Sunday, January 27, 2013


Some of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest films are from his so-called "British Period"--before he went to Hollywood to work for David O. Selznick. Unfortunately for many years Hitchcock's British films were only available in lousy public domain versions featuring terrible picture & sound quality. Recently a number of the "British Period" pictures have been released on special edition DVDs including SABOTAGE, YOUNG AND INNOCENT, and THE LODGER. These versions were far and away better than previous discs. The Criterion Company also came out with outstanding editions of THE 39 STEPS and THE LADY VANISHES.

Criterion does the Master of Suspense more credit with their recent issue of the original THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934). If you have any of those crappy public domain copies of TMWKTM, don't throw them away...burn them. Criterion is a bit expensive, but their TMWKTM is so vastly superior to any other version of the movie so far released, their isn't really any comparison.

The plot is simple: A British couple on holiday in Switzerland (Leslie Banks & Edna Best) inadvertently get involved in a plot to assassinate a European diplomat. Because of the couple's knowledge, their pre-teen daughter (Nova Pilbeam) is kidnapped by the conspirators.

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is sometimes referred to as the first "real" Hitchcock film. I don't agree with that, since he had already made thrillers beforehand, such as THE LODGER, BLACKMAIL, and NUMBER SEVENTEEN. I do think that TMWKTM is the first Hitchcock film where all his typical elements seemed to fit together smoothly. There's the innocent protagonists involved in bizarre circumstances, the strangely polite villains, the use of a famous landmark as a background to a violent act (in this film it's the Royal Albert Hall), and one of Hitchcock's most famous trademarks, a current of dark quirky humor. Hitchcock's streak of British eccentricity would continue after he went to America, but it's never more evident than in TMWKTM. At times one wonders whether this is a James Whale movie.

The real star of TMWKTM (other than the director) is Peter Lorre, who plays the main bad guy. This was Lorre's first English-speaking role, and he's brilliant as usual. Hitchcock always planned his films to the smallest detail, but Lorre gives the impression that his character is not scripted. He never acts (or reacts) to things the way you think he should. Mention must be made of Nova Pilbeam as the kidnapped victim. Her portrayal is far more realistic than any typical Hollywood child star. Pilbeam would go on to give one of the best female performances in any Hitchcock film when she starred in the director's YOUNG AND INNOCENT.

The assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall is of course a well-known sequence, but the final shootout at the climax of the film is very impressive as well. Most sources claim that Hitchcock was inspired by a real-life London incident known as "The Siege of Sidney Street" when staging the shootout, but the final result bears a certain similarity to the ending of Fritz Lang's DR. MABUSE THE GAMBLER. Hitchcock surely would have been well aware of that production.

The 1934 version of TMWKTM always seems to be compared unfavorably with the 1955 remake, also directed by Hitchcock. The 1955 TMWKTM was in color, and starred James Stewart and Doris Day. The poor quality versions of the original TMWKTM may have something to do with it's being ranked behind the remake. For whatever it's worth I think the original is better. The remake obviously had more money spent on it, and overall it is a far glossier production. But the remake also seems a bit over-produced, and James Stewart and Doris Day are more a Hollywood married couple than a real one. The original "family" of Leslie Banks, Edna Best, and Nova Pilbeam have a certain believability. The 1955 version also doesn't have Peter Lorre, which is a major debit. The biggest example of the differences between the two versions is the running time of each film. The original is a compact 75 minutes, while the remake lasts two hours. One of Hitchcock's most famous quotes has the director saying that the original TMWKTM was the work of a "talented amateur", while the remake was the work of a "professional". More than likely Hitchcock felt the way most directors do (George Lucas, anyone?) in that they could always go back and make their movies better if allowed to do so.

Criterion's Blu-ray of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH features first-rate sound & picture quality, and the usual outstanding extras. They include an interview with filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, who discusses his admiration of Hitchcock; a couple of 1972 interviews of Hitchcock conducted by Pia Lindstrom (Ingrid Bergman's daughter) and film historian William K. Everson; audio clips from Francois Truffaut's famous Hitchcock interviews; and an excellent commentary from Philip Kemp.

Most film buffs have probably seen the original THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH at least once. If you have, you still owe it to yourself to try to get to see Criterion's new edition. It really is like seeing the movie for the first time. I've always felt that Hitchcock's British films have more interesting facets to them than some of his more famous American ones. It's great that so many of the "British Period" entries are now available in high quality versions. Hopefully Criterion will decide in the future to add BLACKMAIL and SECRET AGENT to the list.


  1. Yes, there's a Hitchcock film called DOWNHILL from 1926 I'm interested in. Would you know if that one is readily available to buy on DVD? I think its was called DOWNHILL in England, but another name in the US

    1. I didn't think that DOWNHILL was available on DVD, but I checked Amazon and they do have a copy for sale. But I've never heard of the company that makes it, and one of the reviews said the DVD was defective.