The film's broken, but at least Hitchcock fails while still being himself. It's interesting from that point of view, at least.
He hadn't wanted to make this film. British International Pictures forced him to do it, then afterwards sat on it for a year before releasing it. Hitchcock had wanted instead to adapt John Van Druten's play London Wall, while ironically the director who eventually did London Wall had wanted to direct Number Seventeen. This wasn't even the first film to be based on the original Joseph Farjeon play, with imdb saying there had previously been adaptations in 1920 and 1928. Hitchcock would later call this "a terrible picture... very cheap melodrama".
Unsurprisingly it would be the last movie Hitchcock directed for British International Pictures, who based on this would seem to have been cretins.
Firstly, the film looks bad. It's technically shoddy, in a way you don't expect from Hitchcock. It explains everyone to learn that the studio sat on the film, because this is in no way representative of movie-making technology in 1932... looked more like 1930 to me. Hitchcock's going out on a limb trying to bring alive this spooky old house with pans, zooms and camera angles, but the result is that the camera wobbles and draws attention to itself. There's a fist fight that looks as if it was shot by a spastic and edited by an epileptic, although I'm prepared to believe that there Hitchcock had been experimenting again (and this time failing).
However if you can forgive all that, the film also looks great. Hitchcock does a lot with shadows, hands and steep angles on staircases. (One scene in particular looks to me as if the actor and his shadow aren't in synch, making me wonder if Hitchcock was about to do a dramatic version of that Marx Brothers routine with an empty mirror and everyone dressed up as Groucho.) He tries eccentric things like shots of silently shrieking faces, which are unintentionally comical but still create a sense of German Expressionism. Hitchcock regarded the original play as full of cliches, but the film he eventually made doesn't feel like that at all... the visuals are far more memorable than the incoherent storyline.
Also, like Rich and Strange
, Hitchcock spends the first five minutes fooling you into thinking this is a silent movie. (This was filmed before Rich and Strange
, but released afterwards.) This is cool. I was disappointed when they started speaking. More directors should try it.
The cast and characters are a very mixed bag. Going through in order:
1. Leon M. Lion as the lower-class comic relief who's cowardly, stupid and inferior to people with cut-glass accents. He only needed to be black to include every possible offensive stereotype. His gun-handling techniques go beyond stupidity into realms of absurdity that break the film. His horrified facial expressions are, um, characteristic of early cinema. However that said, I quite liked him. He has more personality than anyone else in the movie, he's allowed to win in the end (albeit through a knack for theft) and he can be funny. "That's S - O - R - S, sauce!" His grumbles about stabbing people to death with string are amusing too. Incidentally Lion was primarily a stage actor and very successful at it too, not to mention also a playwright, theatrical manager and producer.
2. Anne Grey, doing a Cockney accent so bad that my brain broke and I started wondering if this was actually a faithful rendition of a 1930s British accent I'd never heard of. She's pretty, though. She also disappears halfway through with no explanation and I'm not sure who's side she'd been meant to be on.
3. John Stuart as the leading man with no personality. That's not the actor's fault, though. He had a long career, in 1932 also playing Sir Henry Baskerville and in later years appearing in films I've heard of like Quatermass 2, The Revenge of Frankenstein
, Village of the Damned
4. Donald Calthrop, who'd also been in Blackmail for Hitchcock a few years earlier. I think he's one of the people who turn up after about 25 minutes or so and boost the film's dramatic credibility. It's just weird to be watching Lion, Grey and Stuart on their own.
5. Other actors who aren't bad, but whose characters' involvement in the plot is as clear as mud. One of them reminded me of John Astin's Gomez Addams.
6. Garry Marsh, who's a passably convincing hard case and whom I actually recognised from other films. For starters he played opposite Formby in Let George Do It!
As for the story, it's a mess. Everyone says it's a mess. People turn up and want something, which turns out to involve a train. (Hitchcock likes trains.) There's a dead guy on the landing, until there isn't. There's someone called Barton and someone else called Sheldrake, but there's confusion of identity and we don't know who either of those gentlemen really are. Characters appear and disappear. There's one of Hitchcock's lamer Macguffins (a necklace). It all ends in a train chase which Hitchcock is clearly enjoying, but then after that the villains fold up like a house of cards if you just ask them nicely. The world of this film is a terribly well-mannered one in which you can protect a girl from a bullet by putting out your hand like Wonder Woman, then afterwards wrapping a hanky around the injury and thinking no more about it.
There is an unintended resonance though with the train sending EMU to Europe. 1932's a bit early for economic and monetary union, even if you count Germany's efforts in 1939-1945.
Overall a train wreck, but an ambitious one with lots of cool Hitchcockian stuff. It's got lots of mistaken identities, murder, romance, double-crossing, a train and a big chase at the end. It also has black humour, which again is very him. You could even argue that it's Hitchcock's most Hitchcockian film from this era, except of course that it doesn't work. You can see why audiences stayed away. You can't keep track of who's who and none of the suspects have enough characterisation to make you want to put in the effort. Personally I enjoyed it, but it's a bumpy ride.