When an ordinary middle-class English couple takes a trip around the world, they “suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange” in Alfred Hitchcock‘s little-seen early talkie Rich and Strange (1931), now licensed from StudioCanal as a Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.
The wonderful opening sequences prove that, as with Number Seventeen (1932), Hitchcock wasn’t finished with the “pure cinema” of silent films and was prepared to shoot elaborate silent sequences while experimenting with post-dubbed soundtracks. The first shot begins with a closeup of an accounting ledger filled with dull numbers in columns. The book is abruptly shut and the camera looks upward to a huge set combining Art Deco motifs with Expressionist shadows over a sea of benchlike desks at the end of a workday. The workers scurry like rats in a maze as the camera pans 360 degrees over orchestrated troop movements of men, then women, their gabbling heard under perky music.
In this and the subway scene, Hitchcock shows the influence of two 1928 classics, King Vidor’s The Crowd and Anthony Asquith’s Underground, plus his own Blackmail (1929) and just a hint, a whiff, a soupcon of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Here’s why early Hitchcock is meat and drink to silent-film wonks who fall into raptures at the drop of a montage; we can’t help it and we don’t seek a cure.
Between the office and the subway comes a shot of virtually identical white-collar chaps in suit and tie, emerging two by two and opening their umbrellas like soldiers on parade. Here’s where we’re introduced to Fred Hill (Henry Kendall), who stands out from the crowd because his umbrella won’t open. That’s the first sign of his social inadequacy and frustration in the modern world of urban commuters, and it’s no stretch to project sexual symbolism as well. The thing only works briefly when he’s outside his home in a narrow lane of identical houses, but he doesn’t need it then, or rather, the prospect of home wilts him. When he walks into his home to his wife, the fabric slides off the downcast handle.
Emily Hill, or Em, is played by Joan Barry, styled as a classic “Hitchcock blonde” but warm, intelligent, and contented in personality. She’s much smarter and more appealing than Fred and by far the morally stronger character. When she’s tempted to stray, it’s because a man genuinely loves her and treats her better than her husband, while the husband’s tendency to stray is blind, foolish, and hoodwinked. His affair attracts him as an exotic Arabian Nights fantasy, as shown in the sequence of the costume ball.
Indeed, one of the film’s most important aspects is the male lead’s unlikable qualities. He’s tall and handsome and that’s about it. The film’s events let him have it between the eyes as Emily learns to see Fred as others see him – spoiled, empty, petty, self-pitying, superior, and persnickety. He’ll spend the film making high-handed remarks to Emily but only at one moment of extremity will she call him a fool. He matures somewhat but isn’t quite cured.
Critics have discussed the importance of the “wrong man” trope in Hitchcock’s films, but his work can be defined equally in terms of the “guilty man”, who are countless. This is partly because guilt is a general, transferable, viral quality and partly because Hitchcock has a long streak of nominal heroes who do objectionable things, especially treating women badly.
Hitchcock displays this behavior to us, and we’re so trained to see film heroes as dazzling creatures – Ivor Novello, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Joseph Cotten, Farley Granger, Richard Todd, Rod Taylor, Sean Connery – that we’re ready to forgive all manner of behavior, like the heroines who want to believe in a handsome man’s innocence. Sometimes conventions and censorship even stymied Hitchcock from going as far as he wanted in this direction, at least prior to Psycho (1960) and Frenzy (1972).
Whatever Hitchcock’s “guilty” women do, it’s consistently in the context of provocation from men. As he analyzes the positions women are put into by society, and how they’re punished for it, Hitchcock might stake a claim as a feminist filmmaker, if a sadistic one.
Back to Fred and Em at home. This is the first talking scene with live sound, and no sooner has Fred expressed his frustration with humdrum life and his wish to travel when, like a wish granted by a genie or a rich uncle, he receives news of travel money. They book a luxury cruise. While Fred is seasick, Em enjoys the friendship of Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont). Later, Fred throws himself whole-heartedly into an affair with a heavily accented German “Princess” (Betty Amann), and everyone tries to avoid an unnamed busybody (Elsie Randolph).
The world tour will have many stops at bits of stock footage, for of course the film wasn’t shot on location but rather expensively on large studio sets. The acts at the Folies Bergère include a glimpse of topless dancers and a young black boy playing the banjo. When the Hills mingle with Suez Arabs or the inhabitants of a Chinese junk, these background figures seem to use ethnically accurate casting.
This is a film about a clueless English couple wandering the world, basically in English colonial territories, and being chastened by what they find, which is what they brought: themselves. For a comedy, the events flirt openly with grimness and, in the last act, suspenseful danger.
As a comedy of marriage, it’s more sobering and sour than reassuring as the Hills progress or regress from a luxury ship to a steamer to a junk. This contraction of space and options brings them closer to each other, literally. Though they never realize it, Hitchcock makes us aware that their carelessness is responsible for the final capsizing of the steamer and one person’s death. Such is Hitchcock’s notion of comedy.
Let’s discuss the symbolism of the two black cats, signs of bad luck. One cat belongs to the Hills, and an irritated Fred chases him off the table. A mark of Fred’s development is that, in the end, he lifts the cat from the table with more patience. Perhaps he’s making friends with his bad luck.
In between these events, another cat is found on the steamer and meets a grim fate for the sake of a (literal) gag on the Chinese junk whose residents glower silently at their unwelcome guests. If we think the joke is politically insensitive, it may be that we’re insufficiently multicultural. There are indeed parts of China and elsewhere in Asia where cats are eaten, and Hitchcock doesn’t offer a condemnation of it. His point is a joke at the expense of his complacent English couple and the difference between their domesticity and the world at large.
Hitchcock is credited with adapting and directing. His wife Alma Reville wrote the script with Val Valentine, based on a story of the same title by Australian writer Dale Collins. According to a Sydney Morning Herald review of Collins’ novel on 12 December 1930, the story summarized is exactly the same as the movie. One “meta” wrinkle is that Collins includes himself as a minor character, and Hitchcock told Peter Bogdanovich that, at one point, the film was going to end with Hitchcock as himself deciding no one would believe the Hills’ story.
Despite the closely followed novel, some critics give more weight to Hitchcock and Reville’s personal impetus, as they’d just taken a tour and instigated the project with producer John Maxwell. The film, called Rich and Strange in the UK and East of Shanghai in the US, did well nowhere. Hitchcock expressed a liking for the film to François Truffaut; their dialogue is included as a bonus. A brief intro by French critic Noel Simsolo dismisses Collins’ existence to claim that Hitchcock wants to express the hollowness of the Hills’ childless lives. In his commentary, film critic Troy Howarth discusses the film in the context of the master’s output.
As with Number Seventeen, this film is no masterpiece and seems like a throwaway. It’s similarly worth watching in this very sharp digital restoration and remastering, especially for those who know that all Hitchcock’s films offer rewards.