The Era of Hitchcock: “Number 17” Film

Abstract

The film industry of the 1920s and 1930s was considerably influenced by the political and economic situations in the countries. For example, in Great Britain, much attention was paid to the emergence of sound films and the necessity to create new approaches, plots, and projects. Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most remarkable figures in the British movie industry and introduced a number of strong works that became educative examples for other moviemakers. Although his Number 17 was not the best and the most successful film, the approaches Hitchcock used deserve recognition.

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First, it was a thriller, and this type of work was characterized by powerful abilities to frame and edit shots. Second, the plot was based on the play by Joseph Jefferson Farjeon, and it was interesting how two great minds were introduced through the prism of an about 60-minute cinematographic story. Finally, despite unexpected failure, Number 17 was memorable due to the presence of miniature settings, which contributed to the development of the film industry. Hitchcock was a brilliant director who showed how to survive in the chosen field with dignity and order. His films, even least successful, are preferred even by the modern audience to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of moviemaking. This paper aims at analyzing a fiction film by Hitchcock during the 1930s, focusing on its plot and settings as the main aspects, and explaining the progress of sound thrillers.

Introduction

Each era in the film industry is characterized by specific changes, contributions, challenges, and improvements. The example of Hollywood encouraged other countries to introduce their studio systems. Due to some political or economic disagreements, the exchange of ideas was limited, and nations got opportunities to develop their standards. The USSR and Germany focused on strong monopolies, and France hoped to earn from supporting small producer centers.1 In this paper, attention will be paid to Great Britain and its film industry’s achievements. The Quota Act enhanced high volumes of work from distributors because it was required to have something to offer to the international market.2 The name of Alfred Hitchcock was frequently associated with the success of British moviemaking. Although his first works appeared a decade before, the 1930s was the period of his growth in the industry. His framing, editing, and plot development inspired, and his thrillers deserved attention to the possibility to combine the elements of humor, horror, and tragedy. Hitchcock’s Number 17 was not the best his works, but it was known for its plot’s organization and miniature settings to overcome financial and social concerns of the 1930s.

British Film Industry After the 1920s

During the late 1920s, many countries took a significant step ahead from silent movies to talkies in the film industry. Entertainment and technological progress shaped the possibilities of American, Asian, and European producers. However, many moviemaking companies suffered from the inability to control political and economic changes in their countries. Therefore, professional interests and filming were strictly determined not only by cultural preferences but by certain financial concerns and governmental expectations and regulations. More attention was paid to the concept of world cinema with no clear beginning or ending, but an intention to unite the industry regardless of its geographical location.3, 4 Despite almost equal opportunities, some regions, like America or Japan, demonstrated a breakthrough in the area. British moviemakers did not set clear goals, but their works also influenced an understanding of good cinema in the world.

There were many external factors that influenced the film industry in the country. The 1930s was the period when the war changed the minds of millions of people, and the British government tried to put some money into war documentaries and fiction films, demonstrating the recognition of the topic and following the demand.5 Global economic crisis shortened the opportunities of producers, but the creation of negligible films and following a specific British style helped the country recover successfully.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Thrillers as a Separate Form of Art

The silent era in the film industry resulted in the creation of several production companies that continued to grow in the 1930s. Gaumont-British and British International Pictures were two leading firms in London.6Alfred Hitchcock, a British filmmaker who was already known by his Blackmail, was in constant search of a good organization that could meet his expectations and demands. In the middle of the 1930s, he chose Gaumont-British, where he worked to improve an understanding of a thriller and enrich its characteristics. The strength of Hitchcock was the desire to combine technological achievements and consider some social issues. Civilization was not perfect at that period, and Hitchcock tried to demonstrate how lies, betrayals, and falsity shaped human behaviors. On the one hand, there were “specific engagements with individual texts or with the nature of collaboration on the screenplay”.7 On the other hand, Hitchcock was able to “frame and edit shorts in such a way as to allow spectators to grasp characters’ thoughts”.8 In both cases, it was clear that Hitchcock did not want to choose one option only but involve as many features as possible to impress the audience.

During the 1930s (at the end of the decade), Hitchcock took several successful steps to introduce good thrillers in terms of shooting, casting, and plot. His thriller sextet starting from The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 and ending with The Lady Vanishes in 1938 defined all his career either in Great Britain or in the United States.9 10 Mystery, an unpredictable development of events, and a wonderful game of light and shadows made people stay intense from the beginning till the word “The End” appeared on the screen. Within a short period of time, the name of Hitchcock was associated with high-quality thrillers. Many people did not want to accept this genre from other directors except Hitchcock (or, at least, compared projects with the standards set by Hitchcock). It was interesting to observe what he could add to his movie in order not to stay ordinary or predictable but never lose the chosen tone.

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The next decision of Hitchcock in moviemaking was his attention to humor. The combination of death, fear, and unawareness unexpectedly resulted in a new form of romance and fun. Each story contained interesting dialogues, and, compared to the expectations from silent movies, the audience was ready to grasp each moment and word on the screen. Therefore, Hitchcock’s thrillers were based on such goals as a well-chosen cast, an interesting (intriguing) plot, and several distinctive technical innovations. The well-known sextet of Hitchcock met the above-mentioned standards and proved the worth of a thriller genre in the 1930s. However, students and scholars usually pay attention to Hitchcock’s famous movies and analyze them from a variety of perspectives. In this paper, a step is taken to recognize not a famous still fabulous work by Hitchcock in 1932, known as Number 17. This early thriller was not classified as a masterpiece of Hitchcock. Those who watched it at least once could understand that there were many interesting aspects that helped understand the thriller genre combined with humor, an interesting plot, and a professional cast.

Significance of the Plot in the Movie

The main argument of this essay that Hitchcock’s Number 17, as well as other multiple works of this director, represents a powerful example of a thriller as a unique genre through its plot and miniature technologies. The movie begins in the way that is common for a thriller. Several people with unknown past history, no names, and clear purposes come to the same suspicious place. It seems that all characters come to the house # 17 by accident. A young man loses his hat and faces a building with an open door, and another man with a candle roams the same place.

During the next several minutes, both men developed rather constructive and funny dialogues after they discover a body on the floor. The young man, calling himself Forsythe, wanted to check the pockets of a homeless stranger, naming himself Ben. They discovered a handkerchief to “gag” a victim, a string to “stab”, a sausage to hit on the head, a picture of a kid, and a half of a cigarette.11 Leon M. Lion, who performed Ben, added as many humorous moments to the film as possible. His style, the way of communication, and mimics cannot leave a person indifferent. Even if a person watches Number 17 with no interest or desire, almost all scenes with Ben cause an innocent smile appearing on his or her face. Ben is introduced as a clumsy but innocent, poor but trustful, uncertain but reliable person. His intention to give a “wedding present” to Ben and Nora makes a kind full stop in the movie.12 Such a combination of controversies has to be recognized as a distinctive feature of Hitchcock’s movies, and thrillers in particular.

Although Number 17 is based on the play by Joseph Jefferson Farjeon, and some people could learn it beforehand, its plot remains an intriguing aspect until the end of the movie. Adaptations were frequent during the 1920s and 1930s, and directors valued the ideas of fidelity and transformation.13 First, it was interesting to know who all those people actually were. Although someone could possibly guess, a final accord was put during the last three minutes after the train crash. Second, several questions remained unanswered even after an ending titer emerged. For example, someone may wonder if the relationships between the detective and Nora were developed, or if there was a probability of friendship between Ben and Barton.

Although there could be some unclear situations and technical concerns, the plot remains a strong characteristic of Hitchcock’s thriller. Its significance lies in the director’s ability to take a story and represent it through the screen where no additional steps or interpretations could be offered to a viewer. Compared to the concept of world cinema that has no beginning and ending,14 Number 17 is a part of this movement with its clear first and final shot. The chosen plot and the cast are the strong aspects in the film under analysis, and this poorly advertised step by Hitchcock at the beginning of the 1930s deserves attention.

Miniatures and Their Role in the Movie

Time is probably one of the most merciless criteria in the film industry. Those achievements that gained recognition in the 20th century could have nothing in common with the standards and expectations today. Especially, the film industry experienced such shifts from the technical point of view. In the 2000s, the idea of a silent movie is not new, and millions of people cannot imagine a situation when no sound was added to an hour-long movie. Almost a similar comparison could be imposed on the settings and the use of technologies to introduce the required background. Despite the intention of Hitchcock to introduce high-quality projects, the situation in the country was not as promising as he thought to be. The director suffered from “low budgets and technical limitations”.15 He took regular steps to discover new opportunities and find better studio facilities. At the end of the 1930s, Hitchcock signed the contract with Hollywood, which resulted in an Oscar at the beginning of the 1940s (the movie Rebecca).16 However, at the moment of working on his Number 17, he coopered with British International Pictures, and the lack of technological advances determined outcomes.

In Number 17, an audience did not discover high-tech manipulations. Still, there was a technique, the use of miniatures, that made the movie remarkable. Almost half of the film was introduced in regular action. The characters jumped to a moving train, the passengers observed the outward things from a moving ferry, and Barton stopped a moving bus.17 A race between a train and a bus lasted less than a minute, but it was necessary for Hitchcock to underline its importance and his possibilities. Instead of involving true vehicles, the decision to use miniature settings was made.

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There were three main areas in the movie: a house, the road, and water. In the house, the image of a moving train was introduced several times as a sign that something unexpected and unusual was coming. The emotions of the characters (Ben and Barton) supported the message sent by Hitchcock – nothing was as simple as it seemed to be, and new changes had to be expected. A modern view was able to recognize the presence of miniatures in several scenes of the movie: fast bus driving, a train on the road, and a ferry with wagons that were impossible to stop. The 1930s was no rich in real wagons or ferries to be destroyed in order to create a real picture in filmmaking. Therefore, it was reasonable to use miniatures to create a crash and demonstrate how a number of wagons sank as soon as the road was over. The idea was not bad, although it was cheap, and it was evident. Hitchcock did not try to hide the shortages of shooting, but he did everything possible to make the situation as real as possible.

Success and Failure of the Story

There are many reasons to hate and love Hitchcock and his Number 17. Each person is free to develop a purely subjective opinion, focusing on interests, expectations, and experience. However, several reasons for the success and failure of the movie directed in 1930 cannot be ignored. Being a thriller, Number 17 contains a number of funny moments (with Leon L. Lion included). Humor is a distinctive feature of Hitchcock, and his thrillers cannot be an exception. Despite the desire to introduce serious scenes and educative lessons like the worth of trust and honesty, people cannot get rid of lies and frauds. Number 17 may not be a perfect work from the technical point of view, but the play of the main cast was successful. The limitations of the 1930s were evident in the film. Hitchcock was able to demonstrate his best abilities and change the settings, including the events in the building, on the train, on a ferry, and on the road. His professional qualities as a director, the cast abilities to complete the tasks, and the choice of measurable but effective settings eliminate the existing weaknesses of Number 17.

Conclusion

To sum up, one should understand that Hitchcock’s Number 17 was the result of the work in the 1930s. Great Britain, as well as many European countries, was challenged by the outcomes of the war. Still, the film industry continued developing, and the genre of a thriller was successfully introduced at that period. A properly developed plot with slight shortages and questions was improved by a well-planned work of the cast. Each character had his or her goals and resources and was able to share the story in Hitchcock’s style. High-quality camera shoots, the use of miniatures, shadows, and mystery fulfilled the movie. Someone may not define Number 17 as the best work by Hitchcock, but it was one of his first attempts in the chosen decade. In general, the plot and settings of the movie proved the worthiness of Hitchcock’s thrillers in the 20th century.

Bibliography

Andrew, Dudley. “An Atlas of World Cinema.” Framework 45, no. 2 (2004): 9-23.

Burton, Alan George. “Uncommon Dangers: Alfred Hitchcock and the Literary Contexts of the British Spy Thriller.” In Reassessing the Hitchcock Touch: Industry, Collaboration, & Filmmaking, edited by Wieland Schwanebeck, 221-240. Dresden: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Nagib, Lúcia. “Towards a Positive Definition of World Cinema.” In Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film, edited by Stephanie Dennison and Song Hwee Lim, 30-37. New York: Wallflower Press, 2006.

Number 17. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Performed by John Stuart, Leon M. Lion, and Anne Grey. London: British International Pictures, 1932. DVD.

Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2010.

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Footnotes

  1. Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2010), 213.
  2. Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, 214.
  3. Lúcia Nagib, “Towards a Positive Definition of World Cinema,” in Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film, ed. Stephanie Dennison and Song Hwee Lim (New York: Wallflower Press, 2006), 35.
  4. Dudley Andrew, “An Atlas of World Cinema,” Framework 45, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 9.
  5. Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, 218.
  6. Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, 214.
  7. Alan George Burton, “Uncommon Dangers: Alfred Hitchcock and the Literary Contexts of the British Spy Thriller,” in Reassessing the Hitchcock Touch: Industry, Collaboration, & Filmmaking, ed. Wieland Schwanebeck (Dresden: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 223.
  8. Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, 216.
  9. Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, 216.
  10. Burton, “Uncommon Dangers,” 222.
  11. Number 17, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, perf. John Stuart, Leon M. Lion, and Anne Grey (London: British International Pictures, 1932), DVD.
  12. Number 17.
  13. Burton, “Uncommon Dangers,” 222.
  14. Nagib, “Towards a Positive Definition of World Cinema,” 35.
  15. Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, 216.
  16. Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, 216.
  17. Number 17.
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