“The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934) runs just seventy-five minutes, and Alfred Hitchcock doesn’t waste a second of precious screen time on plausibility. Bob (Leslie Banks) and Jill Lawrence (Edna Best) are on vacation in St. Moritz when a friend of theirs gets shot to death. Bob winds up in possession of said friend’s secret documents. The bad guys find out and kidnap the Lawrences’ daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) to prevent the London couple from talking to anybody, including the government official who inexplicably makes no offer whatsoever to help them recover their beloved child; he merely gets cross with them for not being good patriots and handing over vital national security information. Bob tracks down a shady dentist, arriving precisely at the same moment as the other baddies, and eventually winds up at the gang’s decidedly low-rent lair which is, of course, located above a chapel that houses worship services for a sun cult.
But the weirdest part of it all is Peter Lorre, but then again Peter Lorre is always the weirdest part. That was his gift. Lorre had already had a breakout hit with “M” (1931) but his reputation spread slowly on the international circuit, and the Hungarian-born Jew needed a U.K. hit after fleeing Berlin in 1933. Lorre was dealing with a morphine addiction and only spoke halting English, but Hitchcock knew he had a dynamo on his hands. As the chief spy with the incongruous name of Abbott, Lorre is simultaneously pathetic and frightening, even vaguely likeable at his most wheedling. He and his cronies seem to be running the most no-frills international conspiracy of all time. A couple of guns, a radio, and a cheap apartment consume their entire budget, but Lorre’s vermiform sneer and his idiosyncratic nasal diction make it all seem terribly menacing. The fact that Lorre is vastly more compelling than any of the heroes might be a problem in less accomplished hands, but the 34 year-old director had no problem making it all work magnificently.
Hitchcock’s career was on shaky ground after a few notable failures, and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” has its share of shaky moments. Early scenes depicting a skiing accident and a first-person POV of Jill fainting are rather clunky, but whatever uneven patches the film might wear are ironed out by the brilliant denouement. Hitchcock virtually abandons all of the characters, both heroes and villains now huddled helplessly in the shadows, with whom we have spent an hour for a lengthy sequence that shows the police marching in, surrounding the hideout, and securing several buildings in the neighborhood. Aerial shots depicting the police swarming into backyards and setting up a perimeter demonstrate the mastery of brisk pacing and dynamic staging that would make Hitchcock the ultimate set-piece director. It turned out to be the hit that a young filmmaker in trouble with his bosses desperately needed and pointed the way to the slew of reputation-making smashes soon to come, including “The 39 Steps” (1935) and “The Lady Vanishes” (1938).
Hitchcock remade the film in 1956 with beloved superstars James Stewart and Doris Day as the now-American leads. The director supposedly preferred the latter because it came at a time when he was more “audience conscious” and I suppose critical preference breaks down along the lines of those who are more suspicious or more approving of crowd-pleasers. The 1956 film is certainly bigger and more polished, and Stewart is vastly more charismatic than Leslie Banks (to be fair, Stewart is made much more conventionally heroic), but I’ll take the original version with its more slapdash, home-made feel any day. I can defend that choice in many ways. I will offer only two words: Peter Lorre.
“The Man Who Knew Too Much” has been in public domain hell for a while now, and the result has been a series of subpar DVD transfers. As told in the Restoration Demonstration extra included on the disc, Criterion had access in 2002 to an original nitrate print from the vaults of David O. Selznick but it was so scratched that they set it aside and waited for a better print to surface. That happened in 2011 when news broke about the BFI’s 35 mm nitrate fine-grain positive (one generation removed from the original) which was used as the source for this extensive restoration.
The result is quite startling. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer is a revelation for fans used to seeing so many degraded versions of this early Hitchcock. This new transfer isn’t entirely damage-free, but it’s as close as you could ever expect with many of the old scratches and faded shots we’re familiar with now long gone. The image detail is strong throughout: just check out any written words or the visible texture of fabrics. Black-and-white contrast is also rich. None of the digital cleanup seems excessive, and the pleasing grain structure remains intact. All in all, this is a remarkable upgrade.
The LPCM Mono soundtrack has a few bumps and thumps and the music sounds a bit tinny throughout, but overall it’s a strong audio presentation, surely better than any you’ve heard before for this film. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
The film is accompanied by a commentary track by film historian Philip Kemp.
A 2012 interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (18 min.), who wrote a book on Hitchcock early in his career, is concise, insightful, and packed with analysis.
“The Illustrated Hitchcock” (1972, 50 min.) consists of two interviews that were shot at the same place and time, but conducted by two different interviewers. The first is journalist Pia Lindstrom, daughter of Ingrid Bergman. Second is historian William K. Everson who is absolutely obsessed with the film “Number 17” (1932) which doesn’t appear to interest Hitchcock at all. He repeatedly deflects the questioning to discuss what he cares about, which is basically the legend of Alfred Hitchcock. Who can blame him?
We get another excerpt (23 min.) from the famous Hitchcock-Truffaut interview conducted in 1962, facilitated by translator Helen G. Scott. Obviously, this is the segment from that landmark, marathon audio recording that covers “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
You might be tempted to skip the short (5 min.) “Restoration Demonstration” but don’t make that mistake. This is one of the most fascinating, detailed descriptions of the restoration process you’re ever likely to hear, at least in such a brief running time. As I mentioned in the video section, Criterion used the BFI’s 35 mm nitrate fine-grain positive print for their restoration, but the print was warped so badly they couldn’t use the typical scanners to start the digital restoration process. Instead, they had to employ a pinless, sprocketless scanner and a wetgate process. Just amazing.
The 16 page insert booklet features an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme, the great blogger at the Self-Styled Siren.
Hitchcock described his first version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” as “the work of a talented amateur” but he’s just trying to pull another fast one on his audience. This 1934 gem features some of Hitchcock’s strongest early work, particularly in the final reel. Criterion’s restoration, from a great BFI source print, is a huge improvement over the shoddy versions we’re used to seeing of this public domain film. The extras are extensive and enlightening, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this January release holds up as one of Criterion’s best of 2013.