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In 1934's The Man Who Knew Too Much Alfred Hitchcock finally found his personal groove in movies, making fast-paced thrillers about ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. As noted several times in the extras of Criterion's new Blu-ray, Hitchcock's previous film was Strauss' Great Waltz, a musical biography far removed from anything he could enjoy making. Too Much was originally to be a Bulldog Drummond story until it took off in its own direction. Viewers in 1934 must have been pleasantly surprised to find a show with the content of older serials and spy films, yet told in a new tone, somewhere between high drama and self-parody. The happy couple trying to save their daughter are deadly serious, but much of what happens to them is like a ride on a fun house ghost train -- what crazy thing will happen next?
The story is the stuff of pulp crime fantasy, tweaked to enmesh likeable civilians in a treacherous assassination conspiracy. In Switzerland to compete as a skeet shooter in the winter games, Jill Lawrence (Edna Best) loses to a European marksman, Ramon (Frank Vosper). She dances with the handsome French skiier Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay), who is shot before her eyes. Before he dies, Bernard tells Edna and her husband Bob (Leslie Banks) that he is a spy and that they must take a message hidden in his room back to England. Jill and Bob carry out Bernard's wishes, but discover that Ramon and a suspicious foreigner, Abbott (Peter Lorre) have kidnapped their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). The kidnappers' plan is to assassinate a foreign dignitary, and Betty has been taken to insure their silence. Jill and Bob tell agents from the Foreign Office nothing while they pursue their only lead, Bernard's cryptic note.
Alfred Hitchcock's big discovery in the making of crowd-pleasing thrillers was the use of cinema -- what we know and when we know it -- to make a direct connection to his audience. Besides changing his protagonist from Bulldog Drummond to an 'ordinary' married couple, Hitchcock had his writers downplay other aspects of the story that might take the focus away from his planned suspense set pieces. The very likeable Edna Best is the strong heroine, itself an interesting switch on conventions. Hitch knew that audiences would be surprised to see Jill Lawrence take the offensive just as forcefully as a man. That doesn't make him a feminist -- elsewhere he delights in having his villains humiliate the older Mrs. Sprocket by taking away her skirt. Hitch's games with female characters are chosen on the basis of overturning audience expectations, not because he has anything to say about women's roles.
Leslie Banks had returned to good-guy mode after his influential, utterly evil Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game. Yet Bob Lawrence's efforts to trace the spy ring come off as almost a comedy subplot, including a darkly humorous visit with a crooked dentist (watch out for that ether!) and an anarchic brawl in a church turned over to a pack of sun-worshippers. Hitchcock hits a three-way knockout with this scene, which toys with kooky Brit cults, mild blasphemy (rude behavior in church, the organ playing during a fight), and the silly-fun humor of Bob and his confederate exchanging messages during a hymn by singing to each other. Bob is rigorously polite in all situations, even when his daughter's life is threatened. His pal Clive (Hugh Wakefiled) is little more than comic relief.
Hitchcock's writers invent an unlikely yet highly entertaining group of spies. The sinister trigger man Ramon has proven his mettle on the rifle ranges and is sharpshooter Edna's logical foe. Yet Peter Lorre's magnetic main villain Abbott steals the entire picture. We first see the grinning, scarred Abbott hovering in the margins in Switzerland. As the brains of the operation he browbeats his various cronies but shows uncommon devotion to his mistress in crime, Nurse Agnes (Cicely Oates). Agnes reloads his guns and sticks with him to the end, like a grim Bonnie to Lorre's Clyde. The actor apparently had close to zero command of the English language, yet he puts a lot of tender-sinister nuances into his lines. He may smile so frequently because he's vamping his way through scenes as best he can. A brilliant actor, Lorre sees to it that we can't take our eyes from him.
Hitchcock knows exactly where his movie is going, as everything funnels into what may be the first of his larger-than-life dramatic showdown-spectacles in a public place. Composer Arthur Benjamin put together a special Storm Cloud Cantata" for The Man Who Knew Too Much, designed to raise Hitchcock's cinematic suspense machine to a fever pitch. The killer Ramon waits for a musical cue that will tell him when to shoot the diplomat named Ropa. Hitchcock places Jill in the same position as a theater viewer -- as part of the concert audience, she sees what is about to transpire but can seemingly to nothing to stop it. 1
Some things in The Man Who Knew Too Much are undoubtedly awkward. Although many reviewers approve of the way the film handles Nova Pilbeam's Betty, she seems a real liability to these eyes, thoroughly exasperating. Little Betty's behavior is responsible for causing both Louis Bernard and Jill Lawrence to lose their sports events, and everybody continues to indulge her. Although Pilbeam was reportedly fourteen, Hitchcock makes her like a 20 year-old pretending to be a tot. In his hurry to get to the exciting content, Hitchcock shows his lack of interest in ordinary people. The 'sophisticated' relationship between Bob and Jill is as superficial as a party game, with Jill pretending to be running off with Louis, and Bob pretending to be upset. This superficiality is linked to a later Hitchcock theme, the danger of complacency. When confronted by the fact that they're passively aiding an assassination, Bob says, "Why should we care if some foreign statesman we never heard of were assassinated?"
Hitchcock's special 'cinematic' way of concocting movie moments derives from expressive silent movie techniques. His silent The Ring is composed almost completely of silent-movie 'semaphore' moments, where inanimate objects express or symbolize what's happening between the characters. At the dinner, Bob ties a piece of yarn to Louis Bernard's coat, so that Jill's knitting will unravel as she and Louis dance. It's a silly joke but it also shows Bob quietly expressing what might be real jealousy -- Jill said that the knitting was for Louis, after all. But the disintegration of the knit piece 'thread by thread' also rhymes with the fact that Louis' life is 'hanging by a thread'. Hitchcock would use this metaphor again when Fry's coat sleeve unravels atop the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur.
Hitchcock also uses silent film-like subjective superimpositions to express his characters' interior emotional states. Under hypnosis, Clive's view of Nurse Agnes is abstracted into a diffused smear of light, with one eye staring through. When Jill faints, the camera spins to show her subjective disorientation and physical dizziness. The most brilliant use occurs near the climax of the Albert Hall scene. When everything looks hopeless, Jill's vision blurs with her tears, 'blanking out' her sight. Invading the gauzy blank brightness is a huge close-up of the barrel of Ramon's gun. Jill knows guns well -- it's her hysterical imagination-view, shocking enough to motivate her well-timed scream. It's a big moment for Hitchcock, as it advances the story and grows directly from the emotions of the actor. Even more importantly, Hitchcock uses his cinematic skill to link to a psychological truth below surface reality. Even without the sexual connotation of the gun barrel, Jill is given a vision of a chaos-world that can erupt at any time, even in a place as benign as a stately symphonic concert. 2
Alfred Hitchcock was a great admirer of Fritz Lang; it was said that Lang's dark fantasy Der Müde Tod was a particular big inspirations. The Man Who Knew Too Much has a couple of "clever" transitions that would seem to be modeled after Fritz Lang's 'associative resonance' cutting style, that used dialogue cues to interrupt scenes with fast changes to another setting. Betty says she doesn't like Ramon because he uses too much Brilliantine, and with the word 'Brilliantine' Hitchcock cuts to an extreme CU of Ramon's slick black hair. Later, when a man from the Foreign Office finally suggests that Bob isn't cooperating because his daughter has been kidnapped, Hitch cuts from Bob's alarmed reaction to a CU of a toy train. The first instance is efficient, whereas the second simply seems overstated. Lang was doing this sort of cutting back in his silent films, and for all I know Hitchcock was as well. 3
It's fun to compare Hitchcock's 1934 film with his Technicolor, VistaVision 1956 remake. Making the lead couple Americans alters everything. Husband Jimmy Stewart is suspicious of everything foreign, and greets every social occasion with a sour attitude. This being the decade of booze and pills, his first reaction when his son is kidnapped, is to drug his wife Doris Day, as he considers her emotionally incapable of dealing with the stress. As befits the decade's emphasis on glamour, the couple's only defense is Doris' celebrity -- she uses her singing voice as a weapon to penetrate an "evil" foreign embassy. And finally, Stewart and Day's little boy isn't allowed to be as passive as Bob and Jill's little girl. The boy is expected to do his part in fighting foreign evil as well, in this case, by obeying his father even when the (pathetic) villain has a gun trained on his head. That said, the 1956 film doesn't have Peter Lorre, which brings it up second no matter how well it has been produced. But the Albert Hall climax is even more tense and wrenching. It's clear that Hitch spent twenty years thinking of ways to improve it, and used them all.
Criterion's Blu-ray of The Man Who Knew Too Much is an outstanding transfer of a superior film element. The movie has almost always looked terrible, sounded worse and sometimes suffered from American censor cuts. This looks like a digitally cleaned-up version of the beautiful 35mm presentation I saw in 1971 at the Alfred Hitchcock Marathon at the very first FILMEX festival at Grauman's Chinese. Every detail is crisp and clear, and the audio sounds brand new. It's a wonderful thing that such a seldom-seen thriller has been revived at this level of virtuosity.
The disc extras illuminate every aspect of this happy chapter in the career of the Master of Suspense. Commentary talent Philip Kemp tells us that with Too Much Hitchcock received congratulations from many of his favorite established directors and offers of work from the United States. He of course stayed in his home country six more years, to produce a string of movie masterpieces. Kemp brings in a discussion of the Sidney Street Siege, the true 1912 incident that inspired the film's controversial conclusion, a violent shoot-out in the middle of London.
Guillermo del Toro contributes one of his articulate filmic appreciations, in an on-camera piece. The Mexican filmmaker's command of English is exemplary. Two key interview pieces involve Hitchcock directly. The Illustrated Hitchcock is an excerpt from a 1972 interview by Pia Lindstrom, and a twenty-minute audio interview is the full discussion of The Man Who Knew Too Much conducted by François Truffaut, for his famous book.
A restoration demonstration is included as well. Criterion disc producer Abbey Lustgarten's insert booklet carries a breezy, well-informed essay by Farran Smith Nehme. The expressive package illustration is by Bill Nelson.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. (spoiler) Jill isn't really helpless. She breaks the terrible, fearful tension by doing the same thing that Hitchcock imitator William Castle told his audience to do 25 years later in his horror film The Tingler: she screams!
2. Criterion's subtitles relate most of the lyrics to Benjamin's "Storm Cloud Contata", which describe a symphony of horror, the chaos-world that Robin Wood speaks of when he writes on Hitchcock: "God save the child / around whose head screaming / the night birds wheel and shoot away"
3. It's interesting that until later in his career, Hitch was considered the lowly commercial hitmaker, while Fritz Lang was thought of as a major serious artist. Although Lang's American movies were always exemplary, not that many were big hits. Hitchcock's Hollywood performance was uneven as well, but his successes tended to be major movie events. Lang's good name has largely faded from the public consciousness -- nobody's offering revisionist biographical comedy-dramas about the making of Metropolis. And face it, a great many Hitchcock films are still very alive in the public consciousness. Few non-movie fans can name more than one Fritz Lang movie, if that.
4. An interesting note from correspondent John Leather, 1.08.13:
I don't have Criterion's Blu-ray yet but I'm sure Philip Kemp's commentary explains that the Siege of Sidney Street was one of the first news events of its kind in the UK to be captured live by newsreel cameramen while it was still happening rather than just in the aftermath. British Pathe has these two sections of newsreel of the siege available to view on their website: Sydney Street 1, Sydney Street 2. --- John Leather, UK
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T'was Ever Thus.