HITCHCOCK MASTER OF SUSPENSE #14: RICH AND STRANGE [1931]

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Directed by:
Written by: , ,
Starring: , , ,

HCF REWIND NO.120. RICH AND STRANGE  [1931]

AVAILABLE ON DVD

RUNNING TIME: 88 min

THE HITCHCOCK CAMEO: None

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic

 

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Couple Fred and Emily Hill, living a mundane middle class life in London, receive a telegram informing them that an uncle will give them, as an advance against their future inheritance, as much money as they need to enjoy themselves in the present. Immediately Fred quits his job as a clerk and they leave on a rich people’s world cruise. Fred quickly shows his susceptibility to sea-sickness while crossing the English Channel, while in Paris, both are scandalized by the Folies Bergères and get drunk. Back on the cruise ship, Fred’s sea-sickness gets worse and worse and both take a shine to other passengers…..

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Rich and Strange, whose title comes from a song in The Tempest, seems to have a bit of a reputation as one of Hitchcock’s best pre-The Man Who Knew Too Much [generally regarded as the film which began his true career as the Master of Suspense] pictures, so I was pretty keen to see it, but it actually isn’t that good really. It’s an average comedy drama which partly wastes the potential of its premise, though it retains a certain ambiguity that is a major feature of later masterpieces like Vertigo and Rear Window. Elsewhere though, it seems rather muddled as it delves into its subjects of innocents abroad, marital satisfaction and whether money can bring happiness, with unsatisfying results. Add to that humour which often isn’t especially funny and one of the two main performers being very miscast, and you have a picture which is interesting in fits and spurts but is a little irritating and not really too enjoyable.

The odd thing is that Hitchcock himself conceived the project, the director developing a story outline by Dale Collins along with his wife Alma, and it maybe seems surprising that a married couple would write such a story, though it possibly explains why it doesn’t always have the courage of its convictions. The couple travelled themselves as part of research and at one point, due to a misunderstanding, found themselves in a brothel. The unusually lengthy shooting schedule caused by a huge amount of location shooting meant that the production could not afford major stars, but it did utilise Joan Barry who had supplied Anny Ondra’s voice in Blackmail. At least one scene was shot which didn’t make it into the finished film, but was described by Hitchcock to Francois Truffaut, where Fred is swimming with ‘the Princess’ and she locks his head between her legs, replying “wouldn’t that have been a beautiful death?” when he says she almost killed him. Rich And Strange, which was re-titled East Of Shanghai and shorn of nine minutes in the US, was neither a commercial nor critical success and for a while Hitchcock’s fortunes didn’t seem too good.

As is often the case with his films of this period, Hitchcock gets in a very inventive opening, with lengthy panning shots depicting Fred’s dull office exist and his travel home on a crowded underground train. Seemingly choreographed to Adolph Hallis’ s music, which aurally enhances every major occurrence like Fred getting up off his seat and accidently pressing down on the head of an old lady, rather than the other way round, this frenetic sequence, which is closer to Charlie Chaplin than typical Hitchcock, gives way to a very well-written scene between husband and wife where basically she is happy with their lot and he isn’t. Then they receive their money and go on their trip, and bits where their heads flip from side to side due to clever editing as they see Paris landmarks, and the two getting embarrassed at the Folies Bergères are awkward and must have seemed boringly obvious even at the time.  Then their cruise proceeds to go all over the world, and Fred and Emily both take up with other people. Emily is the first to submit, to a dapper bachelor who seems popular with most of the females on the ship. The cheating cow seems to do this because she’s bored, her husband spending most of the time in his cabin being sea-sick. He soon gets his own back through, falling for a lady who appears to be some kind of princess.

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It’s quite clear at least one of the parties is committing adultery when Fred pays a visit to the Princess’s cabin, but the proceedings become rather tedious for a while. There’s lots of unfunny ‘comedy’ supplied by an annoying old maid who constantly makes a fool of herself as she wonders the ship looking for a man, and inter-titles which say things like “Fred” just before we see Fred”, and “to get to Paris you have to cross the sea”, which seem to be mocking titles in silent movies but get tiresome very quickly. What does get quite interesting is how unpleasant Fred becomes, hurling his wife on to a bed [one feels he would have thrown her that way even if the bed hadn’t been there] and threatening to strangle her. And then we get shipwreck thrown in, and a really ambiguous final scene where the couple bicker. Rather than being strengthened by their experiences, something which I find rather distasteful [adultery on both sides saves a marriage….hmmm], the implication seems to me that they will carry on the way they have been and will just have to make the most of it. This almost look forward to the ending of Marnie in its pessimism and I wished the rest of the movie had been as biting.

A few jokes do work, like each half of the drunk couple thinking the other is praying, Fred trying to kiss the Princess and having trouble lifting up her veil, and a really ‘black’ bit where they eat Chinese, say it’s the best meal they’ve had since they left England, than see the body of a cat being nailed down [though this bit also has a rather uncomfortable bit where someone had a baby and Fred says “these Chinese breed like rabbits”, and what’s with that odd bit where they casually watch someone accidently die?]. Technically Rich And Strange is quite good. There are some clever shots linking people together, while Hitchcock sometimes emphasises what someone is thinking by showing rapidly repeated images i.e. the number of the Princess’s room. He also seems at times to be having a laugh, like a dialogue scene where the camera focuses on the couple’s feet. What you see of the shipwreck convinces, probably because Hitchcock insisted on having a full-sized recreation of the ship in a water tank. Sound and music are well used in a film which has long stretches without dialogue, like a lengthy sequence where Emily and Gordon move around the ship and we constantly hear a romantic musical theme in differing arrangements corresponding with wherever they are, for example the jazzy arrangement of the rich people’s dance changing into a solo accordion of a member of the crew lower down. God this must have been difficult to do considering that all sound would have had to be recorded live!

Joan Barry is decent as Emily, almost succeeding in making you like her even when you shouldn’t, but the obviously homosexual Henry Kendall is just stiff and unconvincing as Fred, and the two just have no chemistry whatsoever. Betty Mann is rather enticing as the Princess. Rich And Strange is really quite intriguing, but doesn’t really come off. It’s the kind of thing he would have probably made a far better film of much later, because as I mentioned before in an earlier review, Hitchcock was in many ways the Master of Romance as well as the Master of Suspense, though Rich And Strange is hardly romantic in any way shape or form. It’s still quite a brave and interesting effort which just doesn’t really work.

Rating: ★★★★★½☆☆☆☆

About Dr Lenera 3099 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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