The Criterion Collection has released only a handful of Alfred Hitchock's movies, but they tend to be subtle, psychological movies that are often eclipsed by better known movies like "Psycho" and "The Birds."
And yes, Alfred Hitchock may have preferred his later remake of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" as opposed to his early "amateur" original. But the original has a raw, murky, taut appeal all its own, and it has the veddy veddy British flavor that many of Hitchcock's early hits have. In short, it's unpretentiously enjoyable.
The Lawrence family is vacationing at a ski resort, and hanging out with a friendly Frenchman -- until their last evening, when he is shot during a slow dance with Jill (Edna Best). Bob (Leslie Banks) follows his last instructions, and finds top-secret information hidden inside a shaving brush. He's supposed to take it to the British authorities.
But what they don't realize is that a sinister man at the resort (Peter Lorre) is the leader of an enemy terrorist cell, who is planning to assassinate someone. And to keep Bob from turning in the information, they kidnap Bob and Jill's daughter. Now Bob and British intelligence must somehow free his daughter, while Jill thwarts the assassins...
Hitchcock directed a lot of spy movies, and this one is part of an early trio that includes "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes." Each one is pretty amateurish by comparison to his later works like "North By Northwest," but are still tight, enjoyable little suspense movies.
Hitchcock keeps the relatively simple plot moving along at a rapid pace, with a sense of solid suspense and often creepy dialogue ("Tell her they may soon be leaving us. Leaving us... for a long, long journey..."). It's not a slick James Bond-y flick -- the action is dirtier and misty, like the back streets of London. And the climactic scene in a crammed opera house is wonderfully chaotic.
None of the actors are really remembered now, except for Peter Lorre who plays the slimy creep to perfection. But they all carry off their parts well, with Banks and Best carrying their roles as an ordinary couple in extraordinary circumstances. They're completely believable, and a hundred percent sympathetic -- these are the people next door, dragged into a nightmarish situation.
As for the Criterion release, it's gonna be the loving production we've come to know and expect -- a full high-def digital restoration (since the film is rather elderly), a massive interview with Hitchcock from 1972 and an audio interview by François Truffaut, a film critic booklet by Farran Smith Nehme, an interview with the always awesome Guillermo del Toro, and audio commentary by Philip Kemp. Not their most expansive work, but a decent showing for an older movie.
Hitchcock may not have known as much about filmmaking, but the original "Man Who Knew Too Much" had plenty of raw cinematic skill and a powerful knowledge of character.