dir. Alfred Hitchcock
[This review is part of the Greater Good Blogathon, hosted by: Self-Dtyled Siren, Ferdy on Films, and This Island Rod. Please donate to film preservation.]
Autumn leaves skitter across an English sidewalk; a strong gust soon forces a gentleman's hat past them, piquing the interest of the camera, which now follows the hat until it comes to rest against a gate. When the hatless owner of the hat finally reaches the hat, the hatless man picks up the hat—and then notices the building in front of the hat. Lights and shadows cavort in the windows. Hell, the man thinks, what's all this then? He carefully approaches the door, which is soon blown open by the wind; and then he steps inside to prowl the joint.
In the house, he discovers: a seemingly dead body; a hobo; and a mysterious woman, prowling the joint in search of her father.
And then, other folks show up in search of a necklace.
And then, crossings and double-crossings.
And then, from there...fuck it; I can't make heads nor tails of this movie.
Hitchcock fan though I am, I am still quite unfamilier with much of the man's earlier work, which is why I wanted to review Number 17 for this blogathon. I know, admire and appreciate Hitchcock's technique; he has more than earned his reputation as the master of suspense, the preeminent thriller director. So how, I thought, would his earlier work stack up against his better-known later masterpieces. Was he firing on all cylinders right out of the gate? Did he falter initially, only to find his way later on? What I discovered with Number 17 was surprising, enlightening, and—I have to be honest—somewhat frustrating.
Yes, this is ostensibly a thriller; it's got all the right components: a heist gone wrong; innocent people, ensnared in the proceedings, who try to make sense of it all; a thrilling chase; crossings and double-crossings; people who aren't what they appear. But this is where the similarities to anything Hitchcock would later film end. All of the components, as I said, are here; but without any of the connective tissue, any of the elements that bind the pieces into a coherent whole. And this is what actually intrigued me about the picture. Initially.
You see, when no attempt was made to explain why the mysterious main character would choose to enter the unknown house, and then get involved in the shenanigans involving the other people who have seemingly no reason to be there, and, furthermore, continue his involvement when he finally has a chance to escape; I was quite giddy. Hitchcock seemingly said, you want reason; fuck reason. Given the dream-like opening: the fluid camera gracefully following the man's hat toward the building, and the camera's seemingly arbitrary decision to follow this particular story, gave the affair a surreal quality. It almost seemed a joke on the genre. Why would the main character get involved in this story? Why would he stay involved when all sense and logic pointed to him getting the hell out of dodge? To set the plot in motion, silly? What else reason do you need?
This movie needed no other catalyst to set the wheels in motion than its existence as a thriller—the necessities of genre conventions. This was a deconstruction of the genre to which, only later in his career, Hitchcock's name would become synonymous. Indeed, his work on Number 17 seems almost to presage the later masterful taking-the-piss-out-of-the-thriller thriller that was The Trouble with Harry. If Hitchcock had followed the dream illogic to to its logical conclusion, I would have heralded Number 17 as such. I would have thought this an undiscovered gem worthy of study, a Rosetta stone of sorts to understand the master's later work.
Where Hitchcock lost me was his attempt to force reason onto the story. You see, in the very final scene, after some plot twists, we discover that the main character is actually an undercover cop. He got involved as part of a sting operation. There you go, folks; that's why. The end.
Hitchcock should have cut his losses, realized the insanity he was stuck with, and went full-force ahead with the material. Instead, he opted to bring reason to insanity, never a winning strategy. What could have been an interesting stab at Bunuel-lite surrealism is instead marred by an attempt to play it straight. Nice try, Hitchcock, but I prefer my insanity served up with a heaping helping of crazy sauce.