a little more intently. There are faint traces of hiss now and then, but it's not too bad. The gunshots during the film's violent sequences are robust, and the rich music during the Albert Hall sequences sounds pretty sharp, too.
Criterion has put together an exceptional batch of supplements for the film, kicking off with a fine audio commentary courtesy of film historian Philip Kemp, which details the history of the film and it's themes in engaging fashion. Next up is a terrific 17-minute video interview with Guillermo Del Toro, who speaks with passion and elegance about his affection for the film and how important he feels it is to Hitchcock's career as a whole. You get to hear from the man himself in a 50-minute television special from 1972 (in which the director's career as a whole is examined), and there's also an audio interview featuring 23 minutes of the now-famous conversation between Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut (the material focuses primarily on The Man Who Knew Too Much). Finally, there's a 5-minute restoration demonstration that highlights the fine work Criterion has done with the limited resources they had to work with.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is yet another fine Hitchcock release from Criterion. Here's hoping they get the chance to fill in some of the other significant hi-def gaps in the great director's filmography.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 1934
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Restoration Demo