Truffaut: You made Number Seventeen in 1932. I saw the film at the Cinémathèque. It was quite funny, but the story was rather confusing.
Hitchcock: A disaster!
That’s about all Hitchcock had to say about the film in his series of interviews with François Truffaut, other than an amusing anecdote about trying to herd cats, literally. That and that he didn’t choose the film, it was assigned to him by the studio and that he felt it was a low point in his career, a matter of his own dissatisfaction with what he was creating, “Number Seventeen reflected a careless approach to my work. There was no careful analysis of what I was doing. Since those days, I’ve learned to be very self-critical, to step back and take a second look. And never to embark on a project unless there’s an inner feeling of comfort about it.” He clearly saw his films of the early 30s as mistakes, but ones which taught him the discipline he would need to become perhaps the most rigorous and careful filmmaker of the next 30 years or so. It’s hard to imagine the Hitchcock who legendarily would plan and storyboard the entire film before setting foot on set, who called the actual filming of a movie the most boring part, making a film as thoroughly confusing (Truffaut was right) as Number Seventeen. But still, there’s is greatness in it, particularly at the beginning and the end.
The plot, near as I can make out, involves a group of people who all end up at an abandoned house. Some of them are innocent bystanders trying to get out of the rain, some of them are criminals involved in a jewel robbery, and at least one of them is a cop. But no one knows who anyone else is. The trouble with the film is that the long middle is as confusing and hard to understand for the audience as it is for the characters, the chaos of shifting alliances and relationships is all too chaotic. It doesn’t help that the sound, at least in the public domain version I saw on Instant Netflix, is muffled and blurred beyond comprehension, and that’s without accounting for the occasionally thick English accents that are hard enough for me to decipher on crystal clear soundtracks (apparently, like with The Manxman, there’s a restored version by Canal+, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what Netflix is playing).
As for the good parts: Truffaut points out the wonderful chase sequence that takes up the last third of the film. Hitchcock blends real train sets with miniatures as a bus (commandeered by the hero at gunpoint) chases down a runaway train filled with crooks who are in turn chasing each other over the tops of the train cars back and forth, unsure which of them has stolen the loot they’re all after. The action, perhaps due to the lack of dialogue, has a clarity and sense of direction the rest of the film is missing, and the result is one of the most viscerally exciting action sequences of the 1930s. Hitchcock creates a real sense of speed and danger both with editing and what appears to be judicious undercranking of the camera.
Most impressive though are the film’s opening shots, apparently filmed silently to enable extensive camera movement. It begins with the wind rustling though a tree, then a pan down to leaves blowing on the sidewalk. Suddenly, a man’s hat blows across the screen right to left, in the direction of the pan until it hits the open gate of a house, Number 17, whereupon the man chasing it (“there’s nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat”) runs on screen, picks it up and brushes it off. The pan has stopped with the hat, and now the camera pushes in on the man, who looks at the ground floor window of the house where there is a light moving. The camera moves past his shoulder and tilts up, following the light as it rises to the next floor’s windows. At the side of the frame we see a For Sale sign (the house should be empty), and the film’s first cut is to an insert look at the sign, then a cut back to the previous shot, the tilt reversed such that we are back behind the man with the hat and moving forward as we follow him suspiciously inching toward the front door, which swings open wildly as he touches it (the wind?). The shot continues forward (a little jittery, is it handheld? A bump as the dolly clears the front steps?) into the house where we see a large stairway, with a black cat racing down the steps. As the man peers around, the camera again rushes over his shoulder and tilts up as he looks up the stairs where we again see a moving light. Another cut again brings us back behind the man (like the story to follow, our forward progress is constantly halted and reversed), still looking up as he lights a match. A cut to the top of the stairs from his POV and we again see the moving light, this time resolving from shadows on the wall to a shadowy figure holding a candle and peering at us over the stair rail. We then alternate shots of the man downstairs going up and the man upstairs going down, both casting ominous shadows on the walls. A quick cut to the front door slamming shut (the wind?) and reaction shots first of the downstairs man (his match blown out), and the upstairs, who looks at the wall behind him and sees what appears to be the shadow of a giant hand. We tilt down from the shadow to the floor, where we see the hand of a corpse sticking out between the railings (we see it, the men do not). They continue to creep toward each other until they meet on the middle landing, whereupon the both drop their lights. As they approach each other, the sound of a passing train rises on the soundtrack, whistle blowing. In the light of the train, they look down, see the corpse, cut to an outside shot of the train rushing past followed by quick cuts to each of their faces, distorted in screams of terror (inaudible over the train whistle). One last shot of the corpse, then a cut to the upstairs man, now running downstairs, slipping and falling. He will be the comic relief and now the action of the film, the comedy of confused identity, begins.
This is Expressionism with a twist. The play of shadow and light, the flowing camera of Murnau moving freely between objectivity and subjectivity, the quick, rhythmic cuts of Lang, the spooky house that wouldn’t look out of place in a Universal horror film by James Whale. What Hitchcock brings to the style though is a sly sense of humor (the hat, the cat, the hand, the train). Say what you will about Lang and Murnau, and they’re two of the very greatest directors who ever lived, they certainly weren’t funny. But even at his laziest, Hitchcock could creep you out with style and make you laugh about it at the same time.
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