Hitch and Strange

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Crumbs, I think RICH AND STRANGE might be the third Hitchcock film I’d be willing to call a masterpiece. THE LODGER is certainly flawed, but has a real zing to its expressionist set-pieces, and it’s so inspiring to see Hitchcock discovering what he’s fundamentally about. And BLACKMAIL has far greater unity and control, in both the talkie and especially the silent version, and really hits some high notes, as well as containing a few hints of Catholic mystery which add richness.

But R&S is something else again. Rather than aim for the tightness we associate with the later thrillers, it explodes all over the place in a messy but jubilant fireworks display, anticipating the harum-scarumapproach of the early chase films, but going far further. Tonal shifts are wild and unpredictable. There isn’t even a consistent genre. A principle character who starts off sympathetic becomes horrible, then sympathetic again, then a bit horrible, then we lose track. And Hitch’s use of the intertitle, a device he presumably missed from his silent days, becomes positively avant-garde, with text breaking into the middle of scenes in a wilfully disruptive fashion — self-conscious fracturings of narrative, pre-Godardian japes.

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Brilliantly, the movie starts as a silent, with a montage of our hero leaving work (a Caligariesque hallucination of an office), braving the British weather with a malfunctioningumbrella, and struggling home on the tube. Even though there are moments when characters speak, Hitch keeps it mute, and rather than using the naturalistic excuse of the racket of the subway train, he plays music throughout. Charles Barr, in English Hitchcock, a splendid tome I should really have been consulting since January, smartly identifies Vidor’s THE CROWD, German expressionist sets and the unchained camera, and the contemporary satires of Rene Clair as probable influences.

Arriving home, our hero finds his wife at the sewing machine, and starts to bemoan his lot. He longs for an escape from his suburban existence. An uncle obligingly offers him an early inheritance, and our couple are off to see the world. The film takes the form of a travelogue of misadventures, much of it patterned on Hitch and his wife’s own travels — they liked to see the world, and as early as Hitch’s first film as director, THE PLEASURE GARDEN, his work had taken them abroad.

So the main characters seem like substitutes for the screenwriters (a novel by Dale Collins is cited as source, but this appears not to exist*; Val Valentine, a later collaborator with Launder & Gilliat, also helped out on script). The Hitchcocksbecome the Hills. Alfred becomes Fred. Alma becomes Emily. The biggest difference, apart from occupation, is that this couple is childless — but the adventure will fix that. Noel Simsolo, who introduces the DVD, is very good on this theme. I sometimes disagree with him or find he has his facts wrong, but he won me over a bit this time.

The other difference is that Henry Kendall, despite his floppy fringe and voluminously flared nostrils, is quite a bit more handsome than Hitch (although, being a British star of the ’30s, he’s not ACTUALLY handsome), and Joan Barry (who re-voiced Anny Ondra in BLACKMAIL) is quite a lot more glamorous than Alma Reville. Sorry, Alma, but she is. She’s also much better now that I can see her. Her voicing of Ondra rubbed me the wrong way, but in the flesh she’s a sensitive, vulnerable and surprisingly erotic “Hitchcock blonde.”

The film’s strangeness (and richness) is apparent early on — after the silent opening, and a domestic scene where Fred’s radio seems to be mocking him with tedious broadcasts about accountancy (prefiguring the insulting radio ad that bugs the composer character in REAR WINDOW — the media often provide an ironic commentary in Hitchock’s oeuvre, almost making him a precursor to Joe Dante), we get a channel crossing, with seasickness jokes, and then a fast montage of touring Paris. Hitch actually jump-cuts from Kendall and Barry looking screen left, to Kendall and Barry looking screen right, and then splices in different Parisian landmarks, in what’s almost a parody of Russian montage theory. The jump cuts also strongly reminded me of this, from THE BIRDS:

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The peculiarity of this sequence is down to Hitch’s wild decision not to show Tippi Hedren’s head turning: her gaze moves in a series of stationary jumps, interspersed with shots of what she’s looking at (a blazing stream of petrol moving FAST).

From Paris it’s on to the Far East, and Joan Barry starts to fall in love with another man as her husband lies seasick. Seasickness jokes, and jokes about nauseating food, abound in Hitch’s work. He actually proposed to Alma as she was suffering mal de mer, on a sea voyage en route to shoot THE PLEASURE GARDEN, figuring her resistance might be lowered. Opinions differ on whether she actually managed to reply to him, but in the end they were wed, so the technique is clearly a good one.

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Percy Marmont, king of the world!

As has been consistently the case in Hitch’s films to date, the Other Man character is actually less romantic-looking than the lead. Here, Percy Marmont (YOUNG AND INNOCENT, THE SECRET AGENT) is older, plainer, but rather wistful and sympathetic as a colonial bachelor very much smitten with Barry. She draws a stick figure into the empty chair next to his in a photograph, recalling Anny Ondra (with Barry’s voice) in BLACKMAIL:

As this romance deepens, Henry Kendall’s Fred recovers from his nausea and meets “the Princess”, Betty Amann, actually a “common adventuress” after his money. Fred, thinking himself far more sophisticated than he is, falls for her, and this drives Barry even more into Marmont’s arms. Hitchcock gets positively Lesterish with his intertitles, inserting “Fred has met a princess!” into the first encounter, and then breaking up the second encounter with a title reading “Fred” and a title reading “The Princess”, even though we’ve already met both characters.

(Also along for the ride is a comedy relief spinster, Elsie Randolph, whom Hitch enjoyed greatly, promising they’d work together again. They did, in FRENZY, 41 years later.)

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And the Ship Sails On.

The romantic entanglements reach a climax in the East, when Marmont misplays his hand by criticising Fred. Emily rushes to rescue him from the Princess’s clutches, and we get a storming face-off between man and wife, demonstrating that Hitch has truly found his feet as a dialogue director. He’s no longer taking photographs of people talking, but blocking, framing and cutting the action to express emotion

Charles Barr finds Joan Barry stilted but affecting, her limitations as a performer conveying “the doll-like, inhibited life she has unthinkingly slotted into.” I find her rather adorable. Barr dislikes Kendall, but I enjoy his performance, and think it may be the characters unappealing qualities that Barr is reacting to. Fred is pretty unpleasant when his wife tries to win him back, and once he realises he’s been duped he accepts his wife back will ill-grace.

Robbed of a thousand pounds, the couple take a cheap ship home, but it crashes in the night, and suddenly we’re in an actual suspense film. As water laps at the porthole and flows under the bedroom door, the couple embrace and Fred regresses to infancy, revealing Emily as the stronger partner. I find Kendall quite touching here. His comeuppance is so in excess of his sins, and he can’t understand it. Of course, in the morning, since it turns out the ship hasn’t sunk, he’s back to sniping at her.

“The drifting derelict,” declares another rogue intertitle, as the couple explore the deserted vessel in their jim-jams. Emily wonders if it’s alright to use the gents’ toilet: “Ours’ is underwater.” Fred agrees that she may, under the circumstances: “No sense being suburban about it.”

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Not a thing to wear.

Rescue! A Chinese junk appears, and now life and death come thick and fast, rich and strange. A “Chinaman” drowns, entangled in ropes, as his fellows look on impassively (the Chinese characters are uniformly depicted, in the fashion of the day, as subhuman morons). A black cat, following Fred and Emily from their liner, is cooked and eaten by the Chinese. Our English protagsare happily chowing down when they realise what’s in their meal. Cinema’s first gross-out gag? And then — a child is born. “They breed like rabbits,” grumbles Henry (I told you he was unsympathetic), but a seed has been planted. While their adventure has not brought them closer together, the couple now return home, realising what will. The quote from The Tempest is justified by the transformation wrought, and as Simsolo suggests, Hitchcock’s belief in the contribution of children to a marriage gets its strongest airing to date.

In a way, this strange affirmation of monogamy almost counts as Hitchcock’s version of EYES WIDE SHUT. “There’s something we’ve got to do as soon as we get home…” But Hitchcock clearly discounts the importance of sex, per se. For him, procreation and child-rearing is the necessary glue to hold a couple together. For such an effective creator of celluloid romance, Hitch nevertheless is a believer in domesticity.

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 *As regards the source novel, Simsolo leads me astray and Charles Barr corrects me. The novel, published the year before Hitch shot the film, is in fact rendered with supreme faithfulness. Collins in fact was a friend of the Hitchcocks’, and Barr speculates that the book may have been plotted with screen adaptation in mind, hence the character names and other features. Some evidence for this is suggested by the fact that Hitchcock, describing the film in interviews, twice mentioned scenes which appear in the book but not the film. One of these unfilmed sequences is particularly suggestive: Hitch claimed the film ended with the characters meeting him, and telling him their story. “No, I don’t think it’ll make a movie,” Hitch replies.

In the novel, it’s Dale Collins (described as a chubby fellow) who rejects the story as unsuitable for novelisation. As Barr points out, Hitch had only made a few uncelebrated cameo appearances up to this date — it’s actually possible that Collins’s literary walk-on suggested to him making a policy of appearing in his own movies…

15 Responses to “Hitch and Strange”

  1. I saw this a very long time ago, back when Channel 4 in the afternoon was a regular source of wonderful forgotten movies. Parts of it stayed with me, and I’m half-thrilled, half-saddened to discover that a scene I thought was superb – the couple drifting, becalmed, asleep in a lifeboat, as an ocean liner under full steam, bedecked with lights (like the one in Amarcord) silently passes them by – seems to be something I dreamed in the years since. So, to your Dream Evocations of Lost Films, I can add Dreams Evoking Lost Scenes in Unjustly Forgotten Films.

  2. There’s no lifeboat, but parts of your dream image certainly appear. The frame grab here of the ship crossing the Suez Canal — a surreal image echoing the dock scenes of Marnie — is distinctly Felliniesque.

  3. Speaking of The Tempest, are you familiar with Derek Jarman’s version?

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    I have seen Jarman’s film and I think that’s terrific, a theatrical adaptation that’s faithful to Shakespeare but totally cinematic.

    That said I have some issues with the excisions but overall it’s a fine film.

  5. The late Ken Campbell, with whom I had the pleasure to work, very briefly, is in The Tempest. Apparently Jarman started the shoot by announcing, “Michael Powell should be making this film.” I agree, but Jarman did a great job. Did you ever meet him? What a lovely chap!

  6. I met him in the mid-80s’s when he, Tilda and Spring came to L.A. to promote Caravaggio. We went walking on Sunset (Spring repaired to “The Pleasure Chest” to buy a new dildo) and Derek took shots of the wainscotting on buikdings that he used in <i.The Last of England. We corresponded a lot afterwards (I treasure his letters) and spoke on the phone several times before night descended.

  7. I saw him talk several times. I was working in a bookshop in the Filmhouse and took some of his books to get them signed. It turned out one of them had been signed on his last visit, and dated, a year before. So he cheerfully signed it again and dated it again, and then falsified the previous date to make it look like there was EXACTLY a year between them. I wonder who’s got that book now.

  8. Patrick Murtha Says:

    A film that I find relates very interestingly to Rich and Strange (one of my favorite Hitchcocks) is Polanski’s Bitter Moon — also an underrated film in its director’s output. Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas’s rich and strange shipboard adventures in Bitter Moon, which change their lives utterly, are analogous in their transformative effect to Kendall’s and Barry’s adventures. I wonder if Polanski has seen Rich and Strange? Whether or not he has, the two films “dialogue” with one another very well.

    I think in a lot of ways Rich and Strange is on par with Vertigo as Hitch’s most “personal,” heartfelt work. Both films are emotionally naked for the director in a manner he didn’t usually venture.

  9. I love this theory! Polanski said he used an English couple as their reserve would make it more amusing to subject them to Peter Coyote and Emmanuelle Seigneur’s story, but he might well have got the idea from Hitchcock. I think Bitter Moon is based on a novel, but I get the impression Roman added the Englishness.

    In both cases the couple’s marriage is strengthened at the cost of human life.

  10. And really perfect late-twenth-century Englishness too — Hugh Grant and Kristen Scott-Thomas. It’s a very amusing dark comedy of the sort only Polanski does. Emmanuelle Seigneur does a truly teriffic mambo early in the proceedings. Better than Lana Turner’s in Marriage is a Priavte Affair.

  11. His best comedy, I think. Grant’s casting in particular has become even more hilarious in light of his subsequent career. He’s very good in it, too. And it’s a very brave performance from Seigneur, not just in terms of explicitness, but in emotional extremity and willingness to look a little ridiculous too. She’s underrated, that woman.

  12. David Boxwell Says:

    The object of Kendall’s veddy English lust, Betty Amann, was previously the femme fatale star of Joe May’s “Asphalt,” the last flowering of German Expression before sound. She looked very different in that film, but something about her must have “inspired” Hitch.

  13. It’s always nice to find a further link between AH and the cinema that inspired him! Rich & Strange incorporates some very direct expressionist influence.

    One of the scenes Hitch fondly recalled, which isn’t present in the movie, is Kendall swimming between Amann’s legs, and her trapping his neck with her thighs and holding him underwater. Present in the book, not in the film.

  14. kevin mummery Says:

    Just re-viewed “Rich & Strange” recently, and found I actually enjoyed it a lot more than when I first saw it. For some reason it reminded me of “The Old Dark House”, although I can’t figure out exactly why. Maybe I need to watch them back-to-back to either confirm or deny the similarity.

  15. I can see No 17 as having a distinct Old Dark House quality. Maybe it’s Henry Kendall’s posh, camp presence in Rich and Strange. It was clearly a personal film for Hitch, to an unusual extent.

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