Alfred Hitchcock Stumbles with “Number 17”

29 04 2010

“A disaster!” — Alfred Hitchcock

I can’t really disagree with Mr. Hitchcock. “Number 17,” released by British International Pictures in 1932, is a mess of a movie. A comedy-thriller, it actually is both funny and thrilling at times, but the real problem is the flat characters and incomprehensible plot.

The story begins in comfortable territory for Hitch, as a young, well-dressed man approaches an empty house. He wanders inside, only to find a dead man and a live, but terrified, tramp. Much of the movie is set in this house, and it’s drenched in deep, often distorted, shadows, a throwback to Hitch’s early influence from German expressionist films, as previously seen in “The Lodger.” Hitch also indulges in a favorite motif: stairwells that evoke a feeling of dread.

The young man is trying to find out who the dead man is and how he was killed, but before long his investigation is interrupted, first by a young woman who shows up, saying that her father asked her to keep an eye on the place, and then by a trio of shady characters claiming to want a tour of the place.

The six of them wander around the house, acting nonchalant but clearly in search of something, and eventually we learn that the trio is after a stolen diamond necklace. When they recover it, they tie up the other three – but then two more people enter the picture: one is the young woman’s father, and the other seems to be the gang’s leader.

The girl’s father fights the gang’s leader and loses, and is then locked in a bathroom. Meanwhile, the gang gets ready to make their escape, and in one of the picture’s more exciting moments, the girl and the young man, who have been tied to a banister, fall nearly to their deaths when the banister gives way.

The pair manages to escape, and while the girl tends to her father, the young man discovers that the gang has left the house, heading for a train that will take them to a ferry and, presumably, France; for some reason, they’ve taken the tramp with them. The young man commandeers a bus, and the chase is on.

There’s a lot of to-do on the train as the gang leader realizes that he’s lost the necklace; meanwhile, the bus races the train. The gang’s threats against the train crew backfires, too, and they’re left trying to run the train themselves. The train crashes into the ferry, and the gang is captured by the police.

Finally, the young man is revealed to be a police detective himself. The necklace reappears – the tramp had it all along – and the movie comes to its end after a mere sixty-five minutes, all of them baffling.

“Number 17” does have some great model work in the chase sequence toward the end, and there are some funny moments, particularly those featuring the tramp, but otherwise it is easily Hitch’s worst picture in his career to date. The story is that Hitch had wanted to make a different movie, but his bosses insisted he make this one instead. It would be Hitch’s final film for British International Pictures. His next picture, released by Gaumont, would be “Waltzes from Vienna,” which I will look at this weekend.

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