A Blobby, Gormless Mess of a Movie – That’s Actually Really Good.
DIRECTED BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK / 1932
BLU-RAY STREET DATE 12/7/21
KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Let’s face it, the plot of Number Seventeen is a mess. It’s the piled-up remains of an explosion at the ‘Old Dark House’ factory. It’s like a box of crayons that was left in the sun, and they’ve all melted together to form a single, giant, brown-gray waxy blob. It also so happens that the plot is the least vital element of Number Seventeen. The movie seems to exist only so that Alfred Hitchcock can have some fun playing around with style.
And boy does he have fun with it. The opening is a long tracking shot that starts on a wind-swept tree, then follows the dead leaves blowing down the sidewalk. A man’s hat blows along with them. The owner of the hat catches up, and we follow him as he encounters an old, dark house, supposedly empty. But he sees a light in the window and we follow him as he, curious, enters to check things out. It’s an opening sequence that would be the feather in the cap of any director working in the early days of sound production, but for Hitchcock? It’s just Tuesday before lunch.
Who this man is, or what sorts of shenanigans are going on in the house are best left unexplained here. This is not to avoid spoilers, but because I think I need to watch the movie twice more, then read the wikipedia page to make sense of it. There’s a cockney squatter, the plucky daughter of a detective, some jewel thieves, a hidden menace, a dead body, false identities, secrets, lies, car chases, train crashes, fencing, fighting, true love, and the promise of breakfast. To call the movie overstuffed is to undersell it.
It’s too random, the twists come too fast for any of them to have an impact. Characters make all manner of odd decisions, which become even odder in retrospect when a twist is revealed. The machinations of the movie’s story become the least interesting thing about it. But it didn’t interest Hitchcock either. He famously coined the term ‘Macguffin,’ referring to a story element that everyone thinks is really important, but is only there to drive the plot. Number Seventeen is a movie composed of nothing but Macguffins stacked on top of Macguffins.
Hitchcock didn’t want to make Number Seventeen. He was planning on making a more prestigious drama, but a recent box-office failure and some studio politics stuck him on this adaptation of a stage play by British crime novelist and playwright Joseph Jefferson Farjeon (how Number Seventeen worked as a play I can only guess at). Though he was stuck with a movie he didn’t want to make, in a genre he’s never really dabbled in (save the much more successful-in-every-way Rebecca), you can’t accuse Hitchcock of phoning it in.
Instead he takes the opportunity to just… play. He has fun with the style. The first half of the movie is all creeping shadows, expressionistic lighting, and his mastery of montage-style editing. Witness the sequence where two characters stumble upon a corpse just as a train rushes past the house. The flashing lights, the distorted faces, the screaming whistle. Later on, another character commandeers a tour bus and uses it to chase down villains fleeing on a speeding train. The chase, making extensive use of elaborate models, is a bravura sequence of timing and editing (and funny asides of the confused tourists)that would make Spielberg jealous.
Not everything works as well. There’s a few sequences that were obviously shot silent and had sound dubbed over them. A fist fight in particular becomes farcical with the noticeable dubbing, looking and sounding an awful lot like something out of a Max Fleischer Popeye cartoon. Maybe the effect was intentional (okay, probably not the Popeye reference), or maybe it was just limitations of time and/or budget. But the effect is distracting when it is so conspicuous.
That’s ultimately a minor quibble, however. Number Seventeen doesn’t rank among the best of Hitchcock’s films, but how many directors’ best works would? But it’s not the disaster Hitchcock considered it to be, either. It’s too weird and too playful for that. Hitchcock aficionados should seek this one out, as should anyone who’s interested in the craft of filmmaking from the perspective of, well, the craft of filmmaking. Much is made of the importance of story and character. What Number Seventeen seems to suggest is that what if you paid some attention to style and mood and lighting and editing too?
Number Seventeen has been recently released on Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber under their Studio Classics imprint. The film was given a new 4K restoration by the BFI and it looks great. The disc is chock-a-block full of features including a feature-length audio commentary by film historian Peter Tonguette, an hour-long documentary Hitchcock – The Early Years, an audio excerpt of the Truffaut/Hitchcock interview, and an introduction to the movie by French actor Noël Simsolo.