The startling clarity of the British Film Institute’s 4K restoration of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Number Seventeen reveals an often physically beautiful film that, in the space of one hour, morphs from a play-based “old dark house” bit of visual bravura to a frantic high-speed chase with miniature models in the last act. It’s available on a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.
An opening tracking shot follows the leaves along a windblown sidewalk as they’re joined by a fedora blowing along with them. The hat-owner catches up in front of the old dark house, which is “For Let”, and our man notices light traveling up inside the windows to the top floor. The camera follows him inside, and the camera wobbles so much it seems it may clobber him on the head.
Things get mysteriouser and mysteriouser inside, as his point of view looks upward to where a man holds a candle out into space. This resembles a shot from Carl-Theodor Dreyer‘s Vampyr of the same year. I’m not sure Hitchcock could have known that, but he’s indulging everything he’d learned about German Expressionism, especially the shadow-play. As the handful of confusing characters congregates and tell lies about their identities and purposes, Hitchcock lavishes them with creepy shadows.
This film uses a device he’d used before: the discovery of a body leads to a scream punctuated by a piercing train whistle. For that moment, he even throws in a distorted image of one of the men, probably a reflection in a funhouse mirror. It feels as though Hitchcock, whose opening had been an example of his beloved “pure cinema”, is amusing himself amid the banter required when the story gets underway. I believe this film features Hitchcock’s first disappearing body in what’s essentially a jokey lark of a thriller.
The film’s nominal star is Leon M. Lion, who had produced and starred in the original play by J. Jefferson Farjeon. Lion’s Ben is a Cockney sailor who provides class-based comedy and commentary amid all the well-dressed players who circle each other. He’s also by far the most straightforward character, and he’s not above a little larceny involving a diamond necklace.
Our hat-chaser is played by John Stuart, whose name and function we never learn until the end. The hat is a device to make it look as though he’s just wandered in by accident. The characters played by Donald Calthrop, Garry Marsh, and Anne Grey, the latter a supposed deaf-mute, are all duplicitous, and those played by Ann Casson and Henry Caine also conceal motives until the story drops them.
If the stage drama becomes undiluted hocus-pocus at the service of shadows and reversals of action and a few stunts, such as a collapsing banister, the last reel is an ode to mechanical speed that would be appreciated by any Futurist of the most rabid (or rapid?) stripe. The racing train, the hijacked bus, and the Channel ferry are all miniature models intercut with shots of real humans for decoration, and one remarkable shot of the ferry appears to use a Schüfftan process to make actors magically appear alongside the models. Orson Welles would famously compare a film studio to a giant model train, and Hitchcock here seems to be playing like gangbusters.
I remember watching a fuzzy public-domain VHS of this title, probably on the Video Yesteryear label back in the 1980s and liking it, being especially impressed with how the opening scenes apply silent-film techniques to this early talkie. I felt as though Hitchcock had wished the whole film might be silent, for he seemed to lose interest when the dialogue started. That’s one reason this restoration is revelatory, for now it looks like his interest in the plastic qualities of cinema is engaged throughout.
Those elements that engaged him are probably due less to Farjeon’s play or to scriptwriter Rodney Ackland than to the other two names on the screenplay: himself and wife Alma Reville. In an introduction, French critic Noel Simsolo suggests that Hitchcock’s fetishism comes through in the recurring use of handcuffs. The result isn’t a great film but a good one that reminds us of what a casually obsessive craftsman he was. Even minor Hitchcock is worth seeing.
Hitchcock wasn’t satisfied with the film because he tended to dislike those films that didn’t do well at the box office. Extras on the disc include extracts from Hitchcock’s interview with Francois Truffaut plus a one-hour French documentary on Hitchcock’s early films. For some reason, that bonus hour isn’t presented in correct aspect ratio but that can be adjusted. I found film historian Peter Tonguette’s commentary of much less interest than the film itself.