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Man Who Knew Too Much, The (Blu-ray)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Network Distributing
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Alfred Hitchcock
Leslie Banks
Edna Best
Nova Pilbeam
Peter Lorre
Frank Vosper
Bottom Line: 

Whilst holidaying on the ski-slopes of St Moritz in Switzerland, Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks), his wife Jill (Edna Best) and their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) befriend an affable French skier by the name of Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay). It transpires that Bernard is really a government agent who is trying to thwart an assassination attempt by a gang of anarchists, their target an important foreign dignitary visiting London. He has discovered some important information on the plot, but is murdered before he can contact his superiors with the details. The Lawrences come into possession of a scrap of paper belonging to the murdered man which may be vital, but the assassins kidnap Betty to stop Bob and Jill talking to the British Foreign Office or the police. Back in London, Bob and a family friend, Clive (Hugh Wakefield), set out to rescue Betty using the cryptic information from Bernard's scrap of paper as their guide through London’s criminal underworld -- leading them to a backstreet dentistry practice and a religious group called The Tabernacle of the Sun. Bob soon finds himself right in the middle of the sinister Mr Abbot’s (Peter Lorre) assassination plot!

 "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (the title purloined from a collection of GK Chesterton detective stories) comes at the very beginning of Hitchcock's first great run of hits during the thirties, while he was still working in British cinema. Although he had made thriller before, It is the blueprint for the kind of movie with which he would henceforth come to be associated for much of the rest of his career: a glossy entertainment thriller, constructed around a profusion of elaborate but crisply executed, almost self-contained set piece episodes of suspense that often also showcase a wry, not to say perverse, sense of humour. The film had its origins in a project that Hitchcock conceived with Charles Bennett — the author of the play on which his first talkie, "Blackmail", had been based — when they had both still been working at British International. Hitchcock had always wanted to make a film based around a popular character called Bulldog Drummond, the hero of a series of novels by Hector McNeil. Bennett and Hitch came up with a treatment that involved the gentleman adventurer's daughter being kidnapped, and sold it to British International. However, Hitchcock's relations with John Maxwell (the head of BIP) where already turning sour due to Maxwell's reluctance to finance the kind of pictures that Hitchcock was most interested in making. After the failure of "Rich and Strange", the director found himself reduced to the level of making a cheap 'quota quickie' called "Number Seventeen" for the company. When it became apparent that “Bulldog Drummond's Baby” was not going to get made at all at BIP, Hitchcock knew it was time to leave.

While at a loose end, he found himself in the unlikely situation of directing a musical, "Waltzes from Vienna", for independent producer, Tom Arnold at Gaumont-British. This company was the result of a joining of forces between Michael Balcon's Gainsborough Pictures (which was where Hitchcock had started his career in the film industry) and C.M. Woolf's renting company. Woolf was the managing director of the new partnership, and although he and Hitchcock had never got on while they’d been at Gainsborough together the first time round (Woolf shelved what turned out to be Hitch's first great masterpiece, "The Lodger"), Hitchcock jumped at the chance to work at Gaumont-British when Michael Balcon visited him on the set of "Waltzes..." and offered him the chance to oversee any project he liked! Hitchcock bought the Bulldog Drummond script from BIP and, together with Bennett, producer Ivor Montagu (an old friend who was also now working at Gaumont-British), and several other scriptwriters, set about rewriting the entire movie — removing any reference to the Bulldog character and crafting several new scenes, among them the famous dentist's surgery sequence …

 This film sees Hitchcock playing to his strengths all the way. All the most promising elements of his more successful early works are given the chance to shine in a context specifically created to showcase them for maximum effect: the technical trickery of the Schufftan process was once again employed (just as it was in "Blackmail") to give the illusion that the climatic assassination attempt was really taking place at the Royal Albert Hall, when in reality everything was filmed in the cramped confines of Lime Grove studios. The expressionist-tinged cinematography, with its shadowy lighting and odd camera angles, manages to give that silent movie feel, while at the same time the medium of sound now plays a pivotal role in the telling of the story and the subsequent creation of suspense, rather than it being just a gimmick plastered on top of the images: for instance, the noise from the fight that takes place between Bob and the assassins and in which the church of the Sun cult gets destroyed, is covered by church organ music being played during it by ne of the gang (a plump old lady in flowery hat) to stop the police outside intervening; the assassination is timed to coincide with a particular point in a piece of orchestral music being played during a live performance, so as to disguise the retort of the assassin’s pistol; and the criminal mastermind's musical watch (a recurring motif throughout the film) gives away his hiding place at the very end of the picture when the police raid his headquarters.

The film quickly establishes the basic formula that became synonymous with the name Alfred Hitchcock: a string of incongruous situations follow one after the other during the film's brief running time, with the audience required to figure out how a dentist's surgery with a padded door (behind which clandestine meetings take place), and a strange sun worshipping cult, can possibly be connected. Hitchcock even created one scene around a real-life incident known as the siege of Sydney Street when, in 1911, police tracked a criminal gang to their hideout and became involved in a protracted gun battle after the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, controversially authorised the use of fire-arms. The finale involves the film's heroine, Jill Lawrence, saving the day by employing her skills as a marksman (a fact established in the opening scene) to kill the assassin by shooting him from the roof of the villains’ hideout before he can harm her daughter Betty, who’s clambered out of one of the windows in an attempt to escape her captors.

 The film is rather superficial — and has been criticised for its apparent lack of emotional depth, since the two parents never seem particularly thrown by the danger their kidnapped daughter is surely facing. On the other hand Peter Lorre — whom Hitchcock had always envisioned in the role of Mr Abbot the chief criminal, ever since seeing him play the child killer in Fritz Lang's "M" a few years earlier — gives a compelling performance, actually making what is on paper a rather cardboard cut-out villain seem both extremely likeable and entertaining, while still retaining that edge of menace and unpredictability the part requires.

 Hitchcock continued to refine his formula with his next few British-made movies, resulting in several masterpieces such as "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes". Debate now rages among Hitchcock fans over which version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much" is the best; this one ... or the lavish 50s remake for Paramount? In truth they are both so different in tone and pace that it seems quite hopeless to compare them, but if I were forced to choose I for one would go with this compact original 1934 version, despite the technical virtues and extended suspense of the remake … This version doesn't muck around or get bogged down with extraneous material, and still feels fresh today due to its ability to combine the best from the great silent era of visually based cinema with the excitement of the new possibilities afforded by nascent sound technology.

Incredibly "The Man Who Knew Too Much" received similar treatment at the hands of Gaumont-British's director, C.M. Woolf, as had "The Lodger" almost a decade before! Woolf hated the film — and, even though it was a huge hit with critics and audiences, he first threatened to shelve it, and then finally released it but buried as the lower half of a double bill, effectively ensuring the film lost money despite the fact that everybody wanted to see it after a series of flattering reviews. Hitchcock’s twisted, sometimes dark humour reveals itself in several instances on this picture: most notably family friend Clive is on the receiving end of all sorts of indignities, from having a tooth removed by a dodgy dentist to being hypnotised by the villains and then arrested for 'a breach of the peace in a place of worship' when he tries to send a constable to the Tabernacle to help his imprisoned friend, Bob! Hitchcock makes the relationship between Bob and Jill seem unusually free and easy for a 1930s film, having them joke about Jill running off with Bernard (with whom she does seem to spend an inordinate amount of time socialising) and Jill referring to daughter Betty as ‘it’ in front of her, after the child ruins her shot during a clay pigeon shooting completion in Switzerland. A very Hitchcockian practical joke that Bob plays on Bernard and his wife while they’re dancing which involves him attaching a stitch from Jill’s knitting to the back of Bernard’s tuxedo, thus unravelling it as the couple dance, could almost be a metaphor for the flimsiness of the marriage itself if it were not for the fact that it leads up to the spy’s (disquietingly downplayed) murder, which ultimately leads to Bob, Jill and Betty becoming united in their adversity. Hitch also makes the criminal gang headed by the chuckling, scar-faced Abbot, a diverse and quirky lot, including among them several spinsterish female members who look like they’re meant to be parodies of the suffragettes or of the sort of people attracted to theosophy in the early Twentieth century, headed by the sinister Nurse Agnes (Cicely  Oates).

The high definition transfer and the cleaned up sound on this new Network Blu-ray release – another entry in The British Film Collection --  is a revelation, unveiling incredible new levels of picture detail and depth, as well as enhanced sound clarity in a movie that has always suffered in home releases before from its washed out, crackly, often grainy quality. Hitchcock aficionados need this revamped classic in their collections immediately.

Extras include a three minute introduction by film critic Charles Barr, which eloquently covers all the salient points about the film’s background. There is an image gallery of production stills, and a 1972 edition of the London Weekend Television arts show “Aquarius”, in which Alfred Hitchcock is interviewed in a British television studio about his approach to cinema throughout his career, while clips from an on-location documentary crew covering his shooting of the crowd scene on the London Embankment for the opening moments of the film “Frenzy” are interspersed.  The interview is fairly formulaic, covering familiar Hitchcock ground, but the location stuff is fascinating, and illustrates just how true was the oft repeated claim that the director had the whole of his films planned out in his head from beginning to end before the cameras started rolling. There are on-set interviews with “Frenzy” director of photography Gil Taylor and third assistant director Colin M Brewer, and the cameras eavesdrop on several conversations between Hitch and his crew, the director usually retiring to his Bentley to read a copy of the The Sun newspaper while shots are being set up or extras assembled! Clips of Hitchcock’s films have been edited out for rights reasons, but this documentary still runs for a good thirty-six minutes or so. The upgrade is well worth it to see such a seminal film look this good. 

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

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