Home Video Hovel- The Man Who Knew Too Much, by David Bax
Hitchcock’s 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much is most notable for being the one entry in the great director’s filmography he saw fit to remake, over twenty years later. In many ways, that fact has come to dominate the early film’s reputation. Despite being a breakout success for Hitchcock and for Peter Lorre, who made his English-speaking debut here, it is often thought of only as the film Hitchcock disliked enough to ask for a do-over. In bringing the film to Blu-ray glory, the Criterion Collection has given us the opportunity to reassess it and judge it on its own terms.
Leslie Banks and Edna Best play Bob and Jill, a married couple who begin the film vacationing with their daughter, Betty (Nova Pilbeam), in Switzerland. They befriend a man who turns out to be a spy, witness his murder and are passed secret information in his dying breaths. Those who killed the spy, led by a man named Abbott (Lorre), kidnap Betty in an attempt to keep the couple quiet. Bob and Jill have to fight to get their daughter back and to stop the assassins from killing their next target, a European head of state.
So the question of whether The Man Who Knew Too Much needed remaking remains. The gut reaction is to say no. This is a very good movie. But perhaps Hitchcock saw in it the potential to make a great movie. Perhaps The Man Who Knew Too Much needed to be remade because the director knew how close he came to making it perfect.
Yet some of the things that didn’t survive the transition to the 1956 version are quite worth noting. A little of the darkness that would mark the director’s later work peeks in around the edges here. Even aside from the fact that the film involves the kidnapping of a young girl, there is plenty of harshness involved. An extended shootout sequence, based on real London events, does not appear in the later version. Hitchcock presents this not as an exciting action set-piece but, by showing it largely from the point of view of the child hostage, as a terrifying cacophony of deafening bangs, shattered glass and splintered wood, with the occasional body falling to the floor.
Meanwhile, Hitchcock also displays a rather light touch. At a mere 75 minutes, it’s a cracking good yarn. There’s plenty of the filmmaker’s trademark wit in the dialogue, including a number of lines from the heavily accented Lorre that are deliciously devilish. Also, Leslie Banks spends much of the film wearing a cartoonishly pillowy and large overcoat. It has pockets that look like they were drawn on by Walt Disney. You could comfortably fit a Cornish game hen in each one.
This film has existed in the public domain for some time and, as such, now is hardly your first opportunity to own it in a home video format. But the Criterion treatment means much improved picture and sound quality. Having only previously seen the film on VHS and a DVD purchased from a bin of cheapos at Walgreens, the experience felt brand new in many ways.
Those lighter elements and the hints of the darker ones may give to a clue as to why Hitchcock remade The Man Who Knew Too Much. Maybe he was trying to connect the dots between his early and later work, displaying that the same themes and motifs were present in the work of clever young man and the enigmatic, obsessive older one.
Extras include an audio commentary, an interview with Guillermo del Toro and multiple interviews with Hitchcock himself.