Archive for April, 2010

Week 17: ‘The 39 Steps’ – 1935

April 28, 2010

To balance this level of fine storytelling, intricate narrative and delicate performance all enwrapped in a full-on chase thriller shows a level of skill that Alfred Hitchcock had never so fully realised in his past films: ‘The 39 Steps’ is his first full-on, undeniable classic.

Robert Donat plays Richard Hannay (a Canadian, although the accent travels around a little – as do others in the film), on the run for a murder he didn’t commit (yay!) and travelling all over the shop to locate a mysterious half-a-finger-missing crime kingpin and ultimately the identity or meaning of ‘The 39 Steps’, finally finding the answer with the superb figure of ‘Mr. Memory’, a music hall entertainer who knows everything and is compelled to tell the truth. On his travels, Hannay comes into contact with a variety of either friendly or hostile individuals. The whole thing is exciting, enthralling and completely entertaining. It’s a road movie before the term existed.

Following a fight breaking out in the musical hall, Hannay whisks back a mysterious woman to his place (Annabella – last name probably Smith, played by Lucie Mannheim). He feels she is slightly odd, asking him to turn a mirror to the wall and not to answer the telephone as she thinks it is for her. It’s an extended scene, drinks followed by food followed by the chaotic attack that results in her demise and his odyssey beginning. This sequence of scenes goes on a while and is very suggestive – she clearly a spy of some sort, Hannay seeming to be a Bond-guy picked up fairly randomly for illicit flirty purposes. He’s a bit coy and doesn’t even remove his overcoat in the scene, obviously playing hard to get. Her death scene, appearing through his bedroom door  with the words ‘clear out Hannay, they’ll get you next!’ and then falling to her death on his bed, a knife thrust between her shoulder blades, is pretty cheesy – not a high point in movie death-acting.

But it does the job and spurs Hannay on to leg it – taking a map of Scotland from her dead hand and disguising himself as a milkman to evade the two spy-killers lurking over the road. I wonder if he left an extra pint?

There’s a humorous scene when Hannay is on his escaping train involving two underwear salesmen discussing the very latest in corsetry and bras – before realizing that a priest is also in the carriage. Naughty, but nice.

Donat is superb throughout – he gives a refined performance, one that shows the steely side as well as the tender. He is a man thrown into circumstances beyond his control, trying to work it all out as he goes along. He is utterly believable. There is a beautiful scene where Hannay seeks refuge for a night with a crofter and his wife (the crofter John played by the always great John Laurie [the best thing in the otherwise risible ‘Juno and the Paycock’], the wife Margaret played by Peggy Ashcroft – her accent buying a zone-hopping travelcard into a variety of geographical locations). While the three of them are eating dinner the amount of unspoken communication between them is wonderfully done, Hannay sensing marital tension, the crofter’s wife realising he is in dire trouble and needing help, the crofter himself picking up on all of this and reacting with jealous anger as he spies his shy but wanton wife glancing with intent at the attractive stranger.

She eventually helps Hannay escape as her husband is all too willing to sell him out to the authorities – Lord knows what her fate would be in her marriage to this crazy-eyed fire and brimstone crofter.

A truly lovely scene is where Hannay is forced to appear onstage as a mistaken identity guest political speaker. Donat again manages to convey at once a sense of caught-by-surprise confusion in tandem with a well-acted off the (hand)cuff speech that rouses the crowd into applause and cheers.

I can’t really hear a hint of a Canadian accent here, he just seems to be well spoken BBC English. This brief moment of quietude is broken when he spots Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) – and the chase is on once again.

Pamela, whom Hannay launches a large snog upon on his escape-train in order to throw the cops off their search, is very cool and a classic icy blonde. Later, unwillingly chained to the fugitive Hannay, there’s a very real sexual tension and frisson between them. They pose as a married couple in an overnight inn and face the bizarre conundrum of having to get a night’s sleep whilst manacled together. It’s a beautifully done scene and both actors convincingly portray their hesitation and attraction really well. She (amazingly) manages to slip her hand from the manacles and extricate herself from the slumbering, knackered Hannay (he’s had a bit of a time of it by this point) and sneak from their room – before overhearing a telephone call from the baddies that convinces her he is telling the truth. She then sneaks her way back into the room, unwittingly (oh yes, duvet thieves) pulling the blanket from him as she settles down on the sofa.

Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) – a great invention, actually based on a real life guy called Datas who committed fifty new facts to memory every day – bookends the film, the opening scenes establishing his unique talent and at the end the fatal consequences of total recall. You feel for the poor guy, saddled with this blessing and curse – his life destroyed by Hannay yelling ‘where are the 39 steps?’

Hitch can’t resist the old undercranked camera giving some obviously sped up running policemen at about 37 minutes in – as they chase the equally fast moving Hannay across the highlands.

It’s a bit of a stretch that, when on the run in Scotland, Hannay just so happens to seek refuge in the looming home of the main bad guy – his stunted finger revealing his true identity.

To be honest, I kind of forgave it this as it sweeps you along so well – each scene really does giving birth to the next. Godfrey Tearle* as Professor Jordan (the stunted little fingered man) is smooth, calculating and impressive – offering a revolver to Hannay to commit suicide rather than face either the villains or the cops. It’s bizarre that the Professor’s wife pops in to ask if Hannay is staying for lunch and doesn’t comment a jot on her husband proferring a gun to their guest – must happen all the time in spy circles. The reveal of the missing little finger is a good shock moment and a nice device.

The ultimate payoff will become known as a classic Hitchcockian ‘MacGuffin’ – an intentionally vague plot device that drives the action whilst, at the same time, not being truly definable**.

Honestly? Next time you think there’s nothing on the telly, take a moment and dial up ‘The 39 Steps’ for an elegant and genuinely marvellous experience. Yes –it’s black and white. Yes – it’s really old. But…

There’s no need to recommend ‘The 39 Steps’, it’s your filmic duty to watch it: http://www.archive.org/details/the39steps_ipod

Miscellaneous notes

They…have…a….helicopter: in 1935! Well, it’s actually an autogiro – but very good to suddenly bring this sort of technology into a chase movie.

‘I’m glad it’s off my mind at last’ – Mr. Memory’s dying words are poignant and moving – this poor, fragile, cursed and talented man.

Hitchcock pops up @ about 6 mins in as Hannay leaves the music hall with Annabella. Pay attention, it’s one of the most fleeting personal appearances.

*Godfrey Tearle went on to appear in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ‘One of Our Aircraft is Missing’ (1942). There is a renowned deleted scene from this movie in which Tearle, as the seasoned veteran airforce man,  tells a younger crew member: ‘you don’t know what it’s like to be old’. Powell has written that the concept of old/young-innocence/experience was actually suggested by David Lean (then in his editor phase) who (when chopping the scene from the film), mentioned that the premise of the conversation was worthy of a movie in its own right. And who pops up in said masterpiece ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ (1943)? John Laurie, God love him.

**see that glowing briefcase in ‘Pulp Fiction’.

Week 16: ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ – 1934

April 25, 2010

With ‘The Lodger’ Hitchcock showed some serious early promise for the calibre of movie he would go onto make and with ‘Blackmail’ this went even further. But it is with ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ that he completely found his feet and started on a string of astonishing, imaginative and creatively successful films that would go through the bulk of the rest of his career.

The start of the picture leads you into the location admirably as we see a bunch of travel brochures laid out onscreen, eventually focussing on one – giving us the location of the movie: Griesalp, San Moritz, Switzerland.

The story involves the kidnapping of a child and the threat of her death if the parents (Bob and Jill Lawrence, played by Leslie Banks and Edna Best) do not keep schtum about an upcoming political assassination that they have been tipped off about during the last gasps of an assassinated spy (Louis Bernard portrayed by Pierre Fresney). The parents decide to take things into their own hands and seek out the kidnappers themselves, finally rescuing the child and thwarting the killing.

Peter Lorre, as the main villain Abbott, appears right near the start of the film, just following a near disastrous ski jump – so he’s already familiar to Bob and Jill. Very useful, by the way, that Jill is a contestant in the shooting competition and is set for a possible victory – comes in handy when you have to take out a kidnapper under pressure (this is a bit convenient, truth be told). They all seem very sporting considering Betty (the daughter, played by Nova Pilbeam) ruins both the skier’s last jump and then Jill’s clay pigeon shot – very understanding and patient. I’d have sat her on the naughty step for the rest of the holiday, the brat.

The assassination of Louis Bernard in the early dance scene is wonderfully understated – him dancing with Jill, a great humorous bit of business with an unravelling piece of her knitting, and just when you’re enjoying that a fast cut to a bullet being shot through a pane of glass and bang! we’re off. He slumps to his knees and just has enough time to impart the location of a hidden message revealing a clue to the upcoming political assasination. Fantastic, fast, economical and intriguing.

Bob hunts and finds the hidden message: Wapping. G. Barbor make contact A. Hall March 21st, with a sunrise motif at the top of the paper. But the parents are soon hit with another missive: Say nothing of what you found or you will never see your child again. Mum promptly faints at this news, Hitchcock uses a spinning camera technique to suggest her imminent collapse.

There are so many instances of this kind of Hitchcockian inventiveness throughout the film it’s difficult to know where to start – he really has a great time of it throughout. The genuinely creepy church service scene, (‘The Tabernacle of the Sun’ is where Bob and Clive have tracked the baddies to), where Bob changes hymn lyrics to communicate messages to his fellow amateur detective Clive, played by Hugh Wakefield (‘Clive, Clive, Clive – that woman at the end..’).

Clive is then hypnotised and rendered useless. The ensuing fight scene is absolutely superb – chairs being flung around as Clive slumps in his hypno state – the organ music an incongruous backdrop to the furore.

It’s massively destructive, pretty much every bit of furniture being utilized to bash each other about, Bob struggling with the assassin and spying the Albert Hall ticket, Clive eventually coming to, jumping out the window to warn the cops. The action-packed police/villains shootout at the end sees the director clearly relishing having a vehicle in which to really stretch his creativity – and, moreso than any other film he has made to this point, it all comes together extremely well. What a relief to being trapped in the too-tight corsetry of Vienna…

Peter Lorre gives his usual weasly and cunning performance as Abbott, the ringleader of the tormenting kidnappers – all scarred face and curious skunk haircut.

Apparently Lorre had to learn his lines phonetically as he did not speak English at the time but even so, he is still convincing and chews sufficient scenery to make you believe his lethal intentions are genuine. His performance presages later highlights in his admirable career in such stone cold classics as ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘Casablanca’. His full on laughing as the kidnapper’s housekeeper (do kidnappers really have housekeepers?) is humiliated by stripping her legs naked so she cannot leave is completely convincing, and especially malicious.

He stares directly to camera just following the Tabernacle fight scene, and punches the dad full on – I wouldn’t want to come face to chest with this small-man-complexed individual.

I can’t think of anyone who relishes a dentist scene and there’s a pretty good one here, the sinister dentist prodding around in Bob’s mouth. His prodding and probing extends from the mouth to a gentle interrogation of who Bob actually is – before sussing the truth and attempting to gas him into oblivion, Bob turning the tables and rendering the dentist unconscious (good riddance to that dental psycho I say).

The scene is nicely restrained and resists the urge to plaster music everywhere (in some respects it reminds me of the extended – and traumatic – killing scene in ‘Torn Curtain’ thirty odd years later).

The tension built up towards the climactic orchestral scene is superb, cross cutting between Jill and the audience, the orchestra and chorus building in intensity as does the excitement. The gunshot is to take place at the exact moment of a massive cymbal crash – the assassin having rehearsed earlier by listening to a recording of the music. Jill looks everywhere for the assassin and eventually a long barrelled pistol emerges from behind a curtain. The tension is palpable and you can’t think what she is going to do to try to stop the inevitable. The percussion instruments and the fatal cymbals are readied – CUT: and her scream is heard by the villains in their hideout via radio…have they succeeded?

The aforementioned climactic siege on the villains’ hideout by umpteen policemen and mad amounts of shooting is as fantastically full on as the destructive chair fight in the Tabernacle. It’s reminiscent of a final shootout in a western – ‘Rio Bravo’ or John Carpenter’s western update ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ – those undersiege running low on ammo and their fate becoming more and more sealed. With the daughter on the roof, big baddie edging ever closer, mum’s crack shooting comes into its own as she grabs a rifle – it’s a bit clunky as she doesn’t seem to particularly aim it – but it does the job as she takes him out with one shot.

‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ is one of those rare cases where a director has gone on to remake one of his own films*, in 1956 reworking the story into a vehicle for James Stewart and Doris Day. In truth, neither version is top drawer fantastic and wouldn’t rank in my top 10 list of Hitchcock movies but, at the same time, they are both very much worth watching and offer the chance to compare climactic scenes shot 22 years apart.

The ending is pretty sudden (as we will see in many of the later movies) – it’s as if  as soon as the plot is over Hitch wants to get out of there and close the picture. All in all, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ is sharp, inventive, exciting and very well put together. And you can see the whole thing for free: http://www.archive.org/details/the_man_who_knew_too_much

Miscellaneous notes

*other examples of directors remaking their own movies include Michael Haneke’s reworking of  ‘Funny Games’ as an English language feature ten years after the original, Cecil B. De Mille’s two versions of ‘The Ten Commandments’, Robert Rodriguez’ ‘El Mariachi’ remade as ‘Desperado’ once he had pocketfuls of cash – and the recent announcement by David Cronenberg that he is to remake his 1980’s horror-fest ‘The Fly’ (as director or writer TBC, but wow…)

Interesting that Alfred Junge is the Art Director on the picture – his work with Powell and Pressburger solidified his reputation in later years.

Week 15: ‘Waltzes From Vienna’ – 1933

April 17, 2010

This is such an odd one it’s difficult to actually consider it a Hitchcock movie. Apparently he found himself without a project to work on and chose this ‘musical’ to keep himself active as a director. In the Francois Truffaut published interview he describes it as ‘the lowest ebb of my career’ and, like ‘Number Seventeen’, it is pretty shocking. In this case, however, the film is hampered by being based in a genre that is a shift out of whack from anything else he ever made. It’s often described as a ‘musical’ although it’s more a musical-biography based around the relationship of Johann Strauss the Elder and the Younger – and their battles both as composers and father and son.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the movie is this father/son relationship. The always dependable Edmund Gwenn (see ‘The Skin Game’ from 1931) delivers another strong performance as the elder Strauss, all arrogant artistic bluster and pride tempered ultimately by love and respect for his offspring.

He simultaneously wants his son (played by Esmond Knight) to succeed but is equally unwilling to give up his hard won composer-mantle. His contemptuous reading of the lyrics the Countess Helga von Stahl (mentor and patron to the Younger, played by Fay Compton) has written for his son sums up his disdain for anything new on the horizon, and the slowly more desperate clinging to his waning reputation.

There is a very interesting scene set in a bakery (Strauss the Younger works there in an attempt to woo Jessie Matthews’ Rasi, the bakery owner’s daughter and the main love interest) with the young composer watching the preparation of various bread-based products and being inspired to write his masterpiece. It is fairly abstract in comparison to the rest of the film but does work well (it feels like the kind of ‘composed’ sequence that Michael Powell would later strive for – the music dictating the visuals. Interesting that Esmond Knight would become a Powell and Pressburger staple in such productions as, amongst others, ‘Black Narcissus’, ‘The Red Shoes’ and ‘Peeping Tom’). As more and more baking gadgets are employed, so the sequence grows in complexity as does his composition – it’s one of the best parts of the movie (the closing performance scene being the main other high watermark).

It’s rare in cinema that the writing of a song or poem or any creative art is shown at all convincingly – but in this case Hitchcock does it pretty well, avoiding too much of a fromage factor*.

Jessie Matthews is the name above the title (she was one of the biggest musical stars in Britain at the time) but is consistently marginalised from the action in a noticeable way. Background reading on the film notes how Matthews did not gel at all with her director and he actively sought ways to shoot that involved her not appearing onscreen. A bit childish no doubt, but it does illustrate the power of the director to oversee all processes and ultimately control a performance, or in this case an entire starring role. As well as Rasi being the main romantic interest, there are strong intimations that the Younger Strauss is involved with the much older Countess – her husband duffing him up at one point. as his wife sneaks out a back window. It feels quite daring to suggest this kind of ménage-a-trois, and quite entertaining. The Countess has to council the younger Rasi at one point to let her beau realise his ambitions and not limit him, and you do get the impression that when the young couple finally do go off together he’s in for a life of tedious nagging.

There are some clunky old attempts at humour, all pretty clumsily handled – cakes being dropped, a guy being splattered with a firehouse, Rasi being pulled back and forth by her two possible suitors and finally having her dress pulled off on a ladder, plate dropping hilarity in the later scenes etc. It all feels a bit strained and out of kilter, and ultimately not very funny. The whole thing is undeniably light and frivolous and certainly has a romantic feel to it that is attractive – but Hitch is not the man to oversee all of this and it feels like he’s wearing a suit a size or two too small.

Technically, the film feels like a leap forward – the sound recording a lot slicker than the crudeness of ‘Number Seventeen’ and ‘Rich and Strange’. It’s a complex film in its use of music (which drives the whole thing along) and the most impressive scenes are those that are driven by the sweeping and famous themes of the two composers. There are slick camera moves and very cinematic moments – Rasi running towards camera after having a tiff with Strauss pere, then a really great (and very Powell and Pressburger-ian) match cut to her entering the next room (@ 40 minutes) plus an impressive cut hidden by a camera move behind a tree @ 51 minutes, feeling like a precursor to similar edits in ‘Rope’ from 1948. In the later scenes, there are graceful and lovely camera moves around the orchestra that lure you into the romance of the whole enterprise.

The recital scene, with Daddy having his watch retimed to make him late for an evening soiree – thus giving Younger a chance to present his masterpiece of the ‘The Blue Danube’ – is actually very exciting: will the old guy get there in time to hear his son’s triumph and either go mad with anger or realize the beauty of this new composition? It is ‘the moment of your life’ says the Countess and Strauss the Younger seizes it and triumphs. The slow enthusiasm of the crowd, hearing this new compostion for the  first time, is nicely handled as they all gradually start to dance and enjoy the music. It has to be noted that Strauss the Younger is wearing a ludicrously large bow tie, I don’t know if this helps his conducting…

The final sequence, with the Elder signing an autograph and then qualifying it by adding ‘Senior’, is very poignant and you know that the father has accepted the son’s rising star.

However, it does feel like Hitchcock is trying to stamp some kind of personal style to the picture but fails due to the hindrance of its subject matter. ‘Waltzes From Vienna’ is a pretty weak film, fairly enjoyable with some good performances but one that if it had not been directed by him would have disappeared in the sands of time.

Miscellaneous notes

*A few examples of fairly good representations of art being created are Nick Nolte’s mad painting in Scorsese’s segment of the 1989 portmanteau picture ‘New York Stories’, Ed Harris slapping on the oils in his own ‘Pollock’ and, the best of all, Tony Hancock in Robert Day’s fantastic ‘The Rebel’ from 1961. Hancock portrays a frustrated city businessman who spends his spare time daubing the most appalling paintings and sculptures before being swept up into the Parisien art scene as a mistaken identity/visionary. If you have never seen ‘The Rebel’ check it out, it’s very funny and pokes a great deal of fun at the whole creative process and the value of Art. I also find the writing of ‘Light My Fire’ in Oliver Stone’s love it or hate it ‘The Doors’ very entertaining (in a I-can’t-believe-they-are-doing-this kind of way).

Week 14: ‘Number Seventeen’ – 1932

April 9, 2010

If there is one total misfire in all 52 existing Alfred Hitchcock movies, then ‘Number Seventeen’ is it. Suspicions start with the worryingly short, barely feature-length duration of 63 minutes and are upheld with the confused and garbled affair that ensues.

It’s ostensibly a thriller, largely set in one house and climaxing in an action sequence involving a train and a ferry. I won’t go into the machinations of the plot (check it on Wikipedia if you want to blow your brain on its weirdities), but it’s all very convoluted and there were times watching that I honestly didn’t know what was happening – even moreso than some of my previous bete-noires. Hitchcock himself described the film as a ‘disaster’ and in this case I’m inclined to agree with him. It’s one of those films that when asked to say something positive the best I can muster is ‘it’s short’.

The many and varied characters all converge on the titular house and there is much talk of jewellery heists and the like – but much of this is done very quickly and in a way that leaves you feeling nonplussed about everyone’s motivations. When the action breaks out and gets going it is pretty good but would be far more effective if you could fathom exactly they’re all up to. Fast cross cutting, big expressive faces and frantic train action serve to make for a potentially thrilling climax  – but it’s all icing and no cake. These climactic train scenes seem to involve much transferring from carriage to carriage (via the side panels or the roofs of the compartments) and after a while it’s difficult to ascertain what they’re all up to.

The intercutting of the ever more speedy train, the faces of the villains and the bus which Detective Barton (John Stuart) has requisitioned is good but it goes on and on and at times the model shots the director has a penchant for reminded me of a certain Welsh tank engine, which can only be a bad thing for both Alfred and Thomas.

Hitchcock is rather keen on using these kind of miniatures with wildly varying amounts of success. Many of the shots from the train-chase action climax of the film are blatant models and, however good they are (and they are pretty good), they do detract from the excitement.

This isn’t just from a ‘we’ve got CGI now and can do anything’ perspective, it’s just that the modelwork is only ok but easily spottable – like a war movie where the action cuts to an obvious model warship exploding (I also tend to think the waves are always the wrong size in these kind of seabound sequences*). As well as models, he uses a fair amount of slightly sped up footage in the action scenes here, and it also is easily identifiable and doesn’t really work (there will be more examples of this in the forthcoming months).

There are some points worthy of mention where the director slaps his signature style on the proceedings. The opening, with Barton entering the house, is executed in pretty much one shot – through the doorway and with a view up the spiral stairs.

This kind of one-shot-travelling-camera will be used by Hitchcock extensively in later movies and it’s an early instance of this kind of experimentation (it’s clunky as hell and feels like the cameraman is actually walking up the few steps into the entrance way, but still admirable he should give it a go). These opening shots are ridiculously expressionistic in style with extreme lighting, mad facial expressions, strident music punctuated by the front door slamming – and what looks like a jump cut as the two characters (Detective Barton and Bob, played by Leon M. Lion) confront each other and discover the dead body (dah-dah-daaaah!!).

It’s pretty impressive but you either view it as a clever set up or just see it as a kind of crude student film – it feels like a lot of style over substance and the rest of the film will unfortunately bear this out. There’s no dialogue at all for the first five minutes.

The film is very dark throughout, all the action occurring inside the house or in the night-time chase (I suppose the darkness helps the effectiveness of the miniatures). This also doesn’t help understanding the whole thing as the film feels very much a one tone, gloomy and dark affair.

Leon M. Lion as Ben is one of those characters who is present in much of the action but largely seems to gurn his way through and be consistently clueless (see Churdles Ash from ‘The Farmer’s Wife’). His discovery of the dead body’s gun and subsequent examination (pointing it straight at his face and commenting that the trigger is stiff) should be comedy but I don’t buy that anyone is that dumb.

Lion kept reminding me of Max Schreck’s vampiric appearance in F.W. Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’ – but not in a good way. Typically, he makes it all the way to the end of the film just to keep the irritation level as high as possible. He is also reminiscent of Dennis Weaver’s bizarre turn as the motel owner in Orson Welles’ ‘Touch of Evil’ – as Janet Leigh is drugged  and Weaver pops up repeatedly with some over the top acting that only serves to distract you from the action (maybe that’s the point). These characters clearly are meant to be some kind of Shakepearean ‘fool’ to undercut the narrative with humour, but it’s a dangerous game when they take your attention away from what you should be viewing. In this case, Ben is just annoying and ends up getting totally blathered on wine whilst the steam train rushes towards the film’s conclusion (it stops en route at stations such as Pointless Street, Confusing Cross, WTF Junction and Can I Go Now?)

There are many moments in the film that feel like out and out surrealism. The villains who appear at approximately 22 minutes into the running time (ostensibly to view the house for a possible purchase – although why you would do this in the middle of the night is anyone’s guess), all come into the house in a very laboured and exaggeratedly slow manner – it feels a mixture of suspense story and Luis Bunuel, the shots cutting together rather oddly and the acting overly stilted and strange. Maybe the whole thing is some kind of stylistic gag and Hitchcock is intentionally messing with the audience’s expectations – although I think that’s maybe a mental leap too far. The acting throughout the picture is very selfconscious, very stylised, very deliberate and very odd. There are moments when it literally feels like an amateur play and this is all distracting from the story, such as it is. Such a moment is the reappearance of Ackroyd (Henry Caine), masquerading as the big boss Sheldrake (and who we previously thought was the dead body at the top of the stairs, don’t ask, please God don’t ask). He comes up the staircase in a very slow robotic manner, the music punctuating his steps – it’s all so mannered and strange. He then gets into a (actually very good) fist fight with the real Sheldrake (Garry Marsh) before being twatted on the head by the inept Ben. I was pretty lost by this point, if indeed there is a point.

The whole film is a bizarre mixture of suspense, surreal ‘comedy’ (when Barton and Rose Ackroyd – Ann Casson –  go to free Ben what does he do? Why of course – he punches her full in the face!), chase movie and Am-Dram student film-making. All in all, ‘Number Seventeen’ is a curiosity and not to be approached with high expectations. It does get better (ie. funnier, more bizarre, more stupid, sillier etc) with a second viewing and there are commendable aspects but ultimately, like Bob Dylan’s 1970 ‘Self Portrait’ LP, it’s ‘for completists only’.

Miscellaneous notes

*As a side note, it always amused me in older movies that they couldn’t do helicopters exploding so they always had them suspiciously flying behind a convenient hill and then explode offscreen. I guess we’re just spoiled nowadays…

One big old spirally staircase dominates the action in the house with various characters chained to it, hanging off it or generally running up and down attempting to locate their lost plot.