Thursday, August 15, 2013

Easy Virtue

EASY VIRTUE           C+  
Great Britain  (80 mi)  1928  d:  Alfred Hitchcock 

“Virtue is its own reward” they say - - but “easy virtue” is society’s reward for a slandered reputation.      —opening title card 

What could be more British than a Noel Coward play?  By the time Coward was only 26, he had already written 15 published plays, including this one, a drama about a divorcée's clash with her rich and snobbish in-laws.  The restoration team had the hardest time with this film, one of the least seen in the entire Hitchcock repertoire, as they were apparently working from a 2nd negative, a working print, unable to find an original negative, where a substantial part of the film could be missing, so this film retains the grainy look of how we’re used to seeing these films, without clear focus or detail, where there’s little contrast between darks and whites, all blended together into a gray looking film.  While Hitchcock took certain liberties with the original Coward play, what distinguishes this literary film version of a talky stage play is the use of close-ups, shot by cinematographer Claude L. McDonnell, which largely tells the story with an economy of words, where Hitchcock expresses a preference for lingering on these facial shots and holding them, where the audience develops a familiarity with the characters simply by the director’s style.  The film stars Isabel Jean as Larita, who becomes the falsely accused woman, hounded to her grave for alleged societal infractions, though she’s committed no crime.  Nonetheless, the stigma of a crime hovers over her throughout, a genre Hitchcock found little use for, much preferring films about falsely accused men:  THE LODGER (1926), THE 39 STEPS (1935), YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937), Suspicion (1941), SABOTEUR (1942), SPELLBOUND (1945), STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), and FRENZY (1972).  Even while innocent, what Hitchcock loves to do is plant the thought or the idea of committing a crime, where they are then pursued by the police as if they had, where the distinction between imagination and reality is often ambiguous.  Not so here, as Larita Filton is married to a drunken brute of a man (Franklin Dyall) who walks in on her posing for an artist (Eric Bransby Williams) painting her portrait, discovering them kissing, where in his eyes the mere thought of seduction is sufficient grounds for divorce on adultery charges.

The opening courtroom sequence is notable for a shot through the judge’s monocle, reflecting the judge and the defense counsel, a similar technique in the opening and closing shot through a champagne glass in CHAMPAGNE (1928).  The court finds Larita guilty of “misconduct,” this after the artist committed suicide and left her with all his money.  To get away from it all, having been labeled a disgraced woman of “easy virtue,” she decides to head for the French Riviera, so eloquently utilized later in TO CATCH A THIEF, and there at a tennis match she meets a younger man, John Whittaker (Robin Irvine), who is not only filthy rich (this film could serve as a derivation of that phrase), but falls head over heels in love with her.  Without wanting to know anything about her past, he’s anxious to marry her right away.  Instead of giving him an answer, she tells him “I’ll call you from my house around midnight.”  In what is easily the shot of the film, the answer is never heard, but shown through a bored switchboard operator who sits at her station reading a book, where her watch indicates it’s midnight.  When a small light shows up on her board, as she plugs in the connections, she’s about to return to the book, but she leaves on the earphones as something catches her interest, putting the book down, obviously fascinated by this conversation, where Larita’s answer is expressed in pantomime through the operator’s changing facial expressions, ultimately resulting in a big smile.  Life at the Whittaker estate in England is really rough, where there are polo matches to attend and full-dress dinners under the watchful eyes of giant religious icons looming high above them on the walls as they sit and eat.  While the family is obviously curious about where Larita comes from, it’s a particular thorn in the side of his mother, Mrs. Whittaker (Violet Farebrother), a dour and stern-faced woman who doesn’t like her from the start, continually undermining her behind her back while maintaining a respectful social décor in her presence.  But the relationship only deteriorates.

The Whittaker family, one by one, led by Mrs. Whittaker’s example of matriarchal cruelty under the guise of civic morality, gang up against Larita, suspecting her of immorality, where their home becomes little more than a rumor mill of malicious gossip.  When it finally comes to light that she is a party in “the Filton divorce,” they all turn against her, even her husband, who she realizes is married more to the family than he is to her.  Mrs. Whittaker tells her bluntly, “In our world, we do not understand this code of easy virtue,” to which Larita responds, “In your world, you understand very little of anything,” which generated audience applause during the theatrical screening.  But Mrs. Whittaker has the final word, hoping she has the “decency” not to show up at a big party being held in the wedding couple’s honor, where people are curious to meet her.  Instead, despite Mrs. Whittaker’s claims of having one of her severe headaches, Larita makes a stunning entrance in a revealing, cut out dress and a highly decorative ostrich feather fan.  But despite her gallant efforts to brave her way through a public appearance, she realizes this is one obstacle she can not overcome, quickly agreeing to another divorce, and leaving her husband to the shark-infested waters of his own family.  The blatant cruelty expressed in this film is a bit one-dimensional, where none of the characters really stand out, becoming a theatrically melodramatic chamber drama where there’s little dramatic tension, as one character suffers alone from all the slings and arrows of malicious slander, but the overall tone is a character study of the social habits of the rich, another favorite Hitchcock subject.  The film goes to great lengths to show the corrosive effects of intolerance, puritanically imposing one’s morals and values onto others, becoming little more than a witch hunt of indecency, an exposé of holier-than-thou moral hypocrisy, where society’s superficial shortcomings are brought out into the open, becoming something of a scathing critique of social convention.   

Note – Hitchcock’s cameo is one of the hardest to detect, coming at about the 21-minute mark, where he can be seen walking past a tennis court, his back to the camera, carrying a walking stick.        

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