The Man Who Knew Too Much: In-House Design at The Criterion Collection

The art department at the Criterion Collection shares the story behind their cover design for the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 film, The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Like everything we do here, the design process at Criterion starts with the film. Once everyone has had a chance to view the film in question, we sit down for an in-house “briefs” meeting, where the art director, editorial director, release producer, company president and a few others meet to discuss the direction of the design and editorial content for the release. We talk through the film’s themes and motifs, and select the aspects we want to focus on.

The briefs meeting is also where we decide which of our designers or illustrators will be assigned to a particular project. In addition to our in-house staff, we usually have five or six outside designers in rotation, plus a long wish list of illustrators we’re just waiting to match with the right project. The design process for each title takes about two months (with an additional month or so required for replication and shipping, before the product actually reaches customers). We release three to seven films per month, so our in-house group has plenty of irons in the fire at any given moment.

The first topic we discussed at the meeting for The Man Who Knew Too Much was moodthat classic British-period, Hitchcockian blend of the suspenseful and comedic, the light-hearted and the tense. Espionage with a hint of whimsy—that sort of feeling. With this in mind, we started thinking about an illustrated, rather than photographic direction, as we felt that the lighter touch of a brush (or, as it turned out, a pencil) would best capture the tone we were seeking.

But what to illustrate? Everyone’s favorite scene in the film was the tension-filled assassination attempt at the concert hall. The simple image of a gun barrel poking through heavy curtains is iconic enough to convey “spies” and “melodrama” to everyone; it’s also a direct reference to a moment in the film itself, for anyone who knows the work well. Plus, the suspense of not knowing whose hand is holding the gun helped establish a nice “whodunit” sensibility. Executed in a classic style—with some good, old-fashioned pulpy typography—we felt our design approach would do the job well.

However, there was a practical concern that still needed to be addressed. There’s another, better-known version of The Man Who Knew Too Much out there—the later version that Hitchcock made in America with Jimmy Stewart. The American version is in color, so we decided that executing our image in black and white would be a good first step in distinguishing the two films. But that alone was probably not enough. If we had a lead actor like Jimmy Stewart to work with, obviously that would go a long way, but the lead actor in the British version is neither particularly well-known nor (frankly) particularly interesting looking. The earlier version does have a fantastically creepy villain, and instantly recognizable face, in actor Peter Lorre, however.

At this stage, we began thinking about who would be the right illustrator for this job. Because illustrators—at least those we admire and want to work with—tend to put more of a personal stamp on their work than designers, who often base their work on the photographic imagery in the films, we’re not able to re-commission them as often. We do keep an eye on the Criterion Collection as a whole, sometimes using the same illustrator for two different projects to create an implied connection between two films. Occasionally—as in Dan Clowes’ fantastic covers for The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor, or David Downton’s beautiful work on the various films of Max Ophüls—this tactic works in our favor. But more often than not, it’s an impediment to rehiring an illustrator who has already done memorable work for us.

The upside to this approach is that it gives Criterion a fantastic excuse to work with dozens and dozens of the world’s great illustrators, and to really focus in on pairing each illustrator with the perfect project. The most rewarding art direction experiences occur when you’ve found the right person for the job and can simply get out of their way and let them do their thing.

So after we talked through a few possible illustrators for this project, we quickly decided that the man for the job was the great portrait artist, Bill Nelson. We knew he could perfectly capture the tone we were seeking; his talent with likenesses was also perceived as a huge asset. Bill had done some work for Criterion back in the laser disc days, long before any of the current art department worked here, but for all intents and purposes, he was a fresh face on the Criterion roster. Luckily, Bill was available for the project.  

After we discussed our thoughts on the film with Bill, he started working on what must be the most fully rendered sketches we have ever seen here. As Bill told us, “It’s been my practice that designers shouldn’t be handed surprises when they hire an illustrator, so I give you as much as possible with graphite pencil. By executing this way, I make very sure I’m nailing the likeness... Another surprise designers shouldn’t have to endure!” We certainly don’t expect this level of detail from everyone we work with, but it was fantastic nevertheless.

Although we do like to have some idea of what we’re looking for when we contact an outside illustrator or designer, we also encourage them to surprise us with an idea that might be better than the one we’ve come up with—a policy that has led to many of our best covers. Bill’s first sketch hewed pretty closely to what we’d been asking for, but he also presented a variation that put the focus more squarely on Lorre. He also tried another idea, one that he ended up rejecting himself.

Both of his sketches looked fantastic, but we felt something was missing. In particular, the illustrations seemed to label Lorre as the titular “man who knew too much” (and, by implication, the lead of the film), when in fact he’s the villain, the shady behind-the-scenes manipulator pulling all the strings. So we asked Bill to try foregrounding the curtain a bit more, to push Lorre back into the shadows where he belonged, metaphorically speaking. We also asked him to give us the curtain as a canvas for type. Bill responded to our suggestions, quickly producing another sketch, which we immediately fell in love with—to the point that when he suggested foregoing his usual wax pencil and Prismacolor technique in favor of a slightly tighter graphite pencil style for the final illustration, we said, “Go for it.” We also requested a few final tweaks: changing the gun from a revolver to a Mauser pistol (the gun used in the film) and reconsidering the fabric of the curtain to give it a bit more heft, like the heavy theater curtains we had been referencing.

Once Bill got to work on the requested changes, it was time to begin work on the final element of the design with typographer extraordinaire F. Ron Miller. We’ve worked with Ron on numerous projects in the past, most notably on designs for the “BBS Pictures” and “Golden Age of Television” box sets. Not only is he a fantastic designer, he’s also a fanatic about period typography. More than once, we’ve called him up just to research the origins of a particular typeface we’re interested in using, or to help us hone in on some period-specific or location-specific type options for a particular film.

We sent Bill’s sketches to Ron, and he set to work on the type. He first tried some letterforms based directly on the title treatment in the film itself, plus an alternate option that had a more angular character. We liked both, especially the second version, but thought that perhaps they appeared a little too polite. When placed directly on Bill’s sketches, it was if they were trying to stay out of the way of the drawing. So we pushed Ron to expand the title treatments to fill the space vertically, and he played around with a few variations before we settled on the final layout. Ron also took the time to make a complete font based on those letterforms, for use in the film’s menus and packaging.

On other projects, this might have been the stage when we’d have to send the design to a film studio or director for approval. But in this case that wasn’t necessary, as the director and most of the principal players are long dead, and the contracts didn’t dictate any approvals from the studio. So once Bill’s final illustration came in—as expected, it was absolutely gorgeous—we combined the drawing with Ron’s type for a final cover image that evokes classic movie posters, but still feels fresh and modern.