When Alfred Hitchcock referred to his work on the original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much as that of a “talented amateur,” it wasn’t merely a clever rejoinder. His first thriller for the British Gaumont Pictures does feature occasional lapses in pacing and some less than consistent leading performances. Still, the movie is an effective, involving suspense film with some riveting set pieces and possessing qualities that served as touchstones for most of his work not only in England but in all his films for decades to come.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) (Blu-ray)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 75 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: January 15, 2013
Review Date: December 30, 2012
When after being shot Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) passes along vital information about international trouble ahead to his friend Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks), Bob and Jill Lawrence’s (Edna Best) daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) is kidnapped with the threat of her death if the couple talks to authorities about what they know. With his bumbling chum Clive (Hugh Wakefield) along, Bob investigates on his own to find the kidnappers and his missing daughter culminating in an event at the Royal Albert Hall that Jill must attend once Bob goes missing, himself kidnapped by the same people who are holding Betty and led by a master villain named Abbott (Peter Lorre).
The script by A.R. Rawlinson, Edwin Greenwood, Charles Bennett, D.B. Wyndham-Lewis with additional dialogue by Emlyn Williams proves a fertile playground for Hitchcock’s patented brand of suspense with a sometimes comic and sometimes sardonic edge. The initial assassination of Louis Bernard comes out of nowhere (right in the middle of an expertly directed slapstick scene involving unwinding yarn) and the attack with chairs in the church (a smart variation on a good versus evil confrontation knowing that a pistol shootout is coming up later), the Royal Albert Hall sequence (masterful even in its original form with that haunting Arthur Benjamin “Storm Cloud Cantata”), and the climactic street shootout all contain touches of the master that are unmistakable and certainly unlike anything else being done in cinema in the mid-1930s. Hitchcock lets himself down a bit at the climax by not consistently building tension during the elaborate gun battle but rather by starting it and then pausing for touches of comic insignificance even if they occasionally have ironic payoffs, and the pacing of scenes and the staging of them (the reversal on the dentist is awkward and unbelievable; Bob’s capture in the church is unconvincing) that are not always polished in the way that his later films would be.
He’s hampered somewhat, too, by leading players who don’t wring every ounce of anxiety and anguish out of their predicament. Neither Edna Best nor especially Leslie Banks convey enough outward emotional angst over having their only child kidnapped; the stiff upper lip stuff is a bit too unemotional for such juicy tension-filled situations. Nova Pilbeam as the captured child Betty is much more spot-on in conveying fright and anxiety. Frank Vosper as the assassin has a creepy cold bloodedness that’s perfect for his role (his Brilliantine hair a perfect symbol of his oily unctuousness), and Hugh Wakefield is his polar opposite as the bumbling, sputtering best chum Clive. Of course, Peter Lorre steals the movie in his every appearance as Abbott from his jovial introduction being knocked off his feet at the start to his continual evolution into the ruthless anarchist who’ll stop at nothing to achieve his objective. Cicely Oates as the starchy Nurse Agnes who seems to be both his henchwoman and his lover makes a very believable martinet.
The film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and is offered at 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. After decades of soft and hotly contrasted public domain releases of this film, it’s a joy to see such a sharp, detailed image with a glorious grayscale that really looks impressive. Dirt and scratches have been virtually eliminated (an occasional hair seems to be part of the original photography), and the image is much sharper than last year’s release of The 39 Steps. Black levels might not be at their optimal levels of depth, but that’s the only very minor complaint. The film has been divided into 15 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix is very typical of its era combing dialogue, music, and sound effects into a single effective track. While no one will mistake this for a modern audio mix with gunshots popping rather than thundering and music never reaching the depths of bass possible, the dialogue is certainly clear and clean with only a slight amount of low hiss audible during some of the quieter moments of the movie.
The audio commentary is provided by film historian Philip Kemp. It’s a well researched and enthusiastically delivered commentary. Kemp’s slight speech impediment is not distracting, and the information he provides on the making of the film, its cost, and reception are interesting and well worth a listen.
Director Guillermo del Toro discusses his enthusiasm for the movie in a 17 ¾-minute piece in which he also describes Hitchcock’s early career leading into this film and offers reflections on other Hitchcock movies that he can see influenced by The Man Who Knew Too Much. It’s presented in 1080p.
The Illustrated Hitchcock is the best supplement on the disc, two episodes from CBS’ Camera Three series centered on two interviews with Alfred Hitchcock conducted in 1972. The first is by family friend Pia Lindstrom and the second by film scholar William Everson. These are in 1080i and together run 49 ¾ minutes.
The Alfred Hitchcock-Francois Truffaut audio interview portions which pertain to the period prior to and including The Man Who Knew Too Much run 23 minutes. As always the French-English translator is a bit of an irritant making reading Truffaut’s book a better bet.
A very interesting but too short restoration comparison featurette describes the sources used for the transfer and describes how they were used to get the transfer on this Blu-ray release. It runs 5 ¼ minutes in 1080p.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
The enclosed 18-page booklet contains some wonderful film stills, the cast and crew list, and film blogger Farran Smith Nehme’s celebration of the movie.
4/5 (not an average)
The true beginning of the legendary Master of Suspense’s golden British period which would lead to even bigger triumphs to come, the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is a must-see for film buffs. This Criterion Blu-ray offers a superb transfer of the film in its best-ever home video release along with some excellent bonus material that mustn’t be missed. Highly recommended!