Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Young and Innocent

Or could it be Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in Rebecca, 1940?

Hitchcock directing the party scene with Mary Clare and small child on the set of Young and Innocent, 1937

Hitchcock on the set of Young and Innocent, 1937

Alfred Hitchcock with the cast of Young and Innocent, 1937

YOUNG AND INNOCENT               A-              
aka:  The Girl Was Young
Great Britain  (80 mi)  1937  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

One of the more rollicking entertaining early British Hitchcock films from the 30’s, a delight from start to finish, supposedly Hitchcock’s favorite film from this period, and one can see why, as it relishes his dark sense of humor.  One might need to suggest that viewers don’t arrive late, as the opening scene is like nothing else in the Hitchcock repertoire, opening in the middle of a lover’s quarrel, where Guy (George Curzon) accuses his ex-wife, the famous actress Christine Clay (Pamela Carme), that she’s not only running around with the “boys,” but also a liar.  When she laughs in his face, belittling his character, he becomes all the more enraged, where the audience is smack dab in the middle of a vicious verbal spat taking place in the stunning locale of a cliff house overlooking the ocean, so wickedly over-the-top, featuring full-blown soap opera melodrama, like something out of Joan Crawford or Gloria Swanson, punctuated even further by flashes of lightning and thunder and a downpour of rain, where it’s hard to keep from laughing out loud, as it’s one of Hitchcock’s great comical openings.  In the very next scene, copied decades later in FRENZY (1972), a woman’s body (which turns out to be Ms. Clay) is washed ashore, with flocks of birds ominously circling overhead, anticipating the murderous dread of The Birds (1963), told with an equal amount of amusement and delight. 

Adapted from the 1936 novel A Shilling for Candles by Elizabeth Mackintosh, writing under the pseudonym Josephine Tey, Alfred Hitchcock and his team of writers (including his wife) only used about one-third of the novel, added some memorable scenes of his own, and changed the identity of the murderer.  Nonetheless they produced a taut screenplay where it’s clear by this stage in his career that the man knows his way around a movie camera, as this is one of the marvelous uses of fast-paced dialogue featuring 30’s screwball comedy, turning into theater of the absurd.  Part of the film’s appeal is the initial neglect it received by using such unfamiliar faces in the lead roles, quickly corrected in The Lady Vanishes (1938), but the exuberance from the fresh performances filled with a kind of innocent spontaneity is what makes the film such a charming delight, as it is equal parts suspense thriller and romantic love comedy, with both parts enhancing the other.  Despite the overall symmetry, to Hitchcock’s dismay, the American version cut ten minutes from the already brief 80-minute run time, calling it unnecessary, excluding in its entirety a hilarious birthday scene that is a comedy of errors shot with breathtaking speed, where Hitchcock actually used a stopwatch to maintain the frantic pace.  This kind of cinematic bludgeoning alerted Hitchcock to what he was likely to expect from studio executives when he made the move to America, producing his own films in order to maintain complete artistic control, which became the key to his success, as it allowed him to make the films exactly as he wanted. 

This is one of the better “falsely accused man” movies, aided by the help of an appealing woman that initially suspects he’s guilty, as that is the prevailing wisdom, but eventually sympathizes and supports him, that became a staple of Hitchcock’s work.  The body is discovered by a passerby, Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney), who quickly runs off to get help, but not before two women, the typical busybodies of Hitchcock films, inform the police that he was running away from the murder, as it was determined she was strangled to death before being thrown in the water, and by a belt that happened to be discovered not far from the body.  Instantly he is suspected of murder and taken into custody, followed by a stream of scandalous newspaper headlines.  In an all-night marathon interrogation session with Scotland Yard, we learn the belt belongs to Robert, part of a raincoat he reports was stolen a week ago when he stayed at a nearby shelter.  The police don’t buy his story, treat him with a certain amount of contempt, finding motive when it is revealed the actress left him 1200 pounds in her will, causing Robert to faint.  He is revived by the local constable’s daughter, Erica (Nova Pilbeam, age 18), a brash young woman with a fierce independent streak, where it’s not at all unusual, apparently, for her to just wander into an interrogation in progress and then chide the officers for their primitive police techniques. 

Hitchcock was uncharacteristically polite with the young actress, one of England’s child stars who made an appearance as the young kidnapping victim in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), but as this was her first lead role, he sensed his usual domineering presence might affect the natural naïveté of her performance.  From the moment he sets his eyes on her, Robert senses something different about Erica, as does the audience, as she doesn’t fit the mold of socially well-bred girls that do as they’re told, where she seems to have early feminist inclinations, which is quite unique for films of this era.  Yet how many people have heard of this actress today?  Likely very few, but it’s the strength of her curiosity and sense of fair play that is the driving force of this picture, where the audience grows instantly fond of her.  Once Robert meets his bumbling and utterly incompetent court-appointed lawyer (J.H. Roberts), whose manner of defense is simply reminding the accused of every police suspicion, confirming he has little chance of establishing his innocence, so he swipes his lawyer’s glasses and uses the disguise to make a hasty escape from the crowded courtroom.  With the entire police force out looking for him, Erica’s curiosity is piqued as well, searching the countryside until she runs out of gas, forced to push the car, when who should show up to help her push but the accused, who offers his own take on their meeting, “If it’s any consolation to you, I want you to know that I’m innocent.” 

In scenes that predate MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), Erica’s meals in a motherless household where as the eldest she plays the role of mother to her five younger brothers, while her father (Percy Marmont) sits at the head of the table, have that easy-going, lived-in quality, where the pesky table antics resemble anyone else’s family, but Erica takes special notice of information she can glean from her father’s telephone calls, well aware that protecting the suspect reflects upon her father.  Certain that if he could locate his missing raincoat, Robert could find the belt and establish his innocence, but Erica’s not so sure, while she’s drawn to his manner of charm and sophistication, much like Cary Grant is used in Hitchcock’s American films, eventually winning her over to his side, where she eventually becomes his willing accomplice.  Their road experiences are laced with interactive humor and character, complimenting each other well like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), or Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY (1938), where the secondary characters are equally riveting, including a truck driver’s café sequence that breaks out into a brawl, but none more thrilling than her uncle’s house (Basil Radford, who went on to give one of his best performances in Hitchcock’s next film) and her Aunt Margaret (Mary Clare), who invite them in for a birthday party of Erica’s niece, encouraging the couple to stay, while Margaret peppers the couple with questions, suspecting something is not quite right.  The more they express a desire to leave, the more they’re pulled into the children’s games, becoming a musical chairs of dreadful choices, making it one of the more unsettling scenes of the film, becoming a theatrical farce of undeniable suspense, where only a blindfolded Margaret taking a turn of blindman’s bluff allows to couple to make a getaway.  She immediately alerts the constable, however, setting into motion an unending police chase.  According to Hitchcock, “The party was designed as a deliberate symbol – in fact it was the clue to the whole film, but no one got it at the time, and in the American-release prints the sequence was omitted because they thought it slowed down the pace of the picture!”

While most of the film is shot on studio sets, but the contrasting use of outdoor scenery from the English countryside is quite stunning, adding a pastoral element of wide open spaces to what is otherwise a film cluttered with people, where Hitchcock offers a cross section of British class structure, from the upper bourgeoisie of her aunt and uncle to workers, tramps, and derelicts, including the choice of some interesting working class sites, like a railway yard, an old mill, and an abandoned mine shaft where the car shockingly drops into a deep crevasse, requiring a rescue sequence later made famous in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959).  By the time they make the discovery of an old tramp, Old Will (Edward Rigby), the man who has his raincoat, unfortunately it’s missing the belt, so he’s strung along by Erica (Robert gets separated in the mayhem) as he can identify the man who has it by the peculiar twitching of his eyes, which leads them to a positively befuddling set piece at the upscale Grand Hotel where they hope to locate him.  Spied upon by police at every door, they have a seat at a table in the ballroom where the dance band is playing American jazz while strangely performing in blackface, a completely disorienting aspect of the film that actually adds to the confusion.  Just as the tramp is about to give up, finding it impossible to see through the crowd, Hitchcock uses a crane shot that elevates overhead from the hotel lounge all the way up to the ceiling, continuing down the corridor through the lobby into the ballroom, moving past the dancers and the musicians until it comes to rest upon the drummer’s face until his eyes fill the screen, all done in one unbroken shot as we observe his eyes twitching, where ironically the song playing is “No One Can Like the Drummer Man.”  It’s a masterful shot used similarly in NOTORIOUS (1946), starting with a camera set high above a ceiling chandelier, observing a crowded reception hall below before making a sweeping movement of the camera until it finds a key in the hands of Ingrid Bergman, altering the focus of the drama in a single shot.  It’s an amusing finale, where the killer is exposed at last, where Erica finally allows herself to smile when she sees Robert and her father, no longer holding any secrets, ending with thoughts of domestic bliss. 

Note – At the 16-minute mark, Hitchcock may be seen posing as a photographer standing outside the courthouse holding a camera near his waist just as Robert has managed to escape from the police.    

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