Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Number Seventeen (British International, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Earlier in the evening, after I got back from the Rainbow Congress, I watched one of the Hitchcock videotapes I bought last week at the Wherehouse: Number Seventeen, an odd 1932 film from one of his rare career slumps, when he was burned out working for John Maxwell at British International and Maxwell shoved him this horrible old stage play as his next project just to be perverse. (Ironically, the movie Hitchcock wanted to direct at that particular time was a romantic drama, John van Druten’s London Wall, and not a thriller at all!)

According to the credits, Number Seventeen (the play) was written by J. Jefferson Farjeon and “presented” by Leon M. Lion (an interesting name, to be sure), who is also the star of the film and therefore presumably was an actor/manager who commissioned this dreadfully stagebound drama as a vehicle for himself. Number Seventeen might be described as Hitchcock’s The Old Dark House, with its similar old-house setting — though the reason the characters in Number Seventeen have gathered together in the deserted residence whose address gives the film its name, involving a stolen necklace which both the original thieves and a couple of detectives (one male and one female) are trying to recover, is a much more prosaic one than the oddly assorted motives guiding the marvelously eccentric characters in Whale’s film — and its similarly nervy imbalance between comedy and thrills. (Interestingly, on his next film, Lord Camber’s Ladies — Hitchcock’s last British International project — Hitchcock worked with Old Dark House screenwriter Benn W. Levy, on a film Hitch merely produced and Levy directed.) John Russell Taylor interpreted Number Seventeen as a comedy, an intentional spoof on this type of thriller in which Hitch, his wife Alma Reville and their friend, screenwriter Rodney Ackland:

“ … decided to get their own back by tearing the play apart and piling nonsense on nonsense until no one could take it seriously. The talky, stagy bit of the film … is actually shot with some enterprise and imagination — long moving-camera shots, a lot of chiaroscuro, dark shadows and flashing lights. Which all serves to highlight the general ludicrousness of the plot, where everybody is in the dark all the time, no one knows who are the good guys and who are the bad, and people keep saying things like, ‘Just like the pictures, isn’t it?’ as one melodramatic absurdity is piled on another. Gleefully elaborating, Hitch and Ackland decided that since the heroine in such stories is always pretty dumb anyway, they would go one stage further and make this heroine completely, literally dumb. And when at the end she suddenly proves able to speak, obviously no explanation is necessary other than the hero’s crisp dismissal of it as ‘some crook’s trick.’ Despite which, nobody it seemed noticed what Hitch was up to: the front office accepted the film as a routine thriller, no better or worse than most such, and no one else tumbled to the parodistic intent — a Hitchcock private joke which really remained private.”

If Number Seventeen was genuinely intended as a parody, the fact was Hitchcock simply wasn’t an assured enough director to pull it off at that time. The “enterprise and imagination” Taylor refers to seems less an organic part of Hitchcock’s approach to the story and more bits of high style grafted onto a story the director didn’t care a fig about just to relieve his boredom with the film as a whole. Also, the supposedly mute girl is not the heroine, but rather one of the villains, though she turns good at the end — and since she reveals her ability to speak midway through the movie instead of at its end, and given that it’s as much a surprise to the bad guys as to the good guys, it’s anybody’s guess what purpose her pose as a mute served her or anyone else.

This film looks backwards to such Old Dark House precursors as The Cat and the Canary and The Bat (and shamelessly copies The Bat’s ending, as the chief villain pretends to be a detective to escape capture — only to be caught by the real detective), but also forwards to such Hitchcock masterpieces as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. After running two-thirds of its length inside that dreadfully boring house at Number Seventeen (we’re never told what street it’s number 17 of) — a house which just happens to be located next to a major train station, which gave Hitch an excuse to cut from the heroine’s scream to a train whistle (as he did much more powerfully in The 39 Steps) — the film suddenly becomes a long chase sequence through the south of England, in which the villains are on a train to Germany (via a giant cross-Channel ferry large and massive enough to carry a whole train — such a ferry had just opened and Hitch capitalized on the novelty of it) and the hero commandeers a bus (with a full load of passengers) and has it chase the train. (Thus it turns out that Sabotage wasn’t the only Hitchcock movie the makers of Speed ripped off!)

Most of the chase is done with models (and quite obvious ones, at that), but it’s still easily the most exciting scene in the movie, and it evokes The Lady Vanishes not only in the by-play on and around the train but also in the way the woman involved in the villain’s plot shifts loyalties with a kind of bittersweet sadness that indicated she was pretty much a decent person after all. Eventually there’s an exciting climax as the speeding train (the crooks have shot the engineer and fireman, and have no idea how to run the train themselves) crashes into the cross-Channel ferry because it’s running far too fast to slow down and board the ferry the way it’s supposed to — and the hero’s dumb (not in the sense of unable to speak; more in the sense of unable to think) assistant turns out to have the stolen necklace (remember the stolen necklace?) literally on him (wearing it around his neck, under his coat, to conceal it from the villains). It’s a pretty good Hitchcock movie after all, though a far cry from the near-masterpieces of his early period (The Lodger, Blackmail, Murder, Rich and Strange) — something more like Stage Fright, actually, made 18 years later but at a time when Hitch was in a similar “holding pattern” in his career, working for a studio where he felt uncomfortable and “running for cover” with a conventional story in which he tried to insert some unconventional techniques. — 5/31/95


The film we watched was Number Seventeen, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s unhappiest assignments during one of the greatest mistakes of his career: his five-year (1927 to 1932) association with John Maxwell’s British International Pictures. Hitchcock made his first films as a director — including his breakthrough film, The Lodger (1926) — for Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough company, and after their success Maxwell lured Hitchcock away with a far better offer financially than Balcon could afford to pay him. Unfortunately, the big (at least by British standards) money came with severe restrictions on what Hitchcock could do and forced him to accept some highly uncongenial assignments, including dubious “comedies” like The Farmer’s Wife and highly theatrical filmed plays like Juno and the Paycock and The Skin Game.

Hitchcock did manage to make two first-rate films at BIP, Blackmail (1929) and the awesome Rich and Strange (1931), but for the most part he was laboring in the salt mines there and a number of his BIP credits (including the framing sequences for their 1930 musical revue Elstree Calling and the 1932 film Lord Camber’s Ladies, which Hitchcock produced and Benn W. Levy, usually a writer, directed) didn’t end up on his official résumé. After his masterpiece Rich and Strange was a box-office flop, Maxwell punished Hitchcock by taking him off the company’s prestige production of John Van Druten’s hit play London Wall and instead assigning him to make Number Seventeen, which at 63 minutes’ running time was little better than a “quota quickie” based on a stage play by J. Jefferson Farjeon that had been a vehicle for character actor Leon M. Lion, who had not only starred in the stage production but had produced it as well. (He’s credited as the stage producer in the film version, in which he repeats his on-stage role.)

Stuck with a story he didn’t want to do and which made virtually no sense — the title refers to a now-closed residence which a bunch of jewel thieves are using as a base of operations while they try to smuggle a stolen necklace out of the country, an undercover detective is after them and Ben (Leon M. Lion), a homeless tramp, ends up mixed up in it when he picks That House to squat in and he and a mysterious stranger (John Stuart) discover a (presumably) dead body on the house’s inside stairs — Hitchcock took refuge in sheer style. The opening sequence is pure Gothic, full of nighttime shadows and eerie lighting through banisters, with a camera in almost constant motion and the kind of rapid-fire cutting Hitchcock would make better use of in his later, greater films. There’s also an effective musical underscore by Adolph Hallis and virtually no dialogue — this film is seven minutes into its running time before any audible speech is heard.

Alas, once the people do start talking the film’s quality dips precipitously: Leon M. Lion’s role is clearly a comic-relief part inflated into the lead because (on stage, at least) he was paying the bills — and he’s so broad he’ll leave you wishing for the relative subtlety of Frank McHugh — and the rest of the males in the cast tend to look alike, not only making them difficult to tell apart (especially in the washed-out prints that have survived, despite the multiplicity of credits on the front of this version — the French Studio Canal, British Film Institute and Peiper-Heidseck champagne company all claimed partial credit for the restoration job, which sounds like a whole lot of cooks trying to resuscitate this weak broth) but also adding to the confusion Farjeon seems to have been out to foster deliberately, since his plot turns on us not knowing until the end quite who everyone is.

The “murdered” man in the opening, who’s supposedly the father of the heroine (Anne Grey), turns up alive midway through and is played by Garry Marsh; he claims to be Barton, the undercover detective after the jewel robbers, but he’s really Sheldrake, the mastermind of the theft, and he’s “outed” by John Stuart, whom we’ve first believed was an innocent bystander, then were led to believe was one of the gang and who turns out to be Barton himself. What’s more, one of the robbers, Mr. Ackroyd (Henry Caine), has a female companion with the same last name (wife or grown daughter? Farjeon and the film’s scenarists — Hitchcock himself, Alma Reville a.k.a. Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock, and Rodney Ackland — never bother to tell us) who spends a reel or two pretending to be mute before it’s revealed that she can actually talk, though what purpose her masquerade as a mute served either the criminals or anyone else remains a mystery.

Eventually all the principals end up on a German train that runs across the English Channel on a large ferry — apparently Number Seventeen, the house where all this started, connects to a train station in its basement so all the people have to do to catch the train is to walk downstairs and keep walking; and what’s more, the tickets to the train are elaborately decorated playing cards with “Number Seventeen” written on them in script (?) — and there’s a 20-minute chase sequence that’s genuinely exciting and well cut but would be more exciting if a) the closeups of people fighting on top of the train weren’t obviously process shots on a stationary set with the background moving behind the actors, b) the long shots of the train racing to the ferry and a bus the (real) detective has commandeered to give chase to it weren’t so obviously models — and bad models at that; it looks like they were made by a nine-year-old and when the train “crashes” at the end it’s clear they were made of balsa wood so they would break picturesquely, and c) Hitchcock had deployed composer Hallis to write music for this scene as well as for the opening (as it is, it looks like John Maxwell just ran out of money in his music budget and sent the poor composer home).

Number Seventeen actually has some germs of ideas Hitchcock used far better later — the shock cut of a train setting off as its whistle is heard on the soundtrack (The 39 Steps), the heart-stopping action climax of the catastrophic train crash (The Secret Agent), and even the gimmick later used so beautifully in Notorious of having the object everyone’s after be hidden in a wine bottle: here it’s in a shipment of wines Ben the homeless guy stumbles upon in the ferry’s hold, starts drinking and notices the necklace in one bottle like a Cracker Jack prize. It’s not much of a movie but it is dorky fun at times. — 6/18/08