NUMBER SEVENTEEN, 1932
Starring: Leon M. Lion, Anne Grey, John Stuart, Donald Calthrop, Barry Jones
A group of visitors at a vacant house finds they all have some connection to a jewel heist. REVIEW:
When compared to most of the other films from Hitchcock’s oeuvre, Number Seventeen may seem less sophisticated. It is one of his earliest films and although it suffers from poor quality sound (a result of the DVD transfer) its minimalism is one of its greatest strengths. There is little plot and character development but Hitchcock’s main focus is to create a moody, suspenseful atmosphere. The lighting is a great success in this regard (whereas the acting is comical, especially from Leon Lion, and breaks this tension). Dark shadows are produced from harsh lighting in the style of German expressionist film (surely the seminal Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was an influence) while an eerie soundtrack accompanies the highly contrasted black and white images.
Much of the action takes place on and around a staircase and dramatic lighting is used to great effect here. The shadows of the staircase railing look like prison bars, which is fitting since half of the characters are hostages. There is little dialogue until halfway through the film when the majority of the characters show up. The first half is mainly exposition with Detective Barton arriving at the house and meeting first Ben (Leon Lion), then a dead body (Henry Craine) and then Rose, the daughter of the dead man (Anne Casson). Interaction among the characters becomes more interesting once the rest of the players arrive, i.e. Brant (Donald Calthrop), Nora (Anne Grey) and Henry Doyle (Barry Jones). These three are the criminals looking for a diamond necklace that was hidden in the house.
Donald Calthrop gives a low key performance as Brant and reminds of Claude Raines. He is an upper class criminal and the subtle looks he gives to his companions speak volumes. They seem to say “you’re a bumbling fool and I am much too sophisticated to be caught in this plot.” The rest of the film plays out as a cat and mouse game with Ben, Barton and Rose on one side and Brant, Nora and Doyle on the other as they await the arrival of someone named Sheldrake. Some people are not who they say they are which leads to an interesting turn that brings us into the second half of the film.
The last half, especially the last fifteen minutes, is much more action packed. A runaway train with the antagonists is chased by a bus containing Barton. A shot-reverse shot montage of the train and the bus creates high tension which is then relieved by the image of a slow moving ferry that is docking. This group of shots recalls a montage in Eisenstein’s Battle Ship Potemkin which features a swift moving ship instead of a train. (Hitchcock would go on to use trains in many of his films including The Lady Vanishes, Shadow of A Doubt, and Strangers on A Train.) Furthermore, this montage became an allusion itself when Lumet used a similar sequence in The French Connection. There is no baby carriage in Hitchcock’s montage, but the crosscutting between the train and the bus is similar to the cutting between the subway and car in Lumet’s 1976 film.
This film is not one of Hitch’s best, but his signature is all over it. It’s interesting to see how he cultivated his style early on and made the most out of a “dime a dozen” story. In anyone else’s hands, this movie probably wouldn’t be worth a review. However, Hitchcock’s expert style elevates the Number Seventeen out of amateur territory.
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