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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Essential Early Hitchcock on Criterion Blu-ray

Written by Kirk Baird

The distinct elements to the Master of Suspense’s filmmaking career were always there, but our first full exposure to his genius in bloom is with 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, just released on Blu-ray through Criterion Collection. The story of rather ordinary people who find themselves in a rather extraordinary situation, The Man Who Knew Too Much is the blueprint to many of the Alfred Hitchcock films to follow, including Rear Window, North by Northwest, and Vertigo.

Leslie Banks and Edna Best star as Bob and Jill Lawrence, a British couple on holiday in Switzerland with their teenage daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). Their vacation takes a macabre twist with the murder of a family friend who happens to be a British agent, who left an important note – and thus a clue to those responsible for his death – hidden in his hotel room. Bob recovers the note and thus becomes the titular namesake who must deal with a nefarious gang of spies who want the information. The story wraps around the assassination plot of an important foreign dignitary, though we know little else; Hitchcock’s films are often cloaked in mystery when it comes to the incidentals. The group kidnaps Betty to force Bob to give them the note, but he and Jill do not prove so easily pushed around, and Bob and family friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) go undercover to learn more about the gang and to rescue his daughter.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is primitive by today’s slick standards of Hollywood moviemaking – perhaps even on the level of a well-produced student film. But the execution of this suspenseful thriller is more fully realized and gutsier than almost any movies opening in theaters today. Peter Lorre as the chief spy and criminal mastermind dramatically undersells his performance – an acting feat from which many actors-as-villains could learn – and is all the more effective because of it. There’s a substantially more menacing air to someone not unhinged but with his wits about him, and in complete control of himself and everyone – and nearly everything – around him. Lorre is chilling in his matter-of-fact and almost likable delivery and all the more memorable.

Banks and Best make for a believable couple who show amazing resolve when pushed. Yes, there’s the occasional histrionics, but this was the acting style of the time. And Hitchcock loved melodrama.  Also note the restrained emotions Bob and Jill display when they learn Betty has been kidnapped. It’s British “keep a stiff upper lip” stoicism at its finest.

While much of the drama unfolds in the plot twists and dialogue, The Man Who Knew Too Much has its share of gripping action. The violent shootout in a London street between London police and the spies who are holding up in an apartment building was undeniably edgy for its time, yet the bloodless carnage still resonates as rather shocking given the amount of deaths, especially to innocent men of law and order.

Criterion Collection, as it always does, went to great lengths to clean up The Man Who Knew Too Much’s video and audio presentation; it’s doubtful the 75-minute film has ever looked as good as it does in this Blu-ray version. And as a precursor to the greatness to come from Hitchcock, The Man Who Knew Too Much is an important film that any of the filmmaker’s fans should experience…or experience again.

The single Blu-ray also features new audio commentary from film historian Philip Kemp and a new interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, as well as a 1972 interview with Hitchcock conducted by journalist Pia Lindstrom and film historian William Everson.

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