Friday, December 20, 2013

Number Seventeen

No. 17 / Numero 17 / Talo numero 17. GB © 1932 British International Pictures Ltd. P: John Maxwell. D: Alfred Hitchcock. SC: Alma Reville, Alfred Hitchcock, Rodney Ackland – based on the play (1925) and the novel (1926) by J. Jefferson Farjeon. DP: John J. Cox / Jack E. Cox, Bryan Langley - early sound aperture 1,2:1. AD: Wilfred Arnold / C. Wilfred Arnold. M: A. Hallis / Adolph Hallis. S+ED: A. C. Hammond. S recordist: A. D. Valentine. C: Léon M. Lion (Ben), Anne Grey (Nora - the "deaf-mute" girl), John Stuart (Barton - the detective), Donald Calthrop (Brant - Nora's escort), Barry Jones (Henry Doyle), Ann Casson (Rose Ackroyd), Henry Caine (Mr. Ackroyd), Garry Marsh (Sheldrake). Studio: Elstree. 64 min. The film had no theatrical release in Finland. First telecast by MTV Finland on 17.5.1978. Finnish classification 81063 (SEA) - K12. A SFI-FA print viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Alfred Hitchcock), 20 Dec 2013

Main credit title shot: "British International Pictures Ltd. presents Number Seventeen by J. Jefferson Farjeon from the play Number Seventeen produced by Leon M. Lion".

Revisited a film which Alfred Hitchcock, himself, referred to as "a disaster".

Wikipedia synopsis: "The film is about a group of criminals who committed a jewel robbery and put their money in an old house over a railway leading to the English Channel, the film's title being derived from the house's street number. An outsider stumbles onto this plot and intervenes with the help of a neighbour, a police officer's daughter." Wikipedia also claims that the film had only been available in poor quality prints for decades.

Charles Barr, in English Hitchcock (1999), makes a case for Number Seventeen. Hitchcock and his screenwriter Rodney Ackland claimed that a) Number Seventeen was a ponderous and conventional stage thriller, b) resenting BIP's assignment they transformed it by exaggeration and parody which nobody realized, and c) Hitchcock gratefully put the experience behind him, making a fresh start soon afterwards with Balcon. "All of these claims are wrong". a) The play, billed during its long West End run as a "joyous melodrama", was already an inventive and sophisticated comedy-thriller; b) the film remains closer to the original, in substance and in spirit, than Hitchcock liked people to believe; if nobody recognized it as a parody, it really wasn't one at all; c) it provided two new central structural elements that Hitchcock would adopt and make his own.

Barr compares the piece with Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, and evokes Vladimir Propp's taxonomy of basic roles in The Morphology of the Folk-Tale. He reminds us that simultaneously in Hollywood James Whale was directing The Old Dark House, based on a novel by J. B. Priestley, and scripted by Benn Levy. Number Seventeen was a move by Hitchcock towards Universal's brand of horror film.

Barr points out that Number Seventeen was the film in which Hitchcock streamlined his boy-meets-girl structure: a boy meets a girl for the first time, with initial antagonism, they go through an intense ordeal, and come together, tentatively or definitively, in the ending, all this in a short period of time. "Number Seventeen is the most intense distillation of this oneiric quality, all 'realism' squeezed out of it, creating the very template for the Hitchcock thriller."

Secondly, according to Barr, Number Seventeen is the film which introduces the MacGuffin. Everybody is after the hidden diamond necklace, which is finally offered as a wedding present. As Hitchcock loved to tell, a MacGuffin is the item, the details of which are unimportant for us the viewers, which motivates and structures the entire thriller plot.

Heikki Nyman, in Hitchcockin kosketus: Alfred Hitchcockin elokuvat, osa 1: Englannin kausi / [The Hitchcock Touch: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, Part 1: The English Period, 1994], reminds us that Number Seventeen was a play which J. Jefferson Farjeon wrote for the actor Léon M. Lion, who produced it and starred in it. The play was so successful that Farjeon novelized it afterwards.

Nyman comments that Number Seventeen is a film that wears thin with repeated viewings. The characters do not particularly move us since they are marionettes to which we cannot help reacting indifferently. In this respect Number Seventeen is an empty film. John Stuart is wooden as the detective Barton, and Léon M. Lion overacts theatrically. Also in Hitchcock's greatest films his characters may be more or less "synthetic", but there is also something essentially universal in them, they are also about us.

For Nyman, the opening of the film retains its value in repeated viewings. He enjoys the comic escalation, the wildly mistaken identities (the detective turns out to be a villain, a passer-by turns out to be a detective, the "deaf-mute" woman starts to talk), the "resurrection" theme, the most extended spiral staircase scenes in a Hitchcock film, the centrality of the jewel, and the very Hitchcockian vertiginous scene of the man and the woman hanging from the ceiling, roped together by their hands on a broken banister about to crash down.

AA: The opening of the film is very well made with a moving camera and long takes. It is still a display of the mastery of the cinematography of the golden age of the silent cinema.

There is an Expressionistic inspiration, and there are affinities with German classics of the 1920s such as Schatten. Number Seventeen is a film full of strange shadows.

Number Seventeen is clearly linked with the cycle of the haunted house mystery thrillers / horror films popular in the late 1920s, films such as The Cat and the Canary. There was also often a spoof aspect in them. We cannot take them very seriously. Yet there is a sense of the absurd, a sense of the uncanny, and even a sense of horror.

I was very disappointed when I saw Number Seventeen for the first time. Now I liked Number Seventeen more than before because I did not expect much from the characters and the plot. A deep, compelling personal commitment is missing. The film fails to engage, but it has its more superficial and external rewards.

The melodramatic music also adds to the silent cinema ambience. The sound recording is not very successful. The sound seems hollow, and it is sometimes difficult to follow the dialogue.

The cinematography by John J. Cox and Bryan Langley is fine, and the miniatures in the final desperate train chase sequences are effective. Although Number Seventeen is a filmed play, it does not look like it.

The visual quality of this print is good.

No comments: