Number Seventeen (1932)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by John Maxwell (6-14)
Written by Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville (11-14), Rodney Ackland
Based on the play (and later novel) Number Seventeen (1925) by Joseph Jefferson Farjeon
Cinematography by Jack Cox (12-14), Bryan Langley
Edited by A.C. Hammond
Music by Adolph Hallis
Production company - Associated British Picture Corporation (formerly British International Pictures, which appears in the credits)
Distributed by Wardour Films
(1:04) Kino Lorber Blu-ray
You can find my journey (so far) through Hitchcock’s filmography here.
Alfred Hitchcock called Number Seventeen a disaster.
The picture was assigned to Hitchcock by Elstree Studios as a “quota” picture, films that were 100% produced in Great Britain with British casts and crew that could be imported to America. Hitchcock was hoping to be given John Van Druten’s play London Wall (1931) to adapt but was instead handed Number Seventeen, an old dark house play written by Joseph Jefferson Farjeon. In protest Hitchcock apparently decided to turn the project into a parody. Yet this idea has been disputed since the play itself contains several elements of farce. (Interestingly, The Old Dark House directed by James Whale came out the same year as Number Seventeen.)
Number Seventeen opens with a tracking shot presenting strong gusts of wind not only scattering leaves along a nighttime London street, but also blowing a man’s hat onto the doorstep of a darkened house. The man (John Stuart) follows his hat to the mysterious dwelling marked “For Sale or Let,” a structure also designated with the number 17 in an upper window.
Noticing a light above and shadows from someone moving around upstairs, the man enters to find two men at the top of the stairs: one dead and one living, a homeless drifter named Ben (Leon M. Lion) who’s very much alive, talking, and agitated. Although he claims he didn’t murder anyone, we know Ben has something to hide and so does the man chasing his hat, who now introduces himself as Fordyce.
It’s not long before we have more company arriving, a young woman who enters in an unorthodox manner by falling through the roof. After dusting herself off, Rose Ackroyd (Ann Casson) claims she was on the roof of her home, number 15, searching for her missing father. Rose also shows Fordyce a telegram that mentions Number 17 and a missing necklace.
After this round of introductions, the three discover that the corpse has vanished.
Oh, but there’s more. Three additional characters enter - a man named Brant (Donald Calthrop), his deaf-mute escort Nora (Anne Grey), and a man named Henry Doyle (Barry Jones), all here under the pretense of possibly purchasing the property. (Sure, I’m sure any realtor is willing to meet you at midnight.) And then a man named Sheldrake (Garry Marsh) shows up.
Put simply, Number Seventeen is a mess. But Hitchcock’s opening is intriguing and atmospheric, making good use of quick (although not very smooth) edits, shadow play, and what appears to be hand-held camera shots. We aren’t sure who any of these characters really are, what their purpose is, or what it’s all about, but confusion and intrigue are sometimes marks of Hitchcock’s work. Events happen seemingly at random and as a consequence, few of the picture’s twists are satisfying. Yet the film’s major problem is that the audience has no idea whose story this is.
It’s a given that everyone is lying about something (and maybe everything), but the script never allows any of these characters to develop. (Making things more complicated, some of them change identities.) Again, some confusion is acceptable, but there comes a point in any standard narrative in which the audience has to ask themselves, “How much longer until I know where I stand with this film?” When you watch a mystery or a thriller, the audience has to have some idea where things are headed, even if that particular direction is a deceptive one. If after a half hour (of a 64-minute movie) you don’t know who these people are and what they want, the viewing experience no longer becomes entertainment but frustration.
Yet the film is not without interest.
As mentioned before, Number Seventeen shows a Hitchcock who is more than willing to play around with quick cuts, experiment with light and shadow, and even create some wild fight scenes. Although these brawls are messy and a bit ridiculous, one brief moment brought to mind Leonard (Martin Landau) getting decked by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) in North by Northwest (1959). Plus the claustrophobic nature of the setting works well.
The discovery of a body whose murder we have not witnessed is also intriguing. As far as I can tell (and I have seen all but seven of Hitchcock’s films), it’s rare that we see a corpse and have no idea how the murder was committed or by whom**. The only other instance I can think of in Hitchcock’s filmography is The Trouble with Harry (1955), but if I’ve missed one, please let me know.
Some of the film’s comedic elements work fairly well, but Leon M. Lion’s schtick becomes tiresome quickly. Apparently Hitchcock thought the same thing. Lion also starred in the original stage play, and Hitchcock may have had no say in casting him.
If the film is remembered at all it is usually for the final chase sequence involving a train, a bus, and a ferry. Modern audiences can easily spot the use of models, sets, and other trickery, but Hitchcock makes it work for the most part. Look at how some of Hitchcock’s more memorable suspense scenes are edited, such as the wine cellar in Notorious (1946), the bell tower in Vertigo (1958), the crop dusting scene in North by Northwest (1959), and the masterful shower scene from Psycho (1960), just to name a few. Compared to these, Number Seventeen simply shows Hitchcock playing in the sandbox.
But this brings up another point: If Hitchcock didn’t want to make this film, did he use it as an opportunity to experiment? Was he simply trying things out to see what worked and what didn’t? If so, what did he learn?
I believe that Hitchcock, like any great artist, allowed himself to learn from experimentation, remembering what worked, what didn’t, and how he could refine some of the blunt tools he used in this film, sharpening them to a fine point of precision. Audience would enjoy seeing those tools and Hitchcock’s skill over the coming decades. So for that, we can all be thankful for Number Seventeen.
And we have a MacGuffin in the form of the necklace.
If you pick up the Kino Lorber Blu-ray (and despite my review, you should) you’ll also find an audio commentary by film historian Peter Tonguette, an audio excerpt of the Truffaut/Hitchcock interview, an introduction to the film by French actor Noël Simsolo, and a one-hour documentary Alfred Hitchcock: The Early Years (2004). Plus, with the new 4K restoration, the film itself looks great. Consider picking it up.
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* Number Seventeen was actually Hitchcock’s 14th film to direct, but was held up in order that Rich and Strange could be released first.
** Spoiler: If you’ve seen Number Seventeen, you know that what I’ve stated here isn’t entirely accurate.