Not many directors choose to revisit and remake their own works. Leo McCarey updated his 1939 romantic weepie 'Love Affair,' transforming it into the 1957 Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr classic 'An Affair to Remember'; Cecil B. DeMille reshaped his 1923 silent epic 'The Ten Commandments' into an equally bloated 1950s sound spectacular; Frank Capra parlayed his topical Depression-era fairy tale 'Lady for a Day' from 1933 into the 1961 nostalgic period piece 'Pocketful of Miracles'; and 25 years after the watered down 'These Three' premiered in 1936, William Wyler was able to fully explore the explosive sexual themes the censors previously quashed in Lillian Hellman's ground-breaking drama 'The Children's Hour.'
The prize for the most noteworthy director's remake, however, must go to Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Man Who Knew Too Much,' first filmed as a taut, low-budget British picture in 1934, and then given a glossy, languorous Hollywood makeover 22 years later. Both versions are stellar exercises in suspense, but which edition reigns supreme has always sparked debate among classics aficionados and divides critics to this day. Hitchcock himself at one time termed the earlier movie the work of an "amateur," while its American Technicolor counterpart was made by a "professional." And though it's true the Hollywood interpretation flaunts plenty of style, elegance, and the confidence an experienced craftsman brings to his trade, it's also self-indulgent, a bit draggy, and about 20 minutes too long. Gone are the grittiness, playfulness, and breathless pacing that distinguish the British edition, which once and for all put Hitchcock on the cinematic map and, in my opinion, set it apart as the more interesting and superior film.
'The Man Who Knew Too Much' isn't Hitchcock's first foray into the thriller genre, but it's the first film to finely hone what would become the director's signature style. Yes, it's a little rough around the edges, a bit choppy and sloppy in spots, but the core Hitchcock elements are perfectly in place and, for the most part, presented with the thoughtful precision that would define the future Master of Suspense. Favorite themes, such as the innocent man (or in this case, an innocent couple) thrust into extraordinary circumstances encompassing intimate danger and political violence, are present, as well as archetypal characters, such as strong, resourceful women who rise above their modest, prim nature when a crisis demands it. The MacGuffin makes an appearance here, too, this time in the form of a group of insurgents committed to assassinating a diplomat, but we are never enlightened as to why they wish him dead. And such stylistic Hitchcock staples as abrupt and rapid cutting, subjective camera angles, and tight close-ups make the movie visually as well as emotionally stimulating.
Running a brisk 75 minutes, 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' chronicles the efforts of typical British tourists Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) to rescue their kidnapped daughter, Betty (Nova Pillbeam), who's abruptly abducted by a deviant band of anarchists led by the portly Abbott (Peter Lorre) after a dying British agent implores Jill to secure some vital information left in his San Moritz hotel room. That information, if delivered to the British Consulate, just might thwart the impending murder of a foreign dignitary, which could spark another international conflict on the same massive scale as World War I. Unsure of Betty's whereabouts, Bob embarks upon a dangerous quest to find her, which leads him back to London, while Jill pits herself against the terrorists in a game of wits, with both her daughter's life and the future fate of Britain hanging in the balance.
The breakneck pacing, interrupted by moments of humor and clever banter, lift 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' above other thrillers of its time. The first killing comes at the end of a clever slapstick scene with hidden profound undertones (think the thread of life). And following on its heels, Bob, like many Hitchcock heroes, goes on a disjointed odyssey that takes him to such unlikely and quirky locales as the office of a rabid dentist (a marvelous precursor to Laurence Olivier's sadistic tooth doctor in 'Marathon Man') and a convent that houses a cult of sun-worshipping women. The bizarre nature of such settings heightens the film's sense of unease, keeping us on the edge of our seats and wondering what new oddity could possibly crop up next. Yet beneath such eccentric trimmings lies a very basic story of parental love that transcends even the most massive political implications. That's the seed that draws us in, the kernel of plot to which almost every viewer can latch onto and identify, and it lends 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' its very necessary emotional core.
Of course, the central set piece of both versions of this thriller is the symphonic concert at the Royal Albert Hall, where the diplomat's assassination is supposed to take place. Here, as in the remake, the scene is masterfully structured and executed, marked by accelerated cutting and multiple perspectives that ramp up tension and the sense of urgency and dread engulfing the situation. The tenement shootout that follows, based on an actual historical incident from 1911 in which a young Winston Churchill played a central role, is noteworthy for a couple of reasons, the most potent of which is the fact that it does not appear in the remake (which, much to its detriment, opts for a far more syrupy denouement featuring a teary Doris Day warbling 'Que Sera, Sera'). Though it can't quite match the Royal Albert Hall sequence, the shootout is nevertheless a meticulously mounted and exciting scene that climaxes in a fitting fashion, bringing this efficient thriller to a satisfying conclusion.
Aside from the highly recognizable (and very German) Lorre, who at that stage in his burgeoning career was still so uncomfortable with the English language he reportedly learned his lines phonetically, the British cast only will be known to the most rabid classic movie fan. Yet the actors' relative anonymity works in the film's favor, allowing contemporary audiences to more fully believe the Lawrence's modest station in life and sympathize with their horrific predicament. Hitchcock always populates his pictures with a host of offbeat supporting characters, and here there's a gallery of fascinating specimens, from Lorre's austere nurse to Bob's unflappable right-hand man.
Hitchcock's British period spawned several great films, including such gems as 'The 39 Steps' and 'The Lady Vanishes.' The original 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' ranks a hair below the preceding two titles, but remains a top-flight effort - suspenseful, exciting, and entertaining. It may be less polished and sure-handed than its 1956 counterpart, but it's uniquely thrilling because it allows us to witness not just a crackerjack story, but the stylistic development of one of the most esteemed directors in film history. 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' is far from Hitch's best film, but it's the source to which his greatest works ultimately can be traced. And that makes it a very special motion picture indeed.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Man Who Knew Too Much' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. Inside, a handsomely designed 20-page booklet printed on glossy stock contains a well-written essay by Farran Smith Nehme that succinctly describes the film's background and development, style and influences, casting and plot. A cast and crew listing, as well as notes about the movie's transfers, are also included. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is uncompressed mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no promos or previews precede it.
'The Man Who Knew Too Much' is almost 80 years old, but this impeccable transfer makes the movie appear far younger. A bit of roughness and a more pronounced grain structure typical of early 1930s films betray this thriller's age, but from a purely visual standpoint it looks very good indeed. Though grain is present, it's exceptionally well integrated into the whole, exuding the feel of celluloid and providing a gritty texture that heightens the air of foreboding swirling about the picture. Clarity and contrast rank highly for a film of this vintage, though a definite softness (also a staple of early cinema) makes edges less defined.
Black levels are solid, but lack the starkness and depth that would distinguish noir films a decade later, and whites, especially in the preliminary St. Moritz scenes, possess appropriate brightness and texture. A nicely varied gray scale adds depth and enhances imagery, keeping crush at bay most of the time and bolstering the appearance of background elements. Close-ups are intentionally gauzy, yet still exhibit plenty of striking detail.
According to the liner notes, "this new digital transfer was created at the BFI National Archive in London in 2K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner equipped with a sprocketless transport from a 35 mm nitrate fine-grain master positive held in the archive's vaults." The restorers also erased what must have been a veritable flurry of scratches, marks, and other assorted damage to produce an image that's surprisingly clean and vibrant. No digital issues hamper one's enjoyment of this terrific effort, which honors and preserves this classic picture.
It's always tough to review early talkies from an audio perspective, due to the primitive recording equipment used at the time. Very few films from this period sound very good, but 'The Man Who Knew Too Much,' thanks to the restorative efforts of the Criterion crew, garners better marks than most. "Remastered at 24-bit from an original 35 mm optical track print owned by film preservationist Bob Harris, which was given to him by producer David O. Selznick," the uncompressed mono audio handles music and effects particularly well. The climactic concert at the Royal Albert Hall sounds surprisingly robust, while the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire during the subsequent shootout is crisp and distinct. Though a slight bit of hiss could be detected during the quietest scenes, almost no other age-related imperfections rear their ugly head. No pops, crackles, or static intrude, thus allowing the viewer to become completely immersed in the action.
The main problem with this track is the replication of dialogue, which is especially difficult to comprehend early in the film. If the disc included subtitles (which it doesn't), I would have been tempted to turn them on a couple of times, because I couldn't completely understand the characters. A slight bit of distortion, possibly due to rudimentary microphones, keeps the talk indistinct enough to be annoying. Dialogue is clear during sedate sequences, even when spoken in hushed tones, but when crowds or ambient noise is present, it adopts a fuzziness that garbles the speech.
All in all, however, Criterion does a fine job making the track palatable, and the remastering has surely improved the audio quality of this antiquated film.
As usual, Criterion provides a comprehensive supplemental package to augment the film.
Hitchcock's first version of 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' outshines the director's 1956 remake by staying focused on the desperate nature of the plot and tightening the screws of suspense in an economical manner. So what if Hitchcock is still cutting his directorial teeth; the film's taut nature and gritty, low-budget presentation work to its ultimate advantage, and the bits of humor and quirkiness woven into its fabric add just the right amount of spice. Criterion's marvelous restoration makes this antique look like a brand new film, and the fine array of supplements provide excellent context and perspective. Audio is slightly weak, but that's to be expected for a film of this vintage, and it can't keep this British classic from earning a highly enthusiastic recommendation. Give me a feisty female sharpshooter over 'Que sera, sera' any day of the week.