Easy Virtue (1928, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A woman tries to move on from a disastrous relationship, but her past catches up with her…

A silent film based on a play by Noel Coward is obviously going to be missing the rather important element of his witty dialogue. So while Easy Virtue may have title cards, it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock’s visual invention where the real interest lies. An early courtroom scene, for example, features the joyfully brilliant moment when a judge raises a monocle to his eye to look at one of the barristers. The shot is from the judge’s point of view, so we see the monocle rise in the frame, magnifying what’s behind it. There are a few other clever shots dotted around too; later, we also get some location filming in the South of France.   

The plot follows Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans), who divorces her boorish husband after a tragic incident in which a painter was killed over a misunderstanding. Fleeing to the French Riviera and changing her name, she meets a man called John Whittaker (Robin Irvine), falls in love and returns with him to England. But Larita constantly fears that her murky past will be discovered – especially when she meets John’s frosty mother, who recognises her from *somewhere*.

In many ways, all this is a strange precursor of Hitchcock’s later film Rebecca. That 1940 gem also features a nervous woman in the south of France who meets and falls for an Englishmen but then faces resentment when she goes home with him. Both movies also change tack when there’s a key revelation. In Easy Virtue, the shift comes when Larita’s secret is rumbled – an old photo of her appears in a newspaper and John’s friends and family learn who she is. But sadly the drama is nowhere near as gripping.

The marriage quickly peters out, as does the film. Larita leaves, but not before telling John’s ex-girlfriend Sarah (Enid Stamp Taylor) that *she* should have married him instead. The moment is tender and almost Sapphic but also – like a lot of this film – quite melodramatic.

Five men walking past a tennis court (possibly: there’s doubt over whether it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock) out of 10

NOTE: Easy Virtue was lost was about half a century before a print was discovered in Austria in the 1970s. Nevertheless, it’s still not in a great shape archivally speaking. The copy I watched for this review was a terribly damaged, shaky and tatty video on YouTube. When the BFI attempted to resurrect the movie as part of a restoration project in 2012, they hit several problems – as detailed in the following press release: ‘[The film] survives only in a number of more or less identical 16mm projection prints, all in very poor quality and considerably abridged. The original running time of the film at 7390 feet – amounted to approximately 94 minutes depending on running speed. What survives is equivalent to 5434 feet a mere 69 minutes. We don’t know if a major section is missing or if (more likely) there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of little trims. We hoped at the beginning of the project that more or better material would turn up, but this has proved elusive. We will of course continue to search. The international search for this Easy Virtue has brought in prints from the US, Australia and the Netherlands as well as the UK. Unfortunately, all the existing copies are 16mm prints that have been much projected, resulting in surface wear and tear. All the copies derive from the same source and contain the same printed-in damage. The biggest problem is the underlying picture quality which, thanks to much duplication, is lacking in resolution. Working from such limited material, the best that we can do is to minimise scratches and damage and remake the intertitles. We have chosen the best source and replaced several shots from a second print where they helped to improve quality. All the main titles and intertitles were reconstructed using the original fonts, as in the other Hitchcock restorations.’

The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

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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

Champagne (1928)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A hedonistic heiress has to make her way in the world when her father says he’s financially ruined…

An odd Hitchcock film, this. Almost entirely lacking in tension, and featuring a lead character whose biggest problem in life is that she has to have a job, Champagne may be frothy and occasionally fun. It features some nice humour and the contemporary 1920s fashions are a treat. But it ultimately falls flat. There’s no fizz.

Betty (Betty Balfour) is a young, rich socialite who angers her father by using his Charles Lindbergh-style biplane to fly out to the middle of the Atlantic and board an ocean liner. The plane is sunk in the process, but she fares better: on the rowboat sent out by the liner’s crew, she removes her hat, goggles and coat to reveal an immaculate flapper frock. She’s made the journey to be with her boyfriend (French actor Jean Bradin), but he’s suffering from seasickness. The boat, you see, is rocking violently with the Atlantic swell – a motion that’s conveyed charmingly well by the Star Trek trick of having actors stagger from side to side. There’s also a creepy-looking passenger (Ferdinand von Alten) who eyes Betty up at any opportunity…

Eventually, Betty and the unnamed boyfriend reach Paris and she throws herself into the lifestyle of a bright young thing. When her fella visits her apartment she says to him, ‘Come on in – I’ve met some lively people – invented a new cocktail – and bought a lot of snappy gowns.’ Being a silent film, of course, the dialogue is relayed via a title card. There are remarkably few of them in the movie: we’re told just 70 lines of dialogue in 93 minutes.

However, back in America, Betty’s millionaire father (played by Gordon Harker, who was the son of the man Bram Stoker named the character of Jonathan Harker after in Dracula) is fuming. His mouth twitches comically as he reads about his daughter’s rebelliousness in the newspaper, while a phalanx of employees nervously fuss around him. He makes the journey to France and when he arrives he says he has grave news: his fortune – earned in the champagne business – has been wiped out after a bad day on the stock market. They’re now skint. (A prescient plot point, this: the Wall Street crash was the year after this movie’s release.) This distressing news doesn’t seem to affect either father or daughter too badly, though, and soon the two are making a fist of it. They share a cramped bedsit and she sets about finding a job.

Finding one at a high-class restaurant, Betty goes off the rails – or at least by 1920s standards. She drinks! She smokes! She dances! She enjoys herself – the slut! Both her boyfriend and her father disapprove, while the creepy guy from the ocean liner is still sniffing around. She then gets an almighty shock when her father confesses that he’s not penniless after all. It was all a lie – a ruse to see how she’d cope without capital. Justifiably angry, Betty turns to the creepy guy and asks for help in getting out of the country. He agrees to take her home to America, but then aboard the boat he locks her in their cabin…

But don’t worry! He’s not a dangerous, sinister type – turns out, he’s a detective hired by Betty’s father to keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn’t come to any harm. So that’s all right, then. I guess. The dad and the boyfriend show up, relationships are mended, lies are forgiven and everyone gets a happy and disgustingly rich ending.

With such a drab, lifeless story, you have to look elsewhere for Champagne’s pleasures. As ever with Hitchcock, it’s a visual treasure trove. The director is regularly experimenting or innovating with point-of-view shots (including a few through champagne glasses), crowd scenes, dissolves to suggest time passages and character’s thoughts, and other tricks such as moving footage becoming a still photo. There are also a few decent gags, like when Betty embraces her boyfriend while cooking and leaves flour handprints on his back. But overall this is a rare thing indeed: a *boring* Hitchcock movie.

Four cocktails out of 10

NOTE: An interesting quirk of film restoration means that the footage in Champagne is now probably *entirely different* from that seen in cinemas in 1928. When archivists at the BFI studied the surviving negative it soon became apparent that it was actually a version of the movie assembled from ‘second-best’ takes. It’s assumed this was compiled as a kind of safety copy. Sadly, no print of the theatrical cut has been found, so this ‘echo’ version of Champagne is now the default.