Number Seventeen (1932)

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  • directed by Alfred Hitchcock
  • starring Leon M. Lion, Anne Grey, John Stuart, Donald Calthrop, Barry Jones, Ann Casson, Henry Caine, Garry Marsh
  • A gang of thieves gather at a safe house following a robbery, but a detective is on their trail.

“Ya don’t have to do nothin’ in this ‘ere house—ya stand still and things happen!”

Several factors, chief among them an incredibly boomy audio track on my DVD and no available subtitles, reduced my experience with this early Hitchcock film to essentially sitting back and looking at it for its 65-minute runtime. I then read about its subpar legacy, the fact that Hitchcock hated the film looking back on it and never wanted to make it in the first place, and I realize that absorbing the atmosphere and taking note of some of the experimentation and craft involved is really the best one can do with Number Seventeen. Hitchcock once said, “if it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.” With this film that logic does hold up.

It became clear that actually hearing the dialogue wouldn’t have aided in my comprehension of such a nonsensical story. Even further, there would be no difference if a few of the missing links in the plot had been better connected, or at all. There was no foundation for emotional investment. It was an exercise in lighting and editing full of people, not characters, and a messy pile of moments standing in for a narrative. In that way it reminds me of another blemish on Hitchcock’s early years, Jamaica Inn, but at least that one had Charles Laughton memorably and ruthlessly devouring the scenery. I am astonished to find that of the 62 films of the 1930s that I’ve watched for the blog to date, two Hitchcock films are neck and neck for dead last.

I won’t attempt to go over the story in great detail. There are two sections to the film, that much I know. We begin in a very dark and shadow-laden house where a band of thieves and a detective kind of circle in and out with concerns about a missing necklace. Eventually a latch is opened which reveals an expressionistic staircase that leads to a train yard. Maybe it was an intentional choice, but because of darkness and unintelligible visual storytelling, the nature of this house as it pertains to physical space is something that never becomes clear. The second half of the film is a frantic, near-chaotic chase between bus and runaway train. Anyway, I am barely more capable of summing this up than someone who’s never heard of it before.

As I sat there passively looking, though, a few things did stand out. There were some truly funny moments particularly from Leon M. Lion as Ben. Thankfully Hitchcock wasn’t taking any of this too seriously. Additionally it was interesting to see shadows so prominent that at times they completely swallowed a scene’s main action. Hitchcock’s camera was always close, acting as a member of a group as opposed to pulling back to capture everything, and the house scenes were DARK, with any sources of light pulsing and shadows dancing across the background begging for attention. This would have been good atmosphere in a better film, but instead it amounted to inundated confusion.

I’m happy to sit through works like this and Jamaica Inn because it makes me think about the nature of genius in regards to filmmaking. The highs of Hitchcock are so well known that it is somewhat startling to realize that he also made a few truly abysmal films. There are countless “legendary” directors that made it through an entire career without an undebatably terrible film, albeit not with 60 credits to their name. Maybe it was just Hitchcock being young and green. When he achieves great success, his pacing and audience manipulation strikes me more than anything as resembling a virtuosic performance of music; to pay just as much attention to the whole journey as the smaller moments, to know precisely when to turn it up or not at all. A skill in that sense would certainly require years of practice, something which we may have seen in bits and pieces on screen through the 1920s and 30s. Maybe the missteps get chalked up to unproductive studio relationships or him not caring about the material. As we now know of his later work, the very best tend to feature a director that cares so deeply that he terrorizes everyone involved, including himself and loved ones.

On the upside, things greatly improved in Hitchcock’s career soon after his next film, the musical Waltzes From Vienna, which he would later look back on as something of a rock bottom. He would finish the decade with the Gaumont British Picture Corporation and gather momentum with films like The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes, then take a step back again with Jamaica Inn before achieving decades of brilliance in Hollywood.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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