After Criterion released Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” in the middle of last year and it not only resulted in an extremely pleasant first watch and some pretty great extras, but it also made the decision to secure a copy of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” to review incredibly easy to make. Many of Hitchcock’s earlier works have gone unseen on this end, but “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” and even “Rear Window” are some of the finest thrillers to ever be filmed. Hitchcock is a master of his craft and any fan of cinema should jump at the chance to view any of his works. Although very intriguing, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” isn’t nearly up to par with the Hitchcock you’ve come to know and love.
Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) and his wife Jill (Edna Best) are enjoying a vacation in Switzerland, but Bob and Jill soon find themselves on the wrong end of an assassination attempt along with a note promising that they’ll never see their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) again if they breathe a word to the police about the clue they’ve accidentally stumbled upon. Unable to rely on the police for help, Bob and Jill head to Wapping in London which leads them to the assassins’ hideout lead by the polite yet treacherous Abbott (Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role).
What you take away most from “The Man Who Knew Too Much” was how different everything was back then. Everyone, even the villains, is so ridiculously well-mannered as they apologize for losing their cool or politely offering their hostage a cigarette. It was a different culture back then and it’s just amazing to admire the fact that people enjoyed skeet shooting and the symphony instead of smart phones and reality television.
It’s not that “The Man Who Knew Too Much” is necessarily boring, but it lacks that riveting suspense Hitchcock became known for later on in his career. For a group of assassins, their work is awfully sloppy and Bob’s chair battle inside the sun-worshiping temple is more laughable than anything. The performances are rather interesting because they’re not extremely cliché like you may expect them to be. Despite her shriek at the Royal Abbot Hall and fainting after reading the note saying her daughter had been captured Edna Best portrays a woman who is all for doing absolutely everything she can to get her daughter back and the conclusion of the shoot out outside of the assassins’ hideout proves that. Leslie Banks never seems to lose his cool. His wife is a mess and their life is in shambles all because he found a note in a brush in someone’s hotel room, but Bob never raises his voice and always makes it a point to try and compliment his daughter even after he’s been taken hostage and hope is all but lost. Peter Lorre is the most impressive though because he’s so unpredictable. He’ll be smiling from ear to ear one moment and everything will be lighthearted, but then he’ll turn around and say something completely despicable or make it well-known that he won’t hesitate killing a child to get what he wants.
“The Man Who Knew Too Much” is well worth watching if you’re a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, but may otherwise be only worthwhile as a rental because the desire to watch the film over and over again is rather slim. The Criterion release of the film is rather superb, as can be expected. The new digital restoration with uncompressed monaural soundtrack is absolutely gorgeous.
The special edition features New audio commentary with film historian Philip Kemp, a new interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (17:40), The Illustrated Hitchcock (49:48), an extensive interview with director Alfred Hitchcock from 1972 conducted by journalist Pia Lindstrom and film historian William K. Everson, Audio excerpts from filmmaker Francois Truffaut’s legendary 1962 interviews with Hitchcock (22:56), Restoration demonstration (5:12), and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme. The Restoration demonstration is really fascinating. To know how much time and effort went into making this film look and sound as good as it does is extraordinary.