Alfred Hitchcock remade only one film in his 50-plus years as a director: The Man Who Knew Too Much. The 1956 color version starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day is the better known of the two films, but I prefer the 1934 black and white film starring Peter Lorre. It’s not a perfect film, but it achieves so much with such limited means that it remains an object lesson of economical cinematic storytelling, and it’s also the film that established Hitchcock’s international reputation. In case you need more reasons to check out the 1934 film: Nova Pilbeam is about one thousand times more interesting than Christopher Olsen, the secondary characters appear to have been cast by the British equivalent of Federico Fellini (they’re no beauties, but they sure are distinctive), and, best of all, no one sings “Que sera, sera” in the earlier film.
The story of The Man Who Knew Too Much relies on a Hitchcock staple—several absolutely ordinary people (not much different from you or I), through no fault of their own, find themselves at mortal risk due to extraordinary circumstances. In this case, Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) is vacationing in Switzerland (a fact communicated to the audience through a pile of tourist brochures, a classic poor-man’s setup of an exotic location) with his wife Jill (Leslie Banks) and precocious teenage daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). Jill loses a trap shooting contest thanks to distraction from said daughter, but you may be assured that Chekhov’s law will be fulfilled in this film.
Later that evening, Jill is dancing with the handsome Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay), a foreign ski jumper saying at their hotel, when he is assassinated in a scene that is a marvel of understatement (in an interview included on the disc, Guillermo del Toro cites this scene as exemplifying Hitchcock’s understanding that it can take very little to lose your life). As he expires, Louis communicates a mysterious bit of information (a classic Hitchcock MacGuffin) that he wants Jill to deliver to the British embassy. Unfortunately, the bad guys, chief among them the oily Central European Abbott (Peter Lorre, in his first English-speaking role) have been watching, and they let the Lawrences know that it wouldn’t be a good idea to communicate that information—and by the way, Abbott’s henchmen have kidnapped Betty and her future survival depends on their keeping quiet.
Bob decides to do his investigation, and thus we get taken to very unusual parts of London—among them a peculiar dentist shop advertised by a gigantic pair of teeth in serious need of orthodontic work, a creepy chapel dedicated to “The Temple of the Sun”, and finally Royal Albert Hall, where a diplomat from somewhere-or-other (the details are no more important than the contents of the secret message) is in attendance. There’s a lot going on and the film moves as a brisk pace, but you always have just enough time to digest the information necessary to follow the story.
Hitchcock finds visual interest in the most ordinary of settings, and never settles for the obvious shot when something more expressive is possible. He also has a genius for finding small details to carry the story—Betty’s skier pin that becomes a symbol of her survival, the slight change in Peter Lorre’s expression that lets us know that he’s recognized Louis Bernard, the unraveling of a sweater that introduces a comic note while also signifying the breaking of the thread of life.
To enjoy The Man Who Knew Too Much, you have to be forgiving of the technical means available when it was made—there are a lot of process shots that are a little too obvious to the modern eye, and even Hitchcock can’t always disguise the fact that he’s shooting on sets. Of course no one would have worried about such things in 1934, when they were simply the norms of the day, so if you care about film beyond the latest blockbuster you should have no problem reading through the technology to perceive the filmmaker’s intent.
The other aspect of this film that takes a bit of forgiveness is the exaggerated acting style employed by some of the actors playing supporting characters—their abrupt shifts from wooden to hysterical may induce feelings of whiplash in those used to a more naturalistic style. Acting conventions were somewhat different in 1934, OK? If you can get over it, you’ll be amply rewarded with enjoyment of a masterful film.
The Criterion print has been beautifully restored, and the sound is sharp and clear. The chief extra included on the disc is a cogent commentary track by the film historian Philip Kemp. Also on the disc: an interview with Guillermo del Toro, a 1972 television program featuring Hitchcock being interviewed by Pia Lindstrom and William K. Everson, audio excerpts of the 1962 Hitchcock-Truffaut interviews, and a featurette about the restoration process (a little technical, but very informative). The DVD case includes a 20-page illustrated booklet including an essay by Farran Smith Nehme.