It’s hard to imagine there was a time when Alfred Hitchcock was a fledgling director still trying to prove himself as a filmmaker. But in 1934, when the original The Man Who Knew Too Much came out, that’s exactly what he was. While he had received some acclaim for films like The Lodger, it was The Man Who Knew Too Much that brought his career to a new level. In 1956, Hitchcock directed a Hollywood remake of this film starring James Stewart and Doris Day. It’s not often that a director remakes his own movies, and not surprisingly many fans and critics alike believe the later version to be inferior.
The original The Man Who Knew Too Much stars Leslie Banks and Edna Best as Bob and Jill Lawrence, a married couple, vacationing in the Swiss Alps with their pre-teen daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). Their fun is ruined when a family friend is murdered. In his last breath, their friend tells them of a political assassination in the works and they are unwittingly thrust into the deadly plot. Their daughter is kidnapped in an effort to keep them quiet. The parents race against the clock to both save their daughter and stop the assassination.
While not a comedy, the film infuses humor throughout the first act, effectively setting up the carefree experience they were enjoying before the murder. Humor is also used to quickly establish the warm relationship between Betty and her parents. The trio playfully kids each other, while attending skiing and skeet shooting competitions. Jill is a skilled skeet shooter, which cleverly ties into the climatic ending of the film. At first glance the film may seem incredibly old-fashioned, but there is a lot for any film fan to sink their teeth into.
For a film of its age, the performances come off as very natural. Peter Lorre is a particular standout as the villain of the film. He is both charming and devious, proving to be a formidable opponent to the desperate parents. I also found the performance of Pilbeam, as the young Betty, to be very good. She was cute and endearing without being overly precocious. What is more difficult about the film is the pacing. By today’s standards the pacing seems quite slow, even boring at times. The film feels longer than its relatively short 75-minute running time. However, if one can invest in the unfolding twists and turns of the plot, the film can be very entertaining. It is important to remember that this is not a modern film and its storytelling rhythms are a bit archaic.
Criterion has put together a great special features package for this DVD release. Director Guillermo del Toro, who’s also a Hitchcock expert, offers insights about the film during a 17-minute interview. I found this interview to be very helpful in putting the film in context with Hitchcock’s career and in providing details about what made the film groundbreaking. Also interesting is the 50-minute piece The Illustrated Hitchcock (from 1972), in which Hitchcock himself is interviewed by Pia Lindstrom (daughter of Ingrid Bergman) and film historian William K. Everson. The feature is divided into nine segments, covering a wide range of topics including a segment on The Man Who Knew Too Much. There is also an audio-only interview between legendary filmmaker Francois Truffaut and Hitchcock. The 23-minute interview took place in 1962 and was part of the foundation for Truffaut’s book on the legendary director.
One of the most intriguing features is the six minute “Restoration Demonstration.” Though short, it provides a fascinating look at the restoration process that went into this film. The tedious process paid off with a great looking film that now preserves this important work in Hitchcock’s canon. A new commentary track was recorded in 2012 specifically for this Criterion release. Film historian Philip Kemp discusses the film’s production as well as provides some social commentary for the time.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is essential viewing for any Hitchcock fan. While it is not as accomplished as many of his later works, it is a craftily executed story that is an important part of the foundation of the Master of Suspense’s illustrious career.Powered by Sidelines