Alfred Hitchcock Unravels a Murder in “Young and Innocent”

21 06 2010

“It was an attempt to do a chase story with very young people involved.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock seems to downplay his 1937 movie “Young and Innocent” with this comment to interviewer Francois Truffaut, but with the exception of some lapses of logic, it’s a very entertaining, thrilling and romantic murder mystery. Starring Nova Pilbeam (last seen as the kidnapped child in “The Man Who Knew Too Much”) and Derrick De Marney, it reflects many of Hitchcock’s favorite themes and features some spectacular moments of filmmaking bravado.

The film opens on a couple in the midst of a fight in what appears to be a vacation home on the water. Actress Christine Clay and her husband are arguing – he says she’s been cheating on him, and that she owes him her career. Lightning slashes across the sky, and the next thing we see is her body washing up on a deserted beach the next day, along with the sash that strangled her, which rests on the sand in the shape of a question mark. A passerby, Robert Tisdall (De Marney), finds her body and runs for help, but he is observed by two women who believe he must be the killer. He is caught by the police, but, after an encounter with resourceful young Erica Burgoyne (Pilbeam), escapes before he is arrainged.

Tisdall’s insists that the belt is not his – that he had a coat that with a belt, but that it was stolen. Enlisting Burgoyne’s help, they track down the coat while eluding the police, finally finding a tramp who had been given the coat without its belt by a man with a facial tic. They find a book of matches in the coat that leads them to a hotel, where the man they seek is drumming with the band (in blackface!). He’s been taking pills for his nerves, and under their influence, he shouts out that he killed the actress as he is caught by the police.

“Young and Innocent” was loosely based (with Hitchcock, is there any other way?) on the novel “A Shilling for Candles” by Josephine Tey. I read the book years ago, and the film version significantly changes the original plot, in which the mystery is resolved by Inspector Alan Grant rather than Tisdall himself. It was released in the U.S. under the equally off-base name “The Girl Was Young” — neither name really indicates that it’s a mystery.
The movie does feature a lot of action, from Tisdall’s ballsy escape from the law at the beginning, when he first steals his lawyer’s glasses to use as a disguise and then hides in the courtroom, to a couple of funny fight scenes, one at a roadside café where Burgoyne is trying to get some information, only to provoke a melee, and another in the flophouse where Tisdall finds the tramp with the coat. Another very amusing scene takes place when, in trying to create an excuse for her absence, Burgoyne insists on stopping in on an aunt, only to find that a birthday party is taking place; she and Tisdall end up stalled at the party for some time, making their escape only when the aunt is talked into playing blind man’s bluff.

In one of the film’s most exciting moments, Burgoyne takes the tramp’s advice and drives her flivver into an abandoned mine to hide from the police. The mine collapses, though, and Tisdall barely manages to rescue her as her car disappears. Fortunately her plucky dog, Towser, survives unscathed as well!

The extraordinary tracking/zooming shot that takes us from the hotel lobby to the dance floor to the stage to the eyes of the killer

The moment the film is best remembered for, though, comes toward the end – it’s an overhead tracking shot that takes the view from the hotel’s lobby into the ballroom, across the crowded dance floor to the stage, then zooms in on the drummer until his eyes fill the screen, at which point he blinks uncontrollably. The shot only lasts a minute or so, but it is so full of information and so sweeping that it feels much longer. At the time, Hitchcock was trying to get an offer from Hollywood, and he seems to be flexing his cinematic muscles with this shot.

Of course, in watching the story, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the police never seem to suspect the drummer, who, after all, is married to the victim. As usual in Hitchcock’s world, the police are barely competent. And Burgoyne, who starts out so capable and confident, ends up taking a back seat to Tisdall, even though she, the daughter of a high-ranking police official, seems to know a lot about police procedure.

“Young and Innocent” also includes a notable cameo for Hitchcock as a nosy cameraman outside the courthouse while Tisdall makes his escape. Although you don’t hear him say anything, he keeps making motions as though he’s trying to get the attention of a police officer who’s standing guard at the door. It’s the first of his cameos that shows off his hammy side.

Hitch had been singing the praises of Pilbeam in the press, but she never did work with him again, and only acted a few more years. Hitchcock appreciated her onscreen naturalism; I have to wonder how disappointed he might have been that she left the profession. Grooming an actress only to have her leave him behind would happen several times in the course of Hitchcock’s career.

Next, we’ll look at “The Lady Vanishes,” Hitch’s second-to-last British production and one of the greatest of all British films.

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