I first saw The Man Who Knew Too Much on a cheaply produced VHS tape that included a good three-quarters of Hitchcock’s British films. The sound was scratchy, at points indecipherable, the picture grainy and the black and white so contrasted that it was difficult to identify characters without squinting. I was, to put it mildly, unimpressed, and I more or less forgot about the film, choosing instead to pay attention to the Hitchcocks – most of them from his American period – that I could actually get in good prints.
Thank God for the Criterion Collection. After gifting me with The Lady Vanishes – a film that reignited my love of Hitchcock and gave me fodder for three graduate papers – and The 39 Steps, they’ve finally fixed The Man Who Knew Too Much and released it on Blu-ray. Beautiful picture, clear soundtrack, all of the glory of Hitchcock’s British work, up there on the screen. Finally. It’s like watching a completely different film.
The Man Who Knew Too Much stands as the only Hitchcock film that Hitchcock himself remade, in 1956 with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day in the roles originally occupied by Leslie Banks and Edna Best. The plot is basically the same: vacationing family becomes friends with a man who is subsequently murdered, but not before he can pass on the details of an assassination attempt to them. To stop them from talking, the baddies kidnap their child (in the original a little girl played by Nova Pilbeam, who would later be a Hitchcock heroine in Young and Innocent). The conflict lies in the couple trying to decide if the life of a foreign diplomat – and a possible war – is worth the life of their daughter.
That’s where the parallels between the two films end, however. I have to say that the original is far and away the better film. At a punchy 75 minutes, it wastes no time setting up the situation, or the audience’s sympathies. A few well-placed and economical scenes give us all we need to know – the affection between the parents, the affection between the parents and their daughter, the cost of their silence, and the cruelty of the villains. There are some truly Hitchcockian set pieces, as the father sets out, in the company of the comic relief Uncle Clive, to find his daughter based solely on an address. The scene in the dentist’s office must have inspired Marathon Man among others. It’s a surreal, comical and sinister side-note, to go with the far more serious sequence in a cultish church (The Tabernacle of the Sun, in which old British grandmothers carry around firearms) as the father fights his way to his daughter, only to be captured. And then there’s the excellent Albert Hall scene, a masterpiece of intercuts, and the final shoot-out. The whole film is perfectly tailored without sacrificing plot or character. Coming in at just over an hour, it’s an example of what can be done by a truly great filmmaker. Any director who thinks they need 2.5 hours to tell a good story should take note. The Man Who Knew Too Much represents some of the best of Hitchcock’s early work, and that’s saying a lot.
Then there’s Peter Lorre. The Man Who Knew Too Much was his first English-speaking role – he learned his lines phonetically – but you wouldn’t know it. He brings the same weird, sadistic vibe that he used with such aplomb in Fritz Lang’s M, but without the sympathetic undertones. He’s a villain, through and through, and more than that enjoys the suffering he causes. Yet there are moments of pathos, as when one of his compatriots dies during the shootout, or his humorous introduction. Leslie Banks anchors the film with a stolid sense of Britishness, honesty and fair play; Lorre provides the chaos.
The film does not hold up as well as The Lady Vanishes or The 39 Steps, widely acknowledged as the best of British Hitchcock. It’s very sparseness sometimes works against it, leaving certain plot elements under-developed while spending a little too much time on getting characters from point A to point B. It’s a little rough around the edges, which provides some charm but also a somewhat perfunctory feel. I found myself longing for a little more emotion on the part of the father – at least earlier on.
But these are minor quibbles in an excellent film. The Man Who Knew Too Much outstrips its remake in every sense. It’s a taut, clever masterpiece, finally presented by Criterion in the way it must be seen.
Oh, and the mother? Screw Doris Day; Edna Best wins every time.