Wednesday, 2 February 2011

AFED #33: Number Seventeen (UK, 1932); Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

The general consensus is that Alfred Hitchcock's earlier films are something of a mixed bag.

After The Lodger's triumph in 1926 came a spell in which Hitch appeared to be finding his feet as a director, trying different genres and approaches without the elan which would later characterise his work. Some, such as boxing melodrama The Ring (1927), have received positive reappraisal in recent years and it leaves you wondering whether they've been the victim of critical prejudice towards the definitively 'Hitchcockian'.

Blackmail (1929), British cinema's first sound film, is considered his next watershed but again the view is it was followed by a fallow spell before his breakthrough with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Sandwiched roughly halfway through this period is a minor suspense called Number Seventeen, that may be the most unloved work of his entire career.


Given that Hitchcock, in his conversations with Francois Truffaut, referred to the film as "a disaster" perhaps it's not surprising. But I've always been of the view that some of the most interesting and enjoyable films are glorious messes, where misguided ambition leads to curious and unexpected results. And for that reason Number Seventeen may just be one of my favourite Hitchcock films.

Hitchcock's company had, for reasons lost in the mists of time, acquired the rights to a stage play by Jefferson Farjeon. It was a fairly routine mystery in the "old dark house" tradition of the hugely poplular The Cat and the Canary, yet one for which Hitchcock had little liking. He decided to rewrite it as a comedy and didn't care much for the result of that either but, presumably under pressure to get something into production, opted to go ahead and shoot it anyway.

A synopsis of the convoluted plot will probably double the length of this review, but I notice even Wikipedia doesn't record it correctly so I'll try to outline the essentials...

Late one night a man (who we later known as Gilbert, and played by John Stuart) notices lights inside a empty house and decides to investigate, whereupon he encounters a stranger upstairs standing beside a body. The stranger, comedy prole 'Ben', protests his innocence and after searching the body they discover a gun and handcuffs.

After hearing a disturbance the pair are abruptly joined by a young woman who falls through the roof who lives next door and claims to be be looking for her father, who in turn was staking out the house in connection with the theft of a diamond necklace. It seems the house is some kind of rendevous point for a criminal gathering, and three more characters persons promptly turn up at the door. Meanwhile, the body has inconveniently disappeared.

Feeling threatened, Ben decides to point the gun at the newcomers but the tables get turned fairly abruptly and our three original characters are searched and questioned. Then, a man claiming to be the criminal gangleader, Sheldrake, turns up. Only he isn't; he's actually the body from earlier on and also the man who'd been watching the house. The real Sheldrake has been hiding in the bathroom all along! After some more scuffling the tables are turned again and the criminals begin their escape for a train that's heading to the continent via ferry.

Oh, I should have mentioned that by this point it's clear that nobody knows who anybody else is.

Our 'heroes' head off in pursuit of the train, but the criminals prevent Gilbert from getting on board. He gets around this problem by hijacking a bus, while onboard the locomotive Ben scuffles with the criminals, who are now fighting amongst themselves and also manage to shoot the train driver. Much of this sequence seems to be a pretext for Hitchcock to play around with a model train set.

Predictably the train crashes. Gilbert, it turns out, was a detective all along and the necklace (made from 24-carat MacGuffin) is rescued.


Had it been made sixty years later then Number Seventeen might have been considered postmodern. Not only does it toy with the conventions of the genre, piling up twists and intrigue to the point of incoherence, but there's a slyly self-reflexive element at work too.

"It's like the pictures, isn't it?" suggests the girl when she and Gilbert are tied up. The characters seem to treat each new development like a game, smirking and joking with each other regardless of which side they're on. The fights seem more like playground scraps and nobody is taking anything too seriously.

Looked at in hindsight you soon realise that elements which apparently made sense at the end in fact render a complete nonsense of earlier scenes. Logic is reconstituted with each new plot twist. In the case of one character - an apparently deaf and dumb woman who arrived with the criminals but later aids Gilbert... and isn't deaf or dumb - no explanation is provided as to what exactly she was doing there.

Perhaps I'm just perverse and like confusion for it's own sake, but there's a surreal absurdity to Number Seventeen that anticipates The Lady Vanishes six years later and which is nearly as devious as Hitchcock's classic suspenses. It probably won't win any more acolytes on the basis of my recommendation but it's by no means without merit.

2 comments:

  1. paulamariafay@blogspot.com8 February 2011 at 01:52

    Would the film's scriptwriter Jefferson Farjeon be any relative of actress Eleanor Farjeon?
    I may have it wrong and she was a physicist of course.
    I have an early Hitchcock box-set - don't think this is on it sadly. Hitchcock was still using model cars/houses in 'Rebecca' years later so I can believe the model train remark. No attempt to make them even look vaguely real!

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  2. Okay, think I have the lineage correct now...

    Jefferson (Joe) and Eleanor Farjeon were brother and sister, descendants of a long line of actors.

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