This is another rather small film – but it does travel the world extensively. Fred Hill (Henry Kendall) finds himself frustrated by the repetitiveness of his humdrum commuter life and yearns for adventure. His wife Emily (Joan Barry, the voice talent who dubbed Anny Ondra in ‘Blackmail’) is more content but dutifully goes along with her husband. They secure an advance on an inheritance and embark on a series of misadventures around the globe before near disaster strikes with both of them close to being drowned, ultimately returning home to their normal lives all the happier and relieved to fall back into their previous routine. It’s a travelogue movie and pretty enjoyable on the way through, as a journey should be.
The depiction of Fred’s tedious life at the opening of the film is very slickly handled – fast paced music matched nicely to a single shot going from an accounts ledger, pulling back to reveal an office – 6 o’clock and everyone’s out the door in a flash. Umbrellas, a crowded tube train, people jostling for position, Fred having an incident with his newspaper and reading a small ad: ‘are you satisfied with your present circumstances?’ Fred is right royally hacked off with the whole thing, and his umbrella is broken, goddammit. The whole opening plays like a silent movie, and is really well executed.
The film title is established clearly as a quote from ‘The Tempest’ when they receive the inheritance letter:
(“Full fathom five thy father lies, / Of his bones are coral made, / Those are pearls that were his eyes: / Nothing of him that doth fade, / But…)
…Doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.” (only this latter part is featured onscreen, which simplifies the quote but doesn’t make it necessarily easier to understand – I’m not sure you ‘get’ the quote without its full context).
There are lots of examples of Hitchcock playing with visuals thoughout the film, and many of them are very good. Fred tries to take a holiday snap of Emily when they first set sail, but is thwarted by the rollicking sea – we see his p.o.v. through the camera as the ship sways uncontrollably.
Later, the inebriated Fred attempts to set his watch to the rotating hands of a lift’s floor guide, getting himself very discombobulated in the process.
Elsewhere, as Fred lies stricken with sea-sickness, he looks at the on-board menu and the fare drifts out at him in a rather surreal, but effective, way – ‘pea soup’, ‘boiled leg of pork’ ‘lobster mayonnaise’ float by in a potential puke-inducing manner.
Fred and Emily’s first experience of foreign life is in Paris and Hitchcock does a lovely montage sequence where we see their faces jump cutting left to right of frame and intercut with all the exciting sights they are seeing. It’s a really fun and clever way to communicate their bedazzlement with the whole experience. Later, at her lowest ebb after Fred has gone on his dalliance with the Princess (Betty Amann), Emily looks out of the hotel window and two vertical black bars are shown prison-like across the idyllic scene.
She then receives a letter from Commander Gordon (her prospective beau, played by Percy Marmont who will later appear in both ‘Young and Innocent’ and ‘Secret Agent’) who respects her decision to stick by Fred – Emily’s eyes misting over and the image blurring as she is overcome by emotion.
I didn’t quite buy the fact that both of them would quite so easily be tempted away from each other with potential extra-curricular relationships, it all seems to happen very quickly and they’re both equally guilty of salacious eye-wandering. It’s obviously all part of their experience of potential new lives, and giving in to the temptation of possibility, but even on their first trip ashore the (fake) Princess is walking arm in arm with Fred with only a slight look of regret from Emily who is quickly distracted by her Commander. Said Commander is very slick and charming and the Princess very exotic and duskily alluring (her brunette locks contrasting with the blonde Emily). Fred and Emily are so naïve they very nearly fall prey to these two temptors– Fred especially being led by mini-Fred and at one point togged up at the ship’s carnival like Elvis in ‘Harem Holiday’ and gratefully succumbing to the Princess’s comely curves.
There’s a slightly clumsy, but pretty good, scene when the two new couples are in rickshaws and get locked together in heavy traffic, neither able to advance or retreat and trapped together, bumping around suggestively.
It’s interesting that, even though this is a fully-fledged talkie, the film often uses caption cards to move the action on and add to the narrative coherence:
‘To get to Paris you have to cross the Channel’
‘To get to the Folies Bergere you have to cross Paris’
‘And to get to your room you have to cross the hotel lounge’
Later, these cards become destination place holders: Marseilles/Suez canal/Columbo. The cards are a neat way of charting their journey although it’s a little surprising Hitchcock doesn’t come up with a more inventive way of doing this (eg. the rather clichéd stickers-on-a-suitcase idea), rather than just white on black captions. The most bizarre of these cards is when the husband finally emerges from his sickness-stupor and emerges on deck with the caption ‘Fred’ (as if we didn’t know), followed shortly after by his first meeting with the Princess which is clarified rather clumsily by the caption ‘Fred had met a Princess!’ It’s almost like the plot wasn’t making total sense and Hitchcock wants to really spell it out for everyone, clunky though it is. He then does this again with further ‘Fred’ and ‘The Princess’ cards as they meet once again (I was starting to feel a bit spoonfed by this point, I have to say).
The closing section of the film is well done, their returning-to-home steamer scuttled and the pair of them seemingly bound for death. As the sea rises outside their porthole their exit is blocked, the lights dim and water appears under the door as they are thrown together and forgive each other – resigned as they are to an almost certain demise. The running gag of the cat (Fred disdaining it at the start of the film in their flat) comes to the fore here as they are saved by a passing Chinese junk, who then proceed to cook them some badly needed sustenance only for them to see the ship’s cat’s skin stretched out to dry in the sun – much to their distaste and horror as they heave towards the side of the boat.
When they finally arrive safely home, Fred is a bit more gentle to their own cat, lifting it from the table rather than shooing it away in annoyance as he did earlier. The Chinese junk sequence features a strange part wherein one of the oriental sailors gets entangled in a rope and drowns, while his shipmates fixedly stare with no attempt to save him – very bizarre, and I don’t really understand what precisely is going on here*.
‘Rich and Strange’ is the most out and out ‘comedy’ Hitchcock had made up to this point and does illustrate his skill at visual gags – the story rife with opportunity for this kind of business (the later ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ delves into straight comedy also, as does the bizarre ‘The Trouble with Harry’). I really enjoyed it as a light piece of fluff entertainment and for its interesting take on the inevitable repetition of married life and the urge to escape, only to be taught how valuable and fragile the whole thing is. The intercutting of obvious stock footage is ok (although some shots are more glaringly obvious than others, particularly the more grainy stuff) and the pace is kept up throughout. It also has a central moral that, although a little clichéd (there’s no place like home), is refreshingly handled and good fun. It helps enormously that his two stars are adept at both the comedic and the poignant.
Hitchcock loves a slightly batty, bespectacled middle/old age female and a good one pops up at about 17 minutes in. In this case, she’s an eccentric spinster (played by Elsie Randolph) who schmoozes around the Commander and Fred and any other male cluelessly. She’s a recurring motif for the lonely and, although overcooked at times, is fairly amusing.
The version I watched was the US release running at 83 minutes. In the UK this ran 10 minutes longer – personally I don’t think it needs to as it seemed lean and pacey as it was.
*I had this insightful comment sent in from Steve Sullivan which throws some light on what is occurring in this scene:
I don’t know if you’ll ever see this, but re your puzzlement at the ‘strange part’ in the Chinese junk sequence where its crew watches one of its own drown while entangled in a rope: “very bizarre, and I don’t really understand what precisely is going on here.”
Hitchcock is referencing the widespread belief at the time that the Chinese do not value human life the way Westerners do; that they are capable to allowing people to die in utter indifference. You will find this indifference depicted in popular literature, such as Tai-Pan by James Clavell and even novels by Chinese writers, such as Moment in Peking by Lin Yutang…
Thanks Steve – we live and learn…