3/17/10

Hitch on the Hump: The Number 17 (1932)

Any director that made 53 films in his career is bound to have one or two stinkers. Hitchcock is no exception. While his classic films greatly outweigh the bad ones, there are a few like Topaz and Torn Curtain that are pretty much universally panned. For this week’s Hitch on the Hump, I decided to tackle the film commonly thought to be the worst on Hitch’s résumé, Number 17. Made in 1932 as a film to fulfill his contractual obligation with British International Pictures, it was not a picture he wanted to make. In his interviews with Francois Truffant, the first comment out of the director’s mouth when asked about the films was simply, “A disaster!”, and other than an amusing story about cats, had little else to say about the film. Even Patrick McGilligan, in his exhaustive 800 page Hitchcock biography, A Life in Darkness and Shadow, spends less than two pages detailing the making of this film.

Walter Mycroft, the head of British International, ruled his studio like a dictator, and he was no Alfred Hitchcock fan, a sentiment the director returned. One story goes that Mycroft ordered the entire studio to be repainted, and the next day found the words “Mycroft is a Shit” scrawled on the freshly painted bathroom walls. He suspected Hitchcock was behind the prank, but Hitch denied any involvement though he “didn’t disagree with the message”.  When it came time for Hitch to make his last film, he wanted to direct London Wall, a white collar love story and change of pace for the director of The Lodger and Murder! When Mycroft saw Hitchcock respond to the material, he assigned a different director and pushed Hitchcock over to the film adaptation of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s comic//thriller play The Number 17.

When he and co-writer Rodney Ackland retired to his Cromwell Road home, Hitch all but pitched the play out the window, and over the course of several months (and more than a few of Hitch’s favorite cocktail, The White Lady, a mixture of gin, egg whites, light cream, and superfine sugar, the amusing play became an out and out farce. Ackland recalled that Hitchcock was determined to make the movie a “burlesque of all the thrillers”, and over drinks Ackland, Hitchcock, and his wife crafted a film that was broadly comic to the point of near buffoonery. If Hitch was going to be forced to make a picture he wasn’t interested in, he intended to hand Walter Mycroft a massive practical joke on his way out the door.

The Number 17 is not an easy movie to synopsize. Looking for some inspiration, I poured over my Hitchcock books and throughout the internet looking for some concise way to sum up this film and I came up empty-handed with only bloated blow-by-blow descriptions or misleading one sentence summaries to show for my efforts. So I suppose I will have to put my own spin on it. On the trail of a gang of jewel thieves, Detective Barton (John Stewart) tracks them down to an abandoned house. Inside all he discovers a dead body, and a transient named Ben (Leon M. Lion) who appears to be innocent of the murder. Barton and Ben soon meet Nora (Anne Grey), the daughter of the dead man, and make the acquaintance of the jewel thieves who tie up the detective and the daughter before making for a fast train out of London.

If the summery doesn’t sound particularly funny or tell all that much about the film, there’s a good reason for this. While Hitchcock injected a ton of broadly played humor, it’s mostly so bad that it’s not funny, and the story is such a mess that it doesn’t ever make much sense. If Hitchcock wanted to leave Mycroft with a turd of a film, he certainly did so. It didn’t help that Hitchcock hated Leon M. Lion with a passion. He considered the hammy stage actor, who had originated the role of Ben on stage, an “awful old man”. He gave the actor plenty of time to mug for the camera, but no chance to make the film a star making turn. Lion would appear in a few more films, but he didn’t manage to make a name for himself in those either.

The rest of the cast seem to have as little idea of what was going on in the film as I did. Hitchcock regular Donald Calthrop played the same kind of shady character that he had in his previous works with the director, Blackmail and Murder!, Anne Grey proved herself to be one of the least interesting Hitchcock blondes as Nora, and Garry Marsh never works up any real menace as the crook’s leader Sheldrake. Hitch also inserted a number of sweeping disorienting shots and pointless effects shots in the film to further muddy the waters. Normally, Hitchcock’s work with miniatures was flawless, but, as Patrick McGilligan noted of the climatic runaway train sequence that ends the film “some people think he deliberately staged the wild crescendo so it simply looked cheap.” As the trains are so obviously poorly lit models, this stands to some reason. Even the score by Adolph Hallis (who also scored Hitchcock’s The Rich and Strange), seems to be deliberately disjointed; another hint that Hitchcock might have been sabotaging the film.

I have to wonder, looking back on this film which he ran off the rails with less finesse than the model train wreck, if Hitchcock did not harbor some regret for making a film hat was this horrid. While he had plenty to say about all his features in the Francois Truffaut interviews, after saying the films was a “disaster”, he spent more time talking about the amount of cats on location set and how he had nearly made an early version or Roman Holiday than talking about the film at hand. The Number 17 is by far the worst Hitchcock film I have seen, and it only manages to get the generous rating of 1 Bugg because of a few inspired shots that prove that even Hitch could not remove all of his talent from this picture. This is one solely for Hitchcock completists, and anyone else should stay very far away from this self-sabotaged quota picture.

Bugg Rating

If you're a brave soul and want to check out this film, it is in the public domain and I've included it below. 

3 comments:

  1. I am not only going to skip on this film, but I think I'll pass on that white lady cocktail also.

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  2. I'm strangely fond of Number 17. Some of Hitchcock's early British movies are wonderfully offbeat, and while Number 17 is bad, I find it to be entertainingly bad.

    Another early Hitchcock movie that I like is Rich and Strange. One of his non-suspense movies. It's basically a romantic comedy with a touch of black comedy.

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  3. I never considered the possibility that Hitchcock actually set out to make this a bad film, which would certainly explain a few things about it. It would be my least favourite Hitchcock film as well. Interesting that after this he got the change of pace he was looking for with Waltzes From Vienna...

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