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Hitchcock’s swift, wittyaction adventure of 1934

By Dave Kehr
New York Times

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Criterion Collection; Blu-ray, $39.95; DVD, $29.95; not rated

Alfred Hitchcock directed more than 50 feature films but chose to remake only one: the 1934 British production “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” which he reshot in Hollywood in 1956.

The ’34 version has recently been released by the Criterion Collection in a magnificent restoration from the British Film Institute, and it remains a fine piece of entertainment, a swift and witty action adventure that helped to establish Hitchcock’s international reputation.

But perfectionist that he was, Hitchcock must have realized the first draft left some room for improvement.

Often cited as the first of Hitchcock’s globe-trotting spy thrillers, a format he would revisit periodically for decades, it is also part of a less-noticed cycle within Hitchcock’s work: films centered on marriages and the careful negotiations necessary to ensure their survival. It was a theme Hitchcock explored in a range of tones and with varying degrees of optimism, from “Rich and Strange” (1931) through “Marnie” (1964).

In the first “Man Who Knew Too Much,” a British couple (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are vacationing in St. Moritz, Switzerland, when they are drawn into a plot to assassinate a foreign dignitary visiting London. To prevent the couple from telling the British Secret Service what they know, the conspirators (including Peter Lorre, in his first English-speaking role) kidnap the couple’s young daughter.

While most of the action is carried by the husband, who sets out looking for his daughter on his own, it is the wife who ultimately steps forward when the situation calls for her skills as a champion sharpshooter.

The remake delves much more deeply and perceptively into the tensions within the couple, generated by the insistence of the husband (James Stewart, as an autocratic doctor) that his wife (Doris Day) abandon her career as a singer. In the end the wife again saves the day, but this time by exercising the art she has been forbidden to practice – with Day emerging as one Hitchcock blonde who is neither remote nor a victim.

Hitchcock made ghoulish black humor the center of his public persona, but in his films death is seldom if ever treated as a joke.

The first “Man Who Knew Too Much” climaxes with an extended gunbattle of the kind generally played today for slapsticky sight gags. Hitchcock’s staging of the siege, however, is solemn in tone and paced to a slow, sputtering rhythm that short-circuits the kind of giddy catharsis we are offered at the end of, for example, Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.”

In this Hitchcock film those who get shot, both good guys and bad, crumple in a kind of quiet disbelief, and each casualty is individually registered. When the smoke has cleared and a handful of police officers enter the apartment where the foreign agents were holed up, Hitchcock (in a rare gesture of empathy toward representatives of the law) cuts in to their astonished expressions, as they survey the (unshown) carnage, mouths open in silent horror.

Here is one component of Hitchcock’s greatness: He never loses his moral compass.

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