Friday, November 7, 2014
(July 1932, U.S.)
Alfred Hitchcock's NUMBER 17 is actually one of the more frustrating films I've ever had to watch! Don't get me wrong - it's not a bad film (I wouldn't be discussing it if it were). The problem is that the film falls into the category of Hitchcock's array of early British films that have fallen into the public domain of DVD release, which unfortunately, leaves many versions of this black and white classic very grainy and a little tough (and frustrating!) to watch, particularly in the era we presently live in where the high definition experience of Blu-Ray discs are the norm for watching films. Nonetheless, once you can settle your eyes, ears and mind on the film and take in the suspense that Hitchcock was infamous for, it actually becomes quite an entertaining experience, and all in the running time of just sixty-four minutes.
Admittedly, there is another source of frustration with this film and that's plot and characters. Again, not that they're bad in any way, they're just about as difficult and confusing to keep up with as any complex Agatha Christie agenda. Believe it or not, I actually had to re-familiarize myself with the basic synopsis on the web before sitting down to take this film in. At the heart of the story is the simple case of a jewelry heist already taken place and a group of people who are on the trail of a valuable, stolen necklace. It begins with a lone detective by the name of Barton (played by John Stuart - NOT the political satirist!) entering an ordinary London house that appears to be for sale or rent. Once inside, though, the atmosphere is dark and rather creepy, complete with the sound of howling winds and close-up shots of mysterious hands reaching for door knobs and staircases, even reminiscent of German Expressionist films. Here's a sample...
Oh yeah, and did I mention that there's also what appears to be a dead body at the top of those stairs? Enter now a very strange vagrant who's squatting inside the house by the name of only Ben (played by Leon Lion - no joke, that's really his name!). Ben appears to be a simple idiot who happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. He's a man who's clearly meant to be the film's comic relief and social lap dog as he continuously follows those who are smarter than him and repeatedly calling every other man, "Guv'nor" in that thick cockney accent of his. So what's started out as one man, leads to two and inevitably leads to a whole group of people who have entered this strange house in search of the same stolen necklace, including the thieves themselves. It would also appear that nearly everyone is not exactly who they really claim to be (I told you the characters were confusing!) and even one woman who is supposed to be deaf and dumb ends up surprising everyone (and us) by talking when the moment call for it. The thieves themselves are also not even your traditional thieves. Remember, this is an English film, so believe it or not, we're dealing with very proper, well dressed thieves who are very particular in their manners, remembering to say please when they pull a gun on their targets and also apologize for the inconvenience. Ah yes, only in Great Britain!
Despite its charm and its class, Hitchcock reminds us that this is still a suspense film with good folks and bad folks. For its time, there is violence and gunshots, but they're either very subdued or even sped up in the film to include it as almost part of the dreary atmosphere itself. Atmosphere is what Hitchcock clearly intends to give us here, nearly making the action and suspense almost secondary...in all but one sequence, though. For its getaway climax, the thieves are prepared to board and hijack a moving train out of London, and I must say, for an early black and white film of 1932, this is a better and more exciting action sequence that one might expect, particularly when the train is running out of control and inevitably crashes in the end. One can't help but wonder if director Brian DePalma was inspired by this film when he created his own speeding train climax in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996). The sequence is playfully frantic and can even make some of Michael Bay's modern work appear lame (I guess that's just how much I detest most of Michael Bay's work!).
Now, you remember when I previously described the character of Ben as just a mindless oaf who only appeared to be in this film for comic relief? Well, I still stand by that, but it's also important to remember that in any traditional suspense film, nothing is how it first appears. That in mind, guess who actually ends up with the stolen, valuable necklace at the end of the film! So you see - there's dumb and there's not quite so dumb!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Ben: "Ya don't have to do nothin' in this 'ere house! Ya stand still and things happen!"