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Movie Review: THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH Marks the Arrival of the Great Alfred Hitchcock

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It took Alfred Hitchcock seventy-six minutes to establish that he would become one of cinema’s great architects.  Football games run longer than that; people often find themselves waiting in airports for longer than that.  Seventy-six minutes is a drop in the ocean, temporally speaking, yet the hour-and-a-quarter runtime of The Man Who Knew Too Much was all Hitch needed to make his brand on world cinema.  Now, as is often the case, his talent did not emerge as if by magic.  Hitchcock had been directing full-length features since 1925, and at least three of them (The Lodger, Blackmail, Murder!) fall in the good-to-very-good bracket.  But as Guillermo Del Toro notes in an interview on Criterion’s Blu-ray, The Man Who Knew Too Much is unique because it shows Hitchcock establishing the foundations that would define his storied career.  An ordinary man thrust into extraordinary intrigues, a perverse madman manipulating the score, a reliance on comedy to help balance out the darkness: they’re all here, newly minted.

It begins, as it must, with the beginning, and The Man Who Knew Too Much has a great one.  Without question, the opening ten minutes rank among Hitchcock’s most effortless screen setpieces; using a light, almost farcical touch, the director introduces all the major characters, sets up the human and narrative machinations that will reverberate through the rest of the story, and delivers every important piece of exposition that we – and the heroes – will need to solve The Man Who Knew Too Much‘s central mystery, and the kicker is, he never lets on to what he’s doing.

What other directors might establish as an information dump feels breezy and relaxed; in such a tightly plotted thriller, these ten minutes have the ease of a hangout movie.  We watch Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) enjoying their vacation in the Alps; they tease their precocious daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) and her dog, they carouse with a handsome French skier (Le Grande Illusion‘s Pierre Fresnay), they settle in for the high life, yet they’re as surprised as we are when Fresnay’s character takes a bullet (in a chilling, near wordless beat that Steven Spielberg lifted for – of all things! – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) and the plot kicks into gear.

However, Hitch has been laying the groundwork while we’ve been gazing at the sights, and it’s only as The Man Who Knew Too Much gets rolling that we realize how thoroughly he’s prepped us.  The diminutive, overly jovial foreigner (the great Peter Lorre) lurking on the fringes of the Lawrences’ holiday – we learn he’s far more sinister than a visual sight gag.  We make a similar mistake when we laugh at Bob and Jill’s flip dismissals of Betty (they constantly joke about disowning her) since the same neglect leads directly to Betty’s kidnapping.  We might even have figured that Jill’s marksmanship ability might factor into the narrative later on, if we weren’t giggling at how her shooting contest gets derailed by an ill-timed pocket watch.  Oh yeah – that pocket watch?  Takes on a whole new meaning during the film’s bloody finale.  If nothing else, The Man Who Knew Too Much is a marvel of script construction: nothing is wasted, and every moment is essential.  It’s a tribute to Hitchcock that we catch on to that fact slowly.

Better still, Hitchcock uses this introductory section to toy with our expectations for the characters.  We are immediately drawn to Fresnay’s athlete; he’s charming and wry and dashing the way Cary Grant is charming and wry and dashing, a point that Hitch gently underlines by having Jill openly and suggestively flirt with him in front of Bob!  But we don’t blame her – when choosing between him and Banks’ starched-shirt of a husband, we’d pick Fresnay’s other man, too.  In fact, everyone seems more capable than Bob, and that includes Jill, who we first see brandishing a rifle in competition with another male marksman (Frank Vosper).  Alas, then Hitchcock kills Fresnay with a perverse lack of fanfare, and Jill recedes into depression when Lorre’s giggling sadist kidnaps Betty, leaving only the lumpy, upper-crust Bob to save the day.

As such, the majority of The Man Who Knew Too Much plays a lot like Taken starring Lord Grantham from “Downton Abbey,” and Hitch is able to generate so much suspense from putting Banks’ hapless family man through the wringer.  Part of this decision seems like a strategy move; Charles Bennett and D. B. Wyndham-Lewis’ script isn’t as diamond-cut as Hitchcock’s direction, and a number of baffling sequences – Banks overpowers a duplicitous dentist (shades of Marathon Man here, people) and then assumes his identity even though all the bad guys know what the dentist looks like; Lorre’s henchmen try to kill Banks by, I kid you not, tossing chairs at him – work better with a more incompetent hero as opposed to someone more capable.  Yet Banks’ relative anonymity is very much of a piece with the Hitchcock movies that followed this one; I’m thinking of Robert Cummings’ lowly engineer hunting a spy cabal in Saboteur, or Jimmy Stewart’s temporarily crippled photographer uncovering a murder in Rear Window, or Jon Finch’s unemployed Londoner discovering that his drinking buddy is a serial killer in Frenzy.  Hitch liked to make his average heroes rise to the occasion, and Leslie Banks was the first such man.

The film culminates in two grand suspense sequences: an attempted assassination at Albert Hall and a protracted shootout between Lorre’s gang and the police, both of which leave us exhilarated and just-the-right-amount-of exhausted.  We’ve seen the flowering of a great cinematic talent make his first masterpiece, and it’s a credit to both Hitchcock and The Man Who Knew Too Much that the film still works like gangbusters today (even better, in fact, than the protracted, airless 1955 remake that Hitchcock also directed).  Greatness tends to function like that – it doesn’t have a sell-by date.

Criterion’s Blu-ray gives The Man Who Knew Too Much a new digital restoration; I’d wager it looks better than it did in 1934.  Also impressive is the LPCM monaural track, which makes this seventy-eight-year-old flick sound surprisingly punchy and immersive.

Supplements are wonderful.  We get a thoughtful commentary with critic Philip Kemp; the hour-long Illustrated Hitchcock interview program; an interview with Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo Del Toro; twenty minutes of audio excerpts from filmmaker Francois Truffaut’s 1962 interview with Hitchcock; a great restoration demonstration; and a booklet showcasing a Man Who Knew Too Much piece by Farran Smith Nehme.

It’s good stuff.  So is the movie.  For longtime fans of Alfred Hitchcock or for those who haven’t taken the plunge yet, The Man Who Knew Too Much remains a vital and thrilling slice of screen history.

The Man Who Knew Too Much streets on January 15th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.