Sunday, 7 January 2007

Some thoughts on Number 17, Easy Virtue and the giallo

Last night I watched a couple of early Hitchcock films, Easy Virtue and Number 17.

As a thriller whose first act takes place in an old dark house and whose second is an extended chase sequence, Number 17 probably is the more obviously relevant from the giallo fan's perspective, with weaknesses of plot and narrative significantly also meaning that it works better in terms of expressionist atmospheres and montage-driven set-pieces.

When a strong wind – nicely captured in a long tracking shot of billowing leaves – blows our stiff-upper lipped hero's hat into the garden of Number 17, he notices a to let / for sale sign and, finding the door to the property open, decides to have a look inside. He soon finds – and is found by – a tramp, with the pair then finding a body.

Left alone, the tramp searches through the dead man's possessions and finds a gun – leading to a suspenseful if implausible sequence as the tramp examines the weapon and almost shoots himself in the process – handcuffs, a telegram, a necklace and a ticket.

The effect is certainly striking, but whether the shadow and hand correspond is debatable

Exploring further, the two men then find a girl, who literally falls into their arms after crashing through the roof. Having revived her with some alcohol – one of the staples of both films and a factor that seems to indicate their Britishness at a time when the USA was in prohibition – attention turns to the telegram, which indicates that the dead man was involved with a robbery and that the house is the rendezvous point for the gang.

The telegram and mysterious ticket

Some black glove action

At this point other members of the gang arrive. They seem not, however, to have all met one another previously and, as a result, confusion ensues as to who is actually in on the conspiracy, even more so when the 'dead' man, who turns out only to have been unconscious, disappears then reappears but could be either a cop or a robber.

Another expressionist moment

The hero and heroine get tied to the bannister, allowing for some typically Hitchcock bondage bonding between them along with a moment of suspension suspense, before the dynamic, tense climax; also, alas, unfortunately marred by some poor model work.

Beauty in Rope Hell, Hitchcock style

Hitchcock as "ferry service" for German Expressionism to Britain?

The chase, predating The French Connection by nearly 40 years.

A finale not unlike Foreign Correspondent?

In sum, imagine George Hilton in there and you might have something akin to a 1932 version of The Devil Has Seven Faces or The Case of the Scorpion's Tail – not a classic, but with moments that register.

As a melodrama, there is less – at least on the surface – to say about Easy Virtue. Based on a Noel Coward play, the plot sees Larita Filton named in a divorce case after her artist lover shoots and wounds her brutal, drunken husband and then kills himself.

The Judge...

... and what he sees; justice is blind, indeed

Following this traumatic sequence of events, the “notorious” woman then goes to the south of France to get away from it all. There she meets John Whittaker, who is immediately smitten by her beauty and charm and proposes marriage. Larita accepts, the pair marry and then return to England.

Larita's problems have only just begun, however, as John's mother takes an immediate dislike to her and, worse, has the ill-defined sense that she has seen Larita somewhere before...

Presumably quite controversial in its day, Easy Virtue, now seems hopelessly of its time at a narrative level. It has considerably more to commend it on a technical level, with Hitchcock doing what he can to make the material more cinematic through such devices as the defamiliarising opening shot, a close up of the top of a judge's bewigged head; a succession of POV shots through the judge's monocled and near-sighted eye; and cutting from a swinging monocle to a pendulum.

Beauty and the beast, in the manner of Victorian melodrama

A montage moment

Thematically, meanwhile, the initial scenario has clear affinities with the director's later Blackmail while the dishonoured woman (“Shoot – there's nothing left to kill”) is perhaps a forerunner of Ingrid Bergman's character in Notorious; one would also not be surprised if the Hitchcock scholar could work in the “transference of guilt” as well via to the “stain” that Larita spreads onto the Whittaker family.

Another repeated image, as the end answers the beginning

The bite of Coward's dialogue still comes through

The film's most famous moment, meanwhile, is interesting in terms of the mechanics of suspense: when John proposes to Larita, she tells him she will give her response via telephone later that day, with the ensuing conversation and answer being conveyed not through an intertitle but via the expressions on the switchboard operator's face. Whereas normally suspense is about something bad – will the tramp accidentally shoot himself, for example – here it is about something good.

While this reversal also perhaps sees a reversal of the probabilities of different outcomes that is less successful, in that suspense has also been argued to depend on the worse outcome being the more plausible / likely, this also fits with the reverses that pertain in the film as a whole. Thus Coward and Hitchcock beautifully expose bourgeois hypocrisy and the differences between appearance and reality in a way that is ultimately perhaps is not too far removed from the world of the telefono rosso.

Perhaps the difference between the swinging red sign at the start of Blood and Black Lace and the swinging red telephone handle at its close is then that the former belongs more to the world of appearances – the glamorous house of Cristian – and the latter to that of reality – the material baseness behind denizens that leads them to conspire against and murder one another.

Everything is indeed connected – or at least can be made so...

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