The background image to the credits of this, not great, movie is a large camera in silhouette. This aspect of the film (the press and their obsession with a gossipy scandal, in this case a ‘fallen’ woman guilty of ‘misconduct’) is the most interesting aspect of it and resonates with our modern times. ‘“Virtue is its own reward” they say – – but “easy virtue” is society’s reward for a slandered reputation’, very politely put.
‘Easy Virtue’ has a lovely opening. We see a close-up of a newspaper establishing we are about to hear about a divorce suit, then we cut to the top of a bewigged judge’s head as he slowly looks up. We see the courtroom from his p.o.v. – he raises his monocle and the barrister appears in a trick shot within the monocle.
The judge yawns, looks to his right and see an out of focus woman, more monocle-action and she comes into focus as Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans in her second Hitchcock collaboration). Very nice start.
She is getting grilled by the prosecutor as to her suspected adultery, we cut to the gallery as the crowd get titillated by such suggestions (nothing changes) – framed in triple arches a la ‘Downhill’. The lawyer produces a decanter, cut to close-up and Hitchcock uses this to take us to a flashback of Larita’s dissolute husband knocking back the booze as she has her portrait painted. Sympathetic glances between her and the artist gives us the set up fast and efficiently. We learn that the husband has bruised her wrists after a bout of boozing – Claude the artist (Eric Bransby Williams) gets angry and swears hubbie will never get another drink in his studio. After a few lively moments of action – including a gunshot – the cops arrive and bang, we’re in court.
There is a load of cross cutting between the flashback sequences and the courtroom in this first section, and it’s all quite elegantly done. Close-ups of the decanter and the evidence note explaining she has been left £2,000/year from Claude after his premature death, lead to repeated smooth tracks back to the scene in hand. The camera seems more fluid and smoother generally in ‘Easy Virtue’ than Hitchcock’s previous movies.
He brings in his favoured profile shots in the courtroom scene: Larita first, then the prosecuting lawyer – giving the suggestion of passing time, combining these with a swinging pendulum and monocle.
Larita is found guilty of ‘misconduct’ with Claude – she flees to the Mediterranean but is soon the subject of unwanted attention (irresistible, and blonde, as she is). During a tennis match (beginning with a nice shot through a tennis racket), she is bashed in the eye by the ball and soon is having cocktails with her accidental assailant (he with much vigorous cocktail shaking).
She receives bouquets from different admirers but is mainly interested in John Whittaker (Robin Irvine) – he is young and naïve, bothered by the other guys who are after her. His interest ‘…was like a cool breeze sweeping away the ugly memories of the past’. They venture out in a horse and cart and he declares his love and his intention to marry – some nice scenery shots here.
Eventually she caves in and agrees to marry him – Hitchcock doing a lovely thing here and having the whole acceptance earwigged by the hotel telephone operator, we see her reactions to the conversation – ending in big smiles. As always, the director is thinking of new and original ways to play a scene even, in this case, by not seeing the protagonists at all.
Following their marriage, they return to England to his parents place, a well-to-do country pad, clearly they are people of some substance. Hitchcock shows a French poodle atop their suitcases and then a British bulldog (again, really cool way of showing their journey – economical storytelling, simple idea, and really cheap to shoot!)
John’s father welcomes Larita with the choice line: ‘It’s funny, I thought you’d be dark and foreign looking!’ Try getting away with that one today.
However warm dad may be, the ladies of the family – two sisters and an almost comicly negative mother – receive Larita with icy cool and his ex is invited over to shake things up a bit (good notion, mum). The situation goes from bad to worse, Larita feeling more and more marginalized from John’s family – she drinks, she smokes, she is blonde and attractive – clearly a wrong ‘un. And then, evil domineering mother (see ‘Psycho’) finds out about her past! ‘The Filton divorce!’ she says ‘who is this woman you have pitchforked into the family?’ she asks of John.
Our sympathies lie with Larita and, from a modern standpoint, it all seems a bit extreme but interesting to see the attitude towards a ‘fallen’ woman. The mother looks genuinely evil in certain scenes and is out to poison John’s love for his new wife at every turn. Larita wants them to return to the south of France (‘we were happy there’) but John ploughs on regardless…
All in all, ‘Easy Virtue’ is ok – but only ok. You feel Hitchcock is kind of off his home turf with this one – no murders or particular action/set pieces and the intrigue is more of the domestic kind. The central (blonde, ok) character is wronged and spurned by society but, in this movie, she doesn’t seem to come up with any redemption at the end – it’s all rather bleak. The John marriage ends in divorce and Hitchcock emphasizes the intrusive invasiveness of the press cameras as they invade Larita’s life once again. ‘Shoot, there’s nothing left to kill’ she says to them in a line Hitchcock ridiculed as his worst (although as Patrick McGilligan points out in his book ‘A Life in Darkness and Light’, the fact that he drew attention to it could also suggest a certain pride at writing such a cheesy slice of dialogue). It’s an interesting movie as it deals with the aforementioned press gossip-mongering and their obsession with scandal and gossip.
Some of the relationship stuff is a little confusing in the later stages – the sisters and John’s ex look sort of similar and I found myself pausing it to figure out who was who, never a good sign. I liked the way Larita brazenly calves off pieces of her dress at one point to make it more revealing…
..and then makes a dramatic entrance down the staircase (there it is again) to the throng of guests below. She dances with John and then goes off for a chat with her ex-husband (that’s a great idea, Larita). All very defiant and kind of admirable.
The whole thing is only ok, so approach with caution.
Hitchcock pops up about 21’20” into the film – leaving the tennis court in the south of France. He resists the idea of actually playing tennis himself.
Print quality pretty poor – on the Mill Creek Entertainment label, very cheap edition.
Interesting to note female jury members in the court scenes, from what I can gather this only happened from 1920 onwards in England (although the two who did appear in these cases were excused at a certain point to attend to ‘home duties’).