Posted January 25, 2013 by D. K. Holm
Filling out the slowly expanding filmography of Alfred Hitchcock, the Criterion Collection has issue Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Though out of copyright, and with numerous platters of the film from a myriad of publishers, the CC version is unlikely to be beat by any others for audio and visual clarity, not to mention supplementary elements.
As numerous other reviewers have already noted The Man Who Knew Too Much is generally regarded as the first film in which Hitchcock became Hitchcock. Or at least, the Hitchcock we all recognize from his later reputation as the Master of Suspense and the television personality. It’s worth taking a few moments to examine this assumption, however.
Since 1925 Hitchcock had kicked around in the British film business from one small company to another, though generally always working for the same small set of people. His biggest hit was his third full finished feature, The Lodger, with another modest hit five years later with Blackmail, which may have also coasted on its historical important as the first British sound film, though it is a part talky. The 16 pictures between The Lodger and Man Who Knew Too Much are a mix of shorts and features, silent and sound, but more important a blend of domestic tales, soap operas, courtroom dramas, play adaptations, musicals, and comedies. At the time Hitchcock may have been viewed as an ambitious general contractor style director. Often at odds with the studio or with the distributer, who seems to have had a grudge against him, Hitchcock could be seen as using this period as a long apprenticeship amid mostly uninspiring films. His third feature,The Ring is the only title in his catalog in which he has sole screenwriting credit, though it is likely others worked on it, and despite its visual wit, its not unjustified dismal reception seems to scared off Hitchcock from striving to be a sole auteur of his films, at least for a while. The goal was to become successful and therefore have relative freedom to do what he wanted, to which end he cultivated critics and publicity. During this period only three films would qualify as “Hitchcokian,” in the sense of crime, murder, and hot pursuits, and its nadir was Strauss’s Great Waltz, an impersonally directed quasi-musical. But released that same year, 1934, and also for his new studio Gaumont, comes The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Because Man Who Knew Too Much was re-made in 1956, most viewers are familiar with the story even if they haven’t seen the film. Its premise is simple and mostly transferred to the remake: A strangely sporty pair, a happier version of couples seen in earlier travelog tales, stumble upon a political secret, and their daughter is kidnapped by spies and assassins in order to silence them until the villains can enact their scheme. The wife, Jill Lawrence (Edna Best), is a markswoman, and one of numerous tricks of the film is that her skill proves useful as a plot point later in the tale. There is also a funny scene when the husband, Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks), tracks down the villains with his bumbling Beaky-style friend in the chapel of a small religious cult, and the pair throw cheap wooden folding chairs at the advancing clan while trying to escape. The dénouement is a hostage raid based on a notorious incident in London history.
This summary doesn’t capture the felt experience of the film, which is a mix of stunning set pieces and stagy art house shot (fingers framed around a bullet hole in a window pane, ostentatiously pointing). It is also populated with a wide mix of characters. The Lawrence couple of quasi flappers of Fitzgeraldian proportions, with no visible means of support for their lavish international lifestyle. In contrast is the “family” of the bad guys, led with compassionate malice by the scar-faced Abbott (Peter Lorre). The other principal thing that Hitchcock and his five screenwriting collaborators is to create a villain with depth, a funny, strange man with a Scarface-like fixation on the repressed lady of the team, and a cold competence if not nihilism in the clutch. It’s a standard trope that the villains in Hitchcock’s films if not all cinema are more interesting than the heroes, but for Hitchcock it provides him access to the exploration of unusual characters with odd eddies of nuance. The heroine is usually just “the girl,” and the hero the “man” or “hero,” but the villains have names, back stories, and implied curios of behavior, often resting on a crucible of conflicting impulses and obligations, ranging from Herbert Marshall in Foreign Correspondent to Norman Bates in Psycho. The most interesting parts of his bad films, such as Topaz, is his treatment of the bad guys.
But aside from the villains and the use-it-or-lose-it visual and plot tropes, how much was Hitchcock invested in the contours of crime and thrillers? There aren’t that many such genre works in his first 10 years of production, while almost every subsequent film is a genre piece, usually hewing closely to the elements of Man Who Knew Too Much. Aside from a couple of war propaganda pieces and a screwball comedy, Hitchcock focused on those elements: the chase, the threatened family, the marital tension, the international settings, the vagaries of justice bureaucracy, and other overly recognizable elements. Was there an art house, “indie” filmmaker inside Hitchcock thwarted by the market, the audiences, and studio expectations. “They” wouldn’t “let” him make the version of Suspicion he wanted – but did he really want to? It’s hard to tell, and the deterioration of Hitchcock’s films after he became a part owner of Universal hints a the level of tension he felt between making popular if still deep films, and his obligation to shareholders and himself.
Aspects of the extras may prove disappointing to Hitchcock scholars. I’m thinking of the audio excerpt from the Hitchcock-Truffaut interviews originally recorded in 1962, and the TV chat between Hitchcock and first Pia Lindstrom, daughter of Ingrid Bergman, and then film historian William K. Everson, taped 10 years later, in 1972. Scholars want to penetrate the mask or haze that Hitchcock used to deflect probing questions. For example, with Truffaut, Hitchcock embarks on a lengthy shaggy dog story in which he describes a cartoon about a musician whose one job is to clash two cymbals. Like many directors or people in power, he liked to hear himself talk and generally had a captive audience. The Truffaut excerpt illustrates some of the elements wrong with the otherwise interesting and essential Hitchcock-Truffaut, problems initially cited by Andrew Sarris in his review when the book was published in English, and reprinted in Confessions of a Cultist. In essence, there is a conflict between Hitchcock, the raconteur of technical questions, and Truffaut, who juggles several agenda, among them his dislike of British cinema, and his efforts to re-categorize the director or box him up. Because of the power imbalance, interviewers have to sit through Hitchcock’s oft-told and all to often boring stories, generally manufactured for public consumption. And is it possible that in fact Hitchcock had no “ideas” in the intellectual sense, that he was an artist working wholly by instinct? If so, neither the beautiful Ms. Lindstrom nor the late Everson manage to penetrate the Hitchcockian façade nor even really attempt to. Ms. Lindstrom asks dumb Hollywood profile stories designed to elicit already known facts, while Everson’s dialogue is terribly pretentious and self-regarding, yet also while asking questions easily deflected toward the solving of technical issues.
On the other hand, there is an audio commentary by British reviewer Philip Kemp that includes crucial background information about the production history and the historical source for some of the film’s scenes, and a brief video interview with Guillermo del Toro, who describes the importance of Hitchcock to his own developing cinematic skills, an account of special interest because del Toro has written his own book about Hitchcock, as yet not translated from Spanish to English. The package also comes with a 20-page booklet containing cast and crew statistics, transfer information, and an essay by blogger Farran Smith Nehme.
Criterion disc number 643, The Man Who Knew Too Much hit the streets on Tuesday, 15 January, and retails for $29.95 in DVD and $39.95 in Blu-Ray.