06 October 2008

Number Seventeen (1932)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 64 mins.


Number Seventeen is a bit of a mess. It is among my least favorite Alfred Hitchcock films, and although the director supposedly set out to make it as a satire of detective films, there is little in it that I would considered successfully witty or humorous.

The film is confusing in all the wrong ways, beginning with its plot and the random way all the characters seem to crash into each other at the same time. John Stuart stars as a detective on the trail of a stolen necklace and the thieves who made off with it. While exploring an abandoned house, he meets a hobo (re: comic relief) and a woman (re: deus ex machina), both of whom help him when the thieves show up at the house to retrieve the necklace. (Dennis Schwartz rightly notes Number Seventeen "would be forgotten today if Hitchcock were not the director.")

The reports differ on whether Hitchcock was interested in making the film. He had supposedly wanted to direct a cinematic adaptation of John Van Druten's play "London Wall," and was assigned to it as his new projection while Rich and Strange was being edited. It gets murky from this point, though. We know his bosses were unhappy with the way he worked outside the box and wanted to punish him in someway. He was removed from the project and assigned to Number Seventeen, but what it is unclear is whether his angered him or made him happy. According to biographer Patrick McGilligan, a contract screenwriter with British International admits it's possible Hitchcock wanted Number Seventeen all along and tricked his boss into giving it to him. Knowing the shortcomings in the script, Hitchcock and writer Rodney Ackland set out to stretch the clich├ęs and create a satire.

But often the film tries too hard to be funny. A dim-witted character finds a pistol on a dead man and wonders aloud if it's loaded, eying down the barrel and noticing that the trigger is too stiff to pull. (Hardy-har-har.) Scattered throughout the disjointed pieces of the film are the clear prototypes of what became pervasive in Hitchcock's later work, including foreboding staircases, wrongly accused men, and spectacular chases. (The ending chase is flamboyantly ridiculous and involve a train and a bus.)

Mercifully, Number Seventeen is quite short (only 64 minutes). What does work in the movie is the powerful lighting in an abandoned house (early Hitchcock regular Jack Cox did the cinematography, along with Bryan Langley), where only a a few candles and flashlights shine on key faces and project large shadows. But just about everything else – including the awkward acting and the unfunny script – doesn't fare as well. It might not surprise you to know Number Seventeen was Hitchcock's last film with British International, and afterward he went on to make The Man Who Knew Too Much. (This "bad followed immediately by great" trend to recur through his entire career: The Manxman followed by Blackmail; Jamaica Inn followed by Rebecca; Under Capricorn and Stage Fright followed by Strangers on a Train; etc.) Number Seventeen is a very skippable movie, however, and one that should only be on the radar of the director's completists.

2 comments:

darkcitydame4e 06 October, 2008  

Hi! T.S.
Hitchcock's 1932 film Number Seventeen is on my list of films to watch.(But, I am not sure if No# 17 is available on dvd)

Because I do consider myself a Hitchcock completist
this film is on my short list of Hitch's films to watch!

dcd

Sam Juliano,  10 October, 2008  

Yeah, this one is lame--one of his lesser efforts, with an inability to flow due to the awkward sensibility of the piece. You were fail but blunt here, and as always eloquent.

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