The Alfred Hitchcock Project #14: Rich and Strange (1931)
Rich and Strange (aka East of Shanghai, 1931*)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by John Maxwell (6-13)
Written by Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville (11-13), Val Valentine
Based on the novel Rich and Strange (1930) by Dale Collins
Cinematography by Jack Cox (12, 13), Charles Martin
Edited by Winifred Cooper, Rene Marrison (12, 13)
Music by Adolph Hallis
Production company - British International Pictures
Distributed by Wardour Films
(1:23) Kino Lorber Blu-ray
You can find my journey (so far) through Hitchcock’s filmography here.
Although many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films contain dark humor, only a handful can be classified as comedies, and the success of those films is often debated. Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) and The Trouble with Harry (1955) both have their fans, but they’re usually few in number, not very vocal, or both, yet they far outweigh those who’ve even seen Rich and Strange.
Hitchcock’s 14th film begins with a scene that calls to mind a film from just a few years later, Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), treating audiences to shots of London office workers, working stiffs being herded like cattle as they file out of their office building like robots. Perhaps the scene was influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)?
One such worker is Fred Hill (Henry Kendall), who’s shown as someone who’s clearly out of place in this environment. Hitchcock conveys this by filming Fred having problems with his umbrella amidst seemingly dozens who aren’t having any trouble whatsoever. It was probably an old gag in 1932, and while it’s not very funny, we get the point: Fred doesn’t fit in with this environment. In his mind, he was made for something better.
Fred’s wife Emily (Joan Barry) isn’t quite as frustrated with life, instead looking forward to the day when things may be different. We get the feeling that Emily is rather content with their lot, but would certainly welcome a change for the better. (Actress Joan Barry, another Hitchcock blonde, appears in this film and no other except for dubbing the voice of Alice White [Anny Ondra] in Blackmail.)
And their luck does change when Fred receives a letter from a rich uncle. Not content to wait until he’s dead, the uncle bequeathes Fred’s inheritance now so they can enjoy themselves while they’re young. With this manipulative plot device, we’re off, and so are Fred and Emily, bound for a cruise from Marseille to the Orient.
Almost instantly Fred becomes seasick and stays in their cabin. Noticing the lovely young Emily along on board, a dapper and well-known bachelor named Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont) begins to woo her. Emily initially resists, but… We know where this is going.
Of course two can play this game, and when Fred recovers, he finds himself attracted to a German “princess” (Betty Amann). Well now…
The differences in Fred and Emily come through as they both are tempted. Emily, clearly the stronger of the two, initially resists the Commander’s advances for all the right reasons: She’s married, and she loves Fred. Fred, however, rushes in blindly (and stupidly), giving us even more evidence that he’s a spoiled little boy with no depth or maturity.
Again, we know where this is going, as audiences in 1932 undoubtedly knew as well. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a good time on this voyage.
Hitchcock gives us a wonderful scene that he used often in his career, showing us characters as they’re walking, conveying their motivation and desire. On their way to a tryst, the camera follows the legs and feet of Emily and Commander Gordon as they carefully step over a series of carelessly placed ropes and chains. Gordon steps gingerly as Emily takes care to protect her long gown. After the tryst we see the same action, but neither character practices any caution returning since the damage is done.
Hitchcock also uses a costume ball in the film, mostly to good effect, a device he would return to in Rebecca (1940), To Catch a Thief (1955), and probably others. One of the stops along the cruise finds Fred and Emily in an unnamed exotic marketplace, reminiscent of the Moroccan scenes in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Things get darker as Fred and Emily have their inevitable confrontation with each other. Being a comedy, and watching one with 1930s eyes, we might not expect such darkness. (Certainly, even by this time, Hitchcock fans would’ve at least somewhat expected this.) Suddenly we’re in the middle of a drama without a hint of comedy. Something happens here that I will not disclose, but it’s a turning point for Fred, Emily, and everyone on board.
Near the end Hitchcock delivers a scene (no spoilers) that rivals or even surpasses many other scenes to come in subsequent films as one of the most horrific moments in his career. Even with these darker moments between Fred and Emily, the scene shocks even today, making us forget that this movie started as a comedy.
Perhaps because it is a comedy, Rich and Strange tends to get overlooked or dismissed, but it’s something of a hidden gem in Hitchcock’s filmography. Hitchcock was overall pleased with the picture, but wished he could’ve gotten actors with more box office appeal (Truffaut/Hitchcock, p. 81).
Rich and Strange, while not a great film, certainly should not be passed over. Hitchcock completists will want to at least see it if not own the Kino Lorber Blu-ray, which boasts a new 4K restoration, an audio commentary by Nick Pinkerton, and an audio excerpt from Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon Interviews Icon.
As far as I can tell, Hitchcock does not make an on-camera appearance in Rich and Strange.
For more on the film (with spoilers), I refer you to Michael Barrett’s review at Pop Matters from 2022.
I hope you’ll join me next time. (I promise it won’t take another 18 months!)
* Originally released in the UK on December 10, 1931; in the U.S., January 1, 1932