AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 63 min
THE HITCHCOCK CAMEO: On a bus, surrounded by other passengers, facing away and bouncing up and down
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Detective Gilbert enters a house that’s for sale. Inside the house he runs into a poor squatter named Ben and what appears to be someone Ben killed. Trying to figure out what’s going on, they see someone crawling on the roof, who then falls through it. It is a girl by the name of Rose Ackroyd, who thinks her father is next door at no.17 but then sees him dead only a few meters away. She was looking for him because she received a telegram for him which said, “have traced Suffulk necklace to Sheldrake – expect him to make get away tonight – watch NO 17 – will arrive later – Barton”. At half past midnight, the body disappears and Gilbert and Ben encounter some crooks entering no. 17…..
Around half way through Number Seventeen I almost totally lost track of what the hell was going on and decided to give up on the plot and just let it wash all over me. What is odd is that it seems like Hitchcock and his co-writers appear to have intended this. This film is best approached as a lark because that’s what it was meant to be. It’s an odd picture all things considered, the first half basically a filmed play taking place mainly in one location, the second half an action thriller set mostly on a train with input from a bus, while throughout, the story throws double-crosses and revelations about most of the characters [in this film, it really does seem that nobody is who they seem!] at you with such speed that your head may end up hurting if you try and work it all out. I enjoyed this silly bit of fun [it was another film I hadn’t seen before] more than the last two Hitchcock films though even if it can’t really be considered a success.
Hitchcock actually wanted to make a film of a play called London Wall by John Van Druten about the life of female office workers [a strange subject for him, one might think] and he worked with playwright Rodney Ackland on this until studio head John Maxwell, stung by the commercial failure of the expensive Rich And Strange, took Hitchcock off the project and gave it to Thomas Bentley, who wanted to adapt another play called Joyous Melodrama by Joseph Jefferson Farjeon which had already been filmed as a German silent in 1928. Not thinking much of the play, Hitchcock and Ackland, with help from his wife Alma, decided to accentuate the absurd aspects and turn the whole thing into a weird comedy that sometimes poked fun at the kind of melodrama it was, but the studio didn’t seem to realise what they were doing [the poster doesn’t mention that it’s supposed to be funny]. Though made cheaply, it was another commercial failure and critics generally didn’t know what to make of it. Though definitely not a major work, this wouldn’t be the first time when critics were befuddled by a Hitchcock film, something which would peak much later with films like Vertigo and Psycho.
After some very dramatic and menacing opening music which bears a strong resemblance to some of the music James Bernard would write for Hammer horror films, we have an atmospheric opening where we focus on leaves being blown across a path, then a hat which is picked up by Detective Gilbert. The mood is actually very serious as he searches the supposedly deserted house, though composer Adolph Hallis seems to signal already that this isn’t to be taken too seriously as his scoring is so over the top. The same feel continues as he encounters Ben the tramp and the dead body, but nothing seems to happen for a while until the action shifts to the house next door, various people come into the house, and understanding of the plot sweeps away. Everyone is after a diamond necklace, but they all also seem to have their own agenda and most also turn out to be someone else. It’s mostly chat until just past the halfway point, where we have a decent fight shot in a very ‘modern’ manner with lots of close-ups, a bit which is both funny and thrilling when Gilbert and Nora, handcuffed to a banister, try to free themselves and bring the banister crashing down and end up hanging from the ceiling, and then the relocation of most characters to a train. The pace becomes very fast, and just when it seems that the endless clambering about on train carriages is in danger of getting a bit tedious, the tale throws in a bus with two of the good guys in it pursuing the villain’s train.
Technically all this is very impressive for the time. It really does seem like the baddies are actually climbing atop a train, and, while the model train and bus are obvious, increasingly frenzied cross-cutting ramps up the excitement and it all climaxes spectacularly with the model train crashing into a detailed model ferry. By now the actual plot has become ludicrous and verges on unintelligible, but then it never really made much sense in the first place. Why does someone pretend to be dead? Why does someone pretend to be a deaf-mute? Lots of things are not explained, and, though this was clearly [to me, anyway] intended, the script would have been better if it had been slightly simplified. One interesting element is Detective Barton, a character who is spoken of several times, almost to the point of him being a totally invented character like George Kaplan in North By Northwest, until two people in turn claim to be him at the end! None of this is meant to be taken seriously, which means one can’t complain about things like plausibility too much. There’s even a bit where nobody seems to have the necklace.
A scene straight out of a pantomime has a villain looking for said necklace in a toilet. He’s supposedly strangled someone in there, but said person is still alive, though he has to pretend to be dead whenever the baddie looks his way. The bit that really made me laugh is when Ben, suspected of murder by Gilbert, pulls various things out of his pockets and mocks Gilbert as he does so, saying his handkerchief was used to tie the victim up, a piece of string was used to stab him and a sausage was used to hit him on the head. What with hands coming out from the side of the screen to kill in the scene described above, people’s shadows towering above them [there’s a great bit straight out of German Expressionism where an arm’s shadow reaches a door handle before the actual arm does] and other devices more usually found in Gothic horror [which had just started appearing on screen in a big way] and looking forward to film noir, the film seems oddly ahead of its time even as its clearly parodying conventions of older thriller melodramas. All the elements don’t really jell, and we aren’t given anyone to really care about, but I guess that was the point.
Leon M. Lion stands out in the cast acting-wise as Ben, very expressive and making the most of being given much of the funny stuff, Anne Gray is an okay heroine, and Donald Calthorp, an actor who had been in five of Hitchcock’s previous films, gets a bigger role this time, but generally the acting is just average. Adolph Hallis’s mock-serious score is only used when necessary and therefore usually has a decent impact. Hitchcock disliked Number Seventeen and hated the script he and his co-writers came up with. He’s too hard on it. The film doesn’t exactly work, but, much like Rich And Strange, it’s an interesting failure, and we all know interesting failures are often more intriguing than successes. And, unlike Rich And Strange, it’s pretty good fun.