An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…
Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
A widower searches for a new wife…
In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock gave an interview to Peter Bogdanovich, then a film critic and later a movie director himself. Hitch talked about his career so far, giving fascinating comments and opinions on every film he’d made. When asked about The Farmer’s Wife, though, he was noticeably sparse, saying just that it was ‘merely a photograph of a stage play with lots of titles instead of dialogue. It was just a routine job.’
He wasn’t wrong. The film has sweetness and a few interesting techniques on show, but it’s mostly a soppy, conventional and not very memorable melodrama about a widower looking for love when it’s under his nose all along. So let’s use the space to discuss something else. Where did Alfred Hitchcock get his ideas?
The stage play that this film is based on, also called The Farmer’s Wife, was written by Eden Phillpotts. Born in India in 1862, Phillpotts had worked as an insurance officer before turning to a writing career that produced numerous novels, plays, short stories and poems. He became a friend and supporter of Agatha Christie and lived to be 98. (After his death, his daughter Adelaide – herself a successful writer – revealed that he had sexually abused her for about 30 years.)
In 1913, Phillpotts published a novel called Widecombe Fair and then three years later adapted it for the stage. Renamed The Farmer’s Wife, it was first performed in Birmingham. Between 1924 and 1927, the play was a smash hit in London with over 1,300 performances at the Royal Court Theatre. So it was prime material for a film company to snap up the rights and produce a movie version. This was a standard practise in the British film industry, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that basing films on pre-existing material would continue to be Alfred Hitchcock’s modus operandi for the rest of his career.
As the years went by, there were movies inspired by real-life events – Foreign Correspondent (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), The Wrong Man (1956) – and a few that were original ideas thought up by or for Alfred Hitchcock. But almost all of his 54 full-length movies have plots taken from other sources.
Early on, he often looked to the theatre. Downhill (1927), Easy Virtue (1928), The Farmer’s Wife (1928), Blackmail (1929), Juno and the Paycock (1930), The Skin Game (1931) and Number Seventeen (1932) are all based on plays, while Waltzes from Vienna (1934) is an adaptation of a stage musical. Hitch then rather fell out of this habit, with only two more examples of him turning theatre shows into films: Rope (1948) and I Confess (1953). (You might also include Dial M for Murder (1954). Although it began as television play, it was the later stage adaptation that caught Hitch’s attention.)
More popular with the director were novels or short stories. Over half of Hitchcock’s output used prose as a starting-off point – take a deep breath if you’re reading this out loud: The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), The Manxman (1929), Murder! (1930), Rich and Strange (1931), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), The Paradine Case (1947), Under Capricorn (1949), Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976). You could also argue for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) being on this list. Its plot was taken, rather loosely and with no formal acknowledgement, from a Bulldog Drummond story. (The 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, of course, is essentially a remake of the earlier movie.)
Of course, Hitchcock’s genius was to take all these sources – melodramas, romances and thrillers; high literature and potboilers – and give them his own spin. In some cases, the adaptation is very liberal. The longer Hitchcock’s career went on, the more you get a sense that being entertaining is more important than being faithful to the original text. Perhaps that’s the problem with The Farmer’s Wife: it comes too early in the filmography, at a time when Hitch wasn’t bold enough to do something daring. Phillpotts’s play is too orthodox, too predictable, too safe, too cosy. And so is the movie.
Five steam rollers for flattening the hope out of a man and the joy out of a woman out of 10