Noel Simsolo demonstrates that of all the instruments of death available to the modern man, the cigarette is without doubt the coolest. Nevertheless, despite his savoire fair and sang-froid and je ne sais quoi, I’ve been getting progressively more irked by NS as he pops up introducing all the films in my Early Hitchcock DVD box set (so it’s a good job this is the last in the set), mainly because of his tendency to pull historical “facts” out of his ass. According to Simsolo, Hitchcock looked back at those of his films which had been most commercially and artistically successful — THE LODGER, BLACKMAIL, MURDER — and decided to replicate that success with another melodrama, NUMBER 17.
Whereas, according to Hitch, quoted in numerous sources including his authorised biography, the film he wanted to make was an adaptation of John Van Druten’s play London Wall, while a fellow director at British International Pictures, Thomas Bentley, had his heart set on NUMBER 17. So naturally, producer John Maxwell ordered Hitchcock to make NUMBER 17 and Bentley to make LONDON WALL. “Typical producer,” Hitch grumbled in later years.
(There is, I think, a breed of producer who sees their job, in relation the director’s, as the task Denholm Elliott gives Michael Palin in THE MISSIONARY: “Find out why they do what they do, and stop them from doing it.” But I don’t want to tar them all with that brush: the producer who helps the director achieve their best is an incredible boon, and being helpful is also a smart strategy for keeping a director focussed and on the right course.)
But there’s yet a third view of NUMBER 17, by Charles Barr, in his book English Hitchcock, which I’ve come to trust implicitly, because Barr has really done his research, and is a smart fellow to boot. Barr dismisses traditional accounts of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s play being a ponderous and dull mystery, and he’s actually read it. In fact, the Hitchcock film is quite faithful to its source, merely condensing and intensifying the play’s rapid flow of dramatic entrances, mysterious strangers, impersonations, reverses and reveals (which are typical of Farjeon’s other work, as exemplified in THE PHANTOM LIGHT, THE GHOST CAMERA and THE LAST JOURNEY). The film’s parodic and even self-referential qualities also have their origins in Farjeon — the play was a vehicle for actor Leon M. Lion (!) who reprises his role here as a cockney sailor, looking like Lon Chaney in the lost film BLIND BARGAIN, a sort of subnormal neanderthal Fred West figure, yet apparently intended to be lovable. Hitch also finds another part for BLACKMAIL’s blackmailer, the perennially seedy Donald Calthrop.
I was pleased to see that Charles Barr draws connections with James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE, connections which struck me independantly as I watched the movie for the first time a few years back. The shadowplay, vast dark spaces, and rogue’s gallery of grotesques forge a clear link with the Hollywood film, written by Hitch’s friend Benn Levy, whom he had recently collaborated with on BLACKMAIL, and whose directorial debut, LORD CAMBER’S LADIES, Hitchcock would produce (Hitch’s only effort as producer for another filmmaker — it kills me that I can’t get a copy). Hitch even throws in a gratuitous but lovely funhouse mirror shot, echoing Whale’s use of distortions during Eva Moore’s religious tirade.
The frustrating thing is that both movies were 1932 productions, so it’s hard to work out if one directly influenced the other.
The plot is actually too gnarled and spaghettied to summarise, with everyone wearijng someone else’s hat, but the eponymous 17 is a spooky vacant house used as a meeting point for thieves taking a secret escape route to the continent.
Various oddballs congregate here one dark and blustery night, and stuff happens. Barr again proves useful, pointing out that the stolen jewels in this film are the first MacGuffin on record — everybody is, or might be after these precious baubles, but they are of no real concern to the audience. So, although Hitchcock disparaged this film, it marks another definitive step in his evolution. The placement of WALTZES FROM VIENNA, an atypical film and a low ebb in Hitch’s view, between this movie and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, allowed him to draw an imaginary line, with NUMBER 17 on the wrong side of it, and TMWKTM as the moment of reinvention when Hitchcock discovered his metier. In fact, all the evidence is already on display here. I’ll see what I think of TMWKTM when I watch it again in a fortnight, but right now my feeling is that 17 is a better film.
It’s also, amusingly, Hitchcock’s sevnteenth feature, in the same way that 8 1/2 is Fellini’s eight and halfth: ie, by a process of contorted arithmetic and goal-post-moving. We have to include THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, which is lost (fair enough), MARY, the German version of MURDER! (also reasonable: it IS a discretely filmed entity) and also the whole of ELSTREE CALLING, which Hitchcock would certainly object to. Or else, Fellini-style, we count ELSTREE as a half and include THE ELASTIC AGE, a 1930 short film which absolutely nobody seems to have seen, as the second half.
At any rate, obviously this kind of thing appeals to the mind that would arbitrarily decide that Hitch made 52 films, so we can watch one a week for a year…