d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 80 mins.
Alt: "The Girl Was Young."
For Alfred Hitchcock, lightning could strike twice. By some opinions, he produced more great films over the course of his career than nearly any other director, often more than multiple directors combined. As I've looked back over his filmography, I've noticed that the key to this success is that all his great films are profoundly different from each other and yet surprisingly similar. His favorite themes, his symbolic motifs, his darker obsessions: they all boil to the surface in many of his films, even the lighter fare, but for nearly the entire length of his career he was never content to rest on his laurels and make cookie-cutter productions. There is a moment (at least one, often more) in each of his films that is strikingly original and brilliant in its construction, and as far as film scholarship is concerned, I find myself associating a visual cue with the names of his films.
I mention this – perhaps cruelly – all by way of admitting that, as far as his 1937 film Young and Innocent is concerned, lightning did not strike twice. He followed his masterpiece The 39 Steps with more war thrillers stuffed of international espionage, but Young and Innocent is his first direct appeal to recreating the plot of a wronged-man who must run to solve the crime and prove himself innocence. I suppose it's worth saying that his best films on this theme are the first (the aforementioned Steps) and the last (North by Northwest).
This is not to say Young and Innocent is bad. On the contrary, it's actually one of his more entertaining films from the 1930s. It is lighter in tone than The 39 Steps, which might be part of why its magnetism tends to fade, but it works as jaunty, joyful experience. Adapted from the Josephine Tey novel A Shilling for Candles, the film follows the boyfriend of a married actress who becomes a suspect for her murder after he is seen on the beach where her body floats ashore. (The actress, played by Pamela Carne, was strangled with the belt of a raincoat, one of the more deliciously inventive murders from Hitchcock's films.) The suspect, Robert Tisdall (Derrick de Marney), has to prove his innocence and gains the help of the local police chief's daughter, Erica (18-year-old Nova Pilbeam, who played the kidnapped daughter in The Man Who Knew Too Much).
I mentioned before how some of Hitchcock's films become instantly associated with visuals: the crop-duster from North by Northwest, the shower in Psycho, the craning zoom shot focusing on the key in Alicia's hand in Notorious, etc. Young and Innocent possesses two memorable moments, which bookend the film. The earliest seconds, Hitchcock drops the audience into the middle of a fight between a husband and wife during a stormy night at a seaside house, both of them yelling at each other while the ocean crashes behind them and the musical whirs. The other moment, toward the end of the film, is its most famous, and rightly so. It would be fair to say the moment nearly steals the entire movie: a 70-second, unbroken zoom that travels the length of a great ballroom and ends but a few inches away from a man's face, his twitching eye suddenly revealing his guilt for the audience. It is a spectacularly successful shot, one that took Hitchcock two days to block and shoot and one he discussed at length with François Truffaut. (In fact, too much at length to quote here; you'll just have to get the book.)
Hitchcock did the-chase-of-the-wrong-man better, but Young and Innocent is surprisingly charming. Pilbeam and de Marney both have an occasionally irresistible chemistry, and what we know about Hitchcock today leads us to understand that it was the potentially scandalous nature of their attraction (he assumed guilty, she seen as risking it all for him) that interested the director as much as any taut murder mystery. The film was cut and released twice – first in Britain, under its given name; then in America, as The Girl Was Young. (But is it about her?) The British version is longer and contains sequences Hitchcock believed to be necessary to the narrative, thus it is the preferable version. However, even if it's billed as "Young and Innocent" on the DVD cover, it doesn't necessarily mean it's the right version. Most of the copies out there are the cut Hitchcock disliked, but I think the film is still worth seeing. It's not without flaws, but I still find it to be one of the director's better films from his early years.
11 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 80 mins.