Monday, September 8, 2014

Number Seventeen

NUMBER SEVENTEEN        C+            
Great Britain  (63 mi)  1932  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

Ya don’t have to do nothin’ in this ‘ere house — ya stand still and things happen! 
—Ben Tramp (Leon M. Lion)

This is something of a creaky, old-fashioned drama, the likes of which we never see anymore and quite unlike anything else in the Hitchcock repertoire.  However, that is not necessarily a good thing, as this is an early 30’s Hitchcock film that one would least likely recommend, where it may actually work better as a silent film, as it has all the characteristics, including a highly visual German Expressionist style.  But as is, with dialogue, this is one of the more unengaging films Hitchcock ever made, with no connection to any of the characters, many of whom are interchangeable, where you can’t tell the good guys from the bad.  This abysmal disconnect strikes one as an egregious error on Hitchcock’s part, but one has to acknowledge that this was simply not the director’s area of expertise, and it crops up again and again throughout his entire body of work, as Hitchcock was notoriously hard on actors, where just prior to his arrival in Hollywood he was quoted as saying “all actors are cattle,” quickly clarifying his position, “I didn't say actors are cattle.  What I said was, actors should be treated like cattle.”  Carole Lombard reacted to this comment during the making of MR. AND MRS. SMITH (1941), a divorce comedy where the director acknowledged, “Since I really didn’t understand the type of people who were portrayed in the film, all I did was to photograph the scenes as written.”  Lombard played a famous practical joke on Hitchcock, which he describes, “When I arrived on the set, the first day of shooting, Carole Lombard had had a corral built, with three sections, and in each one there was a live young cow.  Round the neck of each of them there was a white disk tied with a ribbon, with three names:  Carole Lombard, Robert Montgomery, and the name of a third member of the cast, Gene Raymond.”  In his autobiography, Elia Kazan goes over the ways that different directors handle/respond to actors, where in his view:  “Hitchcock told his screen stories as much as possible without help from his actors’ performances.  When Cary Grant, going into a film, asked him how he should play his part, Hitchcock answered, ‘Just do what you always do.’  Hitchcock relied on his camera angles and his montage…to do what on stage we relied on the actors for.”  As for a final word on the subject, Hitchcock recalls, “When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, ‘It’s in the script.’  If he says, ‘But what’s my motivation?,’ I say, ‘Your salary.’”

While this was actually filmed nearly a year “before” Rich and Strange (1931), it was not released until afterwards, supposedly as inflicted punishment for the poor box office showing of Hitchcock’s more favored film, with the director calling it a “quota quickie,” fulfilling his obligation as the final film for British International Pictures.  Another adaptation of a stage play, this time by J. Jefferson Farjeon, which for all practical purposes is two different films, where the overly stagy first half is set in what appears to be an old haunted mansion with the camera fixed on a steep spiraling staircase, while the second half opens up into an action chase sequence taking place on a rapidly moving train.  The staircase and the train are the two main characters of the film, both explored through a cinematic experimentation and curiosity, as all the rest is purely incidental.  The logic of the first half combines Hitchcock’s obsession with old dark houses that were gloomy and oppressive, where the Bates family mansion in Psycho (1960) is virtually a parody of a haunted house, while Hitchcock also had an obsession with stairways, where the director was meticulously picky on every single thing used in his movies, so he made sure the props in his films were as he envisioned, where he was deeply involved in creating the sets for the movies he produced.  According to Alan Vanneman in Bright Lights Journal, November 2003, Bright Lights Film Journal :: Alfred Hitchcock Photo Study

Staircases in Hitchcock’s films almost always lead to trouble.  For Hitchcock, the simple act of going up a staircase seemed to be a disorienting experience, taking you away from safety towards the unknown.  Spiral staircases were particularly threatening.  In Hitchcock's films, circular movement — the swirling vortex — implies a loss of control, usually with sexual overtones, and often leading to death.

Hitchcock often used stairs as the place of the most suspenseful and climactic scenes of his movies, a place where something horrible usually happened.  They all had something in common, which was terrible things occurred and were always depicted in a scary fashion.  Borrowing from an outline for a Hitchcock educational course by Dr. Glen Johnson, Spring 2013, Stairs, staircases & levels, several instances are listed.  Some of the more infamous uses of staircases in Hitchcock films would include The Lodger (1927), as it figures prominently in the arrival of the Lodger (suspected as a serial killer of women), where he immediately goes up the stairs, bypassing the main level where the normal family congregates; The 39 Steps (1935), where Richard Hannay descends the stairs after discovering the corpse in his upper-level apartment, later dragging a resistant Pamela, who is handcuffed to him, to the upper-level bedroom, while Pamela eavesdrops at the top of the stairs and hears key information that confirms Hannay’s innocence; Rebecca (1940), the heroine makes a grand entrance to the ball, wearing a costume modeled on a portrait at the top of the stairs that she is tricked into wearing by the malicious housemaid, knowing it is the same costume the dead Rebecca wore, thoroughly disgracing and humiliating her in front of her angry husband, fleeing back up the same stairs; Suspicion (1941), Johnnie climbs the stairs with a possibly-poisoned glass of milk for his wife, using a light bulb in the glass as an exclamation point:  is he or is he not a murderer?; Vertigo (1958), the most famous Hitchcock staircase, the bell tower that Scotty anxiously ascends where Madeleine falls to her death; and Psycho (1960), Detective Arbogast makes his fateful climb upstairs to the fateful domain of Norman Bates’ mother, while later, Lila can't resist descending the cellar steps.  Other films would include DOWNHILL (1927), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Dial M for Murder (1954), REAR WINDOW (1954), The Birds (1963), and FRENZY (1972). 

In an excerpt from Meaghan Walsh Gerard, Hitchcock and Stairs - Meaghan Walsh Gerard (pdf format): 

In Number Seventeen (1932), a man, chasing his blowing hat down the windy street arrives at an empty home, with a ‘to let’ sign.  As he dusts off his hat,  he sees a figure moving in the windows and becomes suspicious.  When he walks up to the front door, it blows open and reveals a long, curving staircase—the central focus of the film.  We follow him into the home, innocent of what awaits.  He cautiously pokes around, then looks up.  The camera  follows his gaze by sliding the shot up the bannister to an oval opening before returning to the man at the bottom, who slowly begins to climb the steps.  As he creeps to the top he finds the moving figure, and a dead body.  At the beginning of the ascent the man is innocent.  He knows nothing of what he will find.  His only purpose seems harmless—to investigate strange activity.  But the moment he decides to climb the stairs he is accepting an encounter with the unknown.  When this happens he agrees to exchange his innocence for knowledge—good or bad.  The entire course of the evening has changed.  Almost all of the action throughout the film centers around this staircase.  Low-key lighting shines through it, making slatted shadows cut across walls and faces.  Worn shoes trod on it.  Heads peek and dead hands flop between the rails.  In this early film of Hitchcock, one can see the beginning of his obsession with the architecture of stairs. 

In what appears to be an immersion into vertical space, this film is a monument to Hitchcock’s obsession with stairways, three floors connected by a central staircase, with a smaller staircase behind that is unseen by the viewer and only made available to various characters, making it hard to distinguish between them.  The film starts off with Detective Barton (John Stuart) arriving at a house, the number 17 of the film's title, marked for sale or rent, though he never identifies himself as such, so the audience is clueless to his identity, calling himself Forsythe until the end, where he could simply be any ordinary man wandering in out of curiosity.  Ben (Leon M. Lion) is a Cockney tramp who keeps his pockets stuffed with food and remains blind drunk throughout, where his speech is near impossible, though he appears to have wandered into this old abandoned building purely by chance, as is their discovery of a dead body near the top of the stairs, lighting a candle to see more clearly, where Hitchcock blends plenty of shadows on the wall into the mix, altering reality and disorienting the audience, where a similar technique was used to much greater effect the same year by Carl Theodor Dreyer in VAMPYR (1932), creating an existing netherworld, a kind of shadow world unseen by humans where vampires roam.  A stream of people arrive on the scene creating utter chaos and confusion, with the camera continually moving back and forth between them, where there’s not a whit of difference between any of them, except Ben, who’s completely unintelligible and dead drunk all the time.  First Rose (Ann Casson) arrives, and then her father (Henry Caine) with some telegram alluding to a stolen necklace, followed by a trio of jewel thieves looking for the necklace, including a deaf and dumb girl Nora (Anne Grey) who later reveals she hears and speaks perfectly, suddenly trying to help them when they’re taken prisoner, a device used later in The Lady Vanishes (1938), while the corpse disappears only to return very much alive as Sheldrake (Garry Marsh), coincidentally Fred MacMurray’s name in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). 

Much of the black humor is lost in this film, becoming a series of nonstop acts of misdirection and concealed identities, where the true detective is only revealed at the end, with people continually coming and going, subject to poorly staged fisticuffs, locking people in rooms, prisoners being tied up, a few harrowing escapes, and what amounts to changes of allegiance, where the thieves escape through a cellar door that leads down a very long flight of stone steps to a train station.  The film finally amps up the manic pace for a runaway train sequence, where thieves hijack a train while following in close pursuit is a commandeered bus, where Hitchcock achieves the desired  effects though quick edits and his clever use of miniatures and scaled down models of a train, bus, and ferry designed by William K. Everson.  This sequence has silent film written all over it, cutting back and forth between the speeding bus and the train barreling down the track, with a transport train ferry waiting at the end of the line, where the frenetic pace achieved is an example of pure cinema, though the ridiculous story throughout couldn’t be more absurd.  Instead it appears Hitchcock is playing around with toys, having fun with his new train set that he got for Christmas, where it lacks the cohesiveness of a finished work, but appears to have captured his interest for only a short duration.  Perhaps he needed to tinker with a film like this in order to make The Lady Vanishes (1938), which mirrors the chase scene exactly, though with a far different outcome, showing a certain railway expertise behind the camera, combining Hitchcock’s fascination with trains and his ability to tell a good story.  This film, on the other hand, is an example of the difficulty Hitchcock had making the adjustment from the silent era to talking pictures, taking him at least five years before he made the successful transition with The 39 Steps (1935), where these earlier more experimental films are reminiscent in some way to technological achievement films, which today include many Hollywood blockbusters, where the entertainment factor is an explosion of special effects which are achieved at the expense of overall character development and human understanding.  The film was a box office disaster, though it is notable for being the first use of a Hitchcock MacGuffin, in this case using the stolen necklace as a decoy in the overall plot twists. 

Note – There is no confirmed Hitchcock cameo in this film, but just after the fifty-one minute mark, there is a quick glimpse of a passenger on a speeding bus filled with other panic stricken passengers, but this one is wearing a dark coat and hat, facing away from the camera, bouncing up and down from the bumpy ride for about four seconds. 

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