Week 14: ‘Number Seventeen’ – 1932

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.

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