As part of my side reading during the Reverse Hitchcock project (of which this is #41), I have been dipping in and out of Patrick McGilligan’s marvellous ‘Alfred Hitchcock: a life in darkness and light’, which I highly recommend as a step by step study of the director’s career.
Anyway, from McGilligan one can glean some explanation about this project, including the fact that Cockney actor Leon M Lion was a stage ham who was forced upon Hitch along with the play he had made a public hit, ‘Number Seventeen’. He clutters up the film with his over the top close-ups and poor reactions.
Hitch viewed the project as an elaborate ‘tease’: he exaggerated everything, from plot twists to music, chase climax to literally dumb heroine. The special effects and play opening (from the leaves blowing up to the old house, where man with hat enters to find a vast space of shadows, all accompanied by exaggerated music, are stretched to a silly point, deliberately.
Again by McGilligan’s account, the model work in the final chase (a chase to end all chases) was not done to look cheap for the sake of being cheap, but to show what could be done with miniatures. Hitch was of course a whizz with miniatures, notably in ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Strangers on a Train’.
‘Number Seventeen’ is a nothing when put against Hitchcock’s more elaborate work, but as a knowing practical joke on his bosses at BIP, who had given him the project after removing him from the romance ‘London Wall’, it is fun to watch.
Lion is absolutely terrible, though, and it is beyond comprehension these days how he could ever have been a success to theatre audiences, proving only how tastes have changed over the years.
John Stuart (his last appearance of three for Hitch if you count ‘Elstree Calling’), Donald Calthrop (a final appearance of five) and Anne Grey (her sole appearance) fare slightly better – but only just.
This is a thriller set largely in an empty house, with mistaken identities, lost valuables, dingy shadows, and creaky settings. It just isn’t very thrilling, or very accomplished, despite the obvious farcical and mischievous tone throughout.