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Published: Thursday, 2/7/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Much to learn from 'The Man Who Knew Too Much'

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The core elements of the Master of Suspense's celebrated filmmaking career were always present, but our first true exposure to Alfred Hitchcock's cinematic genius came with 1934's The Man Who Knew Too Much, recently given the Criterion Collection deluxe treatment for this $39.95 Blu-ray release.

The story of rather ordinary people who find themselves in a rather extraordinary situation, The Man Who Knew Too Much is the blueprint of many Hitchcock films to follow, including Rear Window, North by Northwest, Vertigo, and the director's own 1956 remake starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day.

Leslie Banks and Edna Best star as Bob and Jill Lawrence, a British couple on holiday in Switzerland with their teenage daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). Their vacation takes a macabre Hitchcockian twist with the murder of a family friend who also happens to be a British agent. The victim left an important note -- and thus a clue to his death -- hidden in his hotel room. Bob recovers the note before it falls into nefarious hands and becomes the titular hero who must deal with a ruthless gang of spies who want the information he knows. The story also tosses in the assassination plot of an important foreign dignitary, though we know little else, much less a motive; Hitchcock's films are often cloaked in mystery when it comes to such incidentals. The spies kidnap young Betty to force Bob to provide them the note, but he and Jill do not prove so easily cornered, and Bob and family friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) go undercover to learn more about this gang and to rescue his daughter.

As a thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much is primitive by today's slick standards of Hollywood moviemaking -- perhaps even on the level of a well-produced student film. (There's a reason why Hitchcock remade it; though it's that rawness that makes the 1934 original the superior -- and far more sinister -- version of the two films.) Yet the execution of this suspenseful drama is more fully realized and gutsier than almost anything studios are cranking out today. Peter Lorre as the chief spy and criminal mastermind dramatically undersells his performance and is all the more effective because of it. There's a substantially greater air of menace to a villain not unhinged but with his wits about him, and in complete control of himself and everyone around him. Lorre is chilling in his matter-of-fact tone and actions, and delivers a performance from which many of today's actors-as-villains would be wise to study.

Banks and Best make for a believable happy couple with hardened resolve when pushed. There's the occasional histrionics in the performances, but this was the style of the time, and Hitchcock loved melodrama. But as a counter to those moments, Bob and Jill display an unusual amount of emotional restraint when they learn of Betty's peril. It's British "keep a stiff upper lip" stoicism at its finest onscreen. Compare that to Day's horrified reaction to news of the kidnapping, as delivered by Stewart, even after given a sedative.

While much of the film's drama unfolds in the plot twists and dialogue, The Man Who Knew Too Much has its share of gripping action. The violent shootout in a London street between London police and the spies holing up in an apartment building was edgy for its time -- even today, the bloodless carnage resonates as rather shocking given the amount of deaths. This ending is significantly different and considerably more chilling than in the remake.

Criterion employed its usual high standards in cleaning up the video and audio presentation for the Blu-ray debut of The Man Who Knew Too Much; it's doubtful the 75-minute film has ever looked this good.

The single Blu-ray also features new audio commentary from film historian Philip Kemp and a new interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, as well as a 1972 interview with Hitchcock conducted by journalist Pia Lindstrom and film historian William Everson.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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