Alfred Hitchcock Contemplates “Easy Virtue”

28 02 2010

“That was taken from a Noël Coward play, and it contained the worst title I’ve ever written.” — Alfred Hitchcock

As I watched “Easy Virtue,” I looked for the terrible title Hitch referred to in this quote, and frankly I didn’t see anything that bad – so he may have been thinking of another movie or something like that… either way, the titles in “Easy Virtue” didn’t stand out one way or the other.

Adapted from a play by Noël Coward, “Easy Virtue” was released in 1928 by Gainsborough Pictures and starred Isabel Jeans as Larita Filton. The film opens on her divorce trial, and as we quickly learn, her husband is suing her for divorce after finding her in the arms of the artist he had hired to paint her portrait. Hitch cleverly switches the scene from the trial to a flashback – when the barrister (played by Ian Hunter, back for his third Hitchcock film) asks about a decanter of wine, the camera zooms in on the decanter. Then, when it zooms out again, the decanter is held by Larita’s soon-to-be former husband, who’s pouring a drink in the artist’s studio.

After the divorce is granted, Larita flees the press waiting outside the court and heads for to the south of France, where she quickly meets young tennis player John Whitaker. Whitaker falls for her, and asks her to marry him. Before she says yes, she asks him how he can propose marriage when he barely knows her. He answers that he loves her, and that’s all that matters – words that will come back to haunt him.

Back in England, at the Whitaker’s country estate, Larita finds her fiance’s mother suspicious and cold – after all, the old lady had expected her son to one day marry his childhood sweetheart, a neighbor named Sarah. The mother considers Larita an interloper, and on the eve of a ritzy party, it comes out that Larita is divorced. The family – the mother especially – is scandalized, and insists that Larita stay in her room during the party. But Larita won’t acquiesce. She puts on her most exotic outfit and joins the party, to the dismay of Mrs. Whitaker.

At the party, Larita runs into her ex-husband’s barrister. In the course of their conversation, she admits that she married John only out of fear. She knows that John no longer wants anything to do with her, and she decides not to contest the divorce that’s sure to come. As she leaves the courthouse, divorced for the second time, the press takes pictures of her, and she gives herself up to them, saying  “Shoot! There’s nothing left to kill.”

In “The Farmer’s Wife,” Hitch focuses the viewer’s attention at the start of the movie with a street sign pointing to “Sweetland Farm.” Here, he starts with a less direct image: a downshot of the magistrate’s head, barely recognizable in its heavy wig. As he looks up, into the camera, we see who he is, and what the setting must be.

Just a few minutes later, Hitchcock revisits the visual trick of pulling an image into focus through someone’s glasses, last seen in “The Pleasure Garden.” Here, the magistrate puts a monocle in front of his eye to focus on Larita Filton; we see the out of focus figure of Larita, followed by the monocle, which reveals her to us.

As strong as the visual storytelling of this movie is, there were also a few plotholes. Toward the start, it’s mentioned both that the artist made Larita the beneficiary of his will, and that he is now dead. I could almost understand the first part – the artist said he was crazy about Larita, so maybe he reworked his will, but the other part… less so.

When Mr. Filton finds Larita in the artist’s arms, he goes crazy with jealousy. He threatens the artist, who backs into a corner. Filton moves in on him, and the artist pulls a gun out of his pocket and fires. If he’s been hit, Filton doesn’t notice – he keeps advancing on the artist, and starts beating him with a cane. After four or five blows, none of which look very serious, Filton collapses as a bobby enters the studio.

So, are we supposed to believe that the artist died from that beating, while Filton survived being shot? I guess so… and that leads to one of the movie’s funnier moments. Hitchcock had little use for the police, and he shows it here by having the cop methodically question Larita, taking careful notes while Filton lies bleeding on the floor.

Of course, our attitude toward divorce is far less severe than it was way back then, so it’s a little hard to swallow just how awful it is for Larita and the Whitakers to deal with. Four years later, in 1932, Fred Astaire and Claire Booth would star on Broadway in “Gay Divorce,” a hit musical whose title must have raised some eyebrows by putting divorce and happiness side by side. (No, there was nothing gay in the modern sense about it – watch the great movie version, “The Gay Divorcee,” and see for yourself.)

Hitch does make a cameo in “Easy Virtue,” his first since “The Lodger,” wandering by Larita as she sits near the tennis courts.

Still, as easy as it is to watch, “Easy Virtue” leaves Hitch little opportunity to tell his own kind of story. Our next movie, “Champagne,” continues in this vein.




One response

18 03 2010

I enjoy browsing your page, always learn something new facts.
Emily R. from Training Huskies

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