Week 4: Easy Virtue (1928)

easyvirtue.jpg“I must ask you to repeat your statement with regard to this decanter.”
“Is that the notorious Mrs. Filton?”
“I love you – that’s all that matters.”
“It’s funny. I thought you’d be dark and foreign-looking!”
“Sarah’s here!”
“John – who is this woman you have pitchforked into the family?”
“In our world we do not understand this code of easy virtue.”
“Shoot! There’s nothing left to kill.”

Easy Virtue

Upon its initial release, The Lodger was of course regarded as a Novello picture rather than a Hitchcock film. Ivor Novello, star of Hitchcock’s first big hit, was much more than a screen actor during his heyday in the 1920s. Quite the fascinating character in his own right, he had written a hit patriotic song in 1917 entitled “Keep the Home Fires Burning” (odd, considering he is supposed to have had a brief affair with caustic anti-war poet Siegfried Sassoon, but that is neither here nor there). Novello proceeded to take both stage and screen by storm, and, as it happens, he was also a prolific playwright.

novellodownhill.jpgNovello’s play Downhill (co-written with Constance Collier) would be the source of Hitchcock’s follow-up to The Lodger. It is the tragic story of an honorable young man who comes to ruin after he takes the fall for a school chum’s scandalous behavior. As for Novello himself, the title aptly describes the remainder of his career. He went to Hollywood briefly a few years later, but couldn’t get a leading man gig (“too English”). MGM stuck him on script-doctoring work instead, where (among other things) he penned the immortal line “Me Tarzan. You Jane.” By this time, Hitchcock’s star was on the rise, and Novello’s was in decline. He died of coronary thrombosis in 1951, and is not much remembered today.

downhill.jpgUnfortunately, while not as lost as The Mountain Eagle, Downhill is currently devilish hard to come by in America. The only existing DVD releases to date have originated in Europe (which would require a special player). This is one of two “major” Hitchcock films which I will be forced to pass over for this reason. Fortunately, though I obviously have no intention of skipping “inferior” Hitchcock in favor of his better, more well-known films, Downhill is reportedly the one to miss if you had to pick. The movie was almost universally reviled upon its release, and it is among that select group that Hitch would have liked very much to disown when looking back in later years.

It’s probably not as bad as all that, but maybe believing that it is will help me get over the existence of a Hitchcock film that I have no opportunity to see. Should it someday become available on this side of the pond (likely) or should I stumble across a downloadable copy on the internet (not ideal, but quite likely), I will add an appendix (or perhaps an apocrypha . . . I like the sound of that) to this project. On a more positive note, skipping Downhill and its rare cousin allows me an opening for a discussion of Hitchcock’s television work later down the line. How’s that for a silver lining?

Downhill was not the last time Hitchcock would be talked into a flop by an actor. However, while he didn’t learn that lesson right away, one has to sympathize with what his feelings must have been when Gainsborough gave him his next assignment: an adaptation of Noel Coward’s Easy Virtue. From all indications, the film version of Easy Virtue played very much like the film version of Downhill, but with a tragic heroine rather than a hero. Now, I know nothing about Ivor Novello as a playwright, but I know Coward. The playwright is widely well-regarded for his razor-sharp dialogue, which makes his work a natural fit for silent film, right? Even Michael Balcon would later regret the decision to bring Coward’s plays to the screen before sound could accompany them.

larita.jpgEasy Virtue follows the trials and tribulations of Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans), an innocent woman who finds herself at the center of a scandal involving abuse, adultery, attempted murder and suicide. The whole sordid affair takes the British media by storm when it spills out in a messy divorce trial. Larita, disgraced and divorced but still fairly wealthy, flees to the south of France to hide from the fallout and try to forget everything. By the picturesque shores of the Mediterranean, she meets and falls in love with young John Whittaker (Robin Irvine), a fresh-faced young fellow whose family has a large country estate. They are married and return to the ancestral manse, where John’s mother develops an immediate distaste for Larita. Mrs. Whittaker (Violet Farebrother) makes her daughter-in-law’s life a living hell, but there is worse yet to come. The Whittakers have not yet connected Larita with her dark past.

monocle.jpgThe film begins in a courtroom, and most of the story it has to tell is packed in right here at the beginning. Hitch burns most of his fun camera tricks right up front, as well. As a very poor substitute for the presumably snappier dialogue of the stage version, Easy Virtue throws literal walls of text at the screen in its intertitles, not just here but throughout the production. In fact, the opening shot is of a densely-worded legal document. The judge presiding over the hearing looks up from the brief to stare grimly at the camera before we follow his gaze to the rest of the courtroom. Hitch employs the same gimmick here that he used at the beginning of The Pleasure Garden, although in this case it’s the nearsighted judge whose monocle brings images into focus. The subtext of this scene, in contrast to the creepy voyeurism of the earlier film, is an indication that justice is as blind as its presiding representative.

portrait.jpgLarita is in the dock, getting grilled by her husband’s counsel (Ian Hunter) and her story runs something like this: When it all began, she was sitting for a portrait by a young, famous and talented artist named Claude Robson. Over the course of the artistic process, he began to grow rather fond of her. Her husband is a drunken lout, and physically abusive besides, and Claude pities his client’s plight. Allowing his pity to grow into love, he writes her a passionate letter and the next time she comes to sit for him he makes advances.

drubbing.jpgShe is in the process of rejecting him gently when her husband appears at an inopportune moment. As Claude backs away, Mr. Filton advances threateningly with his cane. Here things get a bit crazy. Claude pulls a handgun out of a drawer and plugs Filton, who falls to the floor after whaling on the artist with his cane for a few seconds. Larita rushes to his side while the maid runs for help. As the police arrive, Claude (who seems to be pretty well out of his head by this point) shoots himself. Filton makes a full recovery, but is convinced his wife was two-timing him. Unfortunately for Larita’s credibility, Claude has left all of his money to her.

pendulum1.jpgThe story is told in several pieces, cutting between the lawyer’s questions (and the court’s reaction to the answers), and flashbacks to the actual events via a series of clever transitions. Most of the transitions hinge around various pieces of evidence, as though these objects maintain some sort of psychic link with the events of the past. However, the most skillfull visual device in the scene has thependulum2.jpg judge’s swinging monocle transform into a swinging pendulum and back again to indicate the passage of time in the story. Having heard all of the evidence, and all too willing to entertain the most scandalous of possibilities, the jury finds Larita guilty of misconduct. Her reputation in tatters, she exits the building and walks right into a pack of predatory paparazzi photographers.

Speaking of feral cameramen, there is an interesting leitmotif attached to Larita’s character throughout Easy Virtue. Lenses of various kinds: monocles, cameras (note the silhouette behind the opening titles above), and even one unique shot through a tennis racquet all point to a warping of Larita’s true image by everyone around her. People cannot see her for who she really is, they can only see her through the distorting lens of their own presuppositions. The artificiality of outward perceptions is further reinforced by images of Larita’s portrait and shots of her reflection in various mirrors.



ballface.jpgUnwilling to face the attentions of the press, she leaves England and takes up residence in a hotel under an assumed name, praying that no one will recognize her and she will be left alone. However, as she suns herself by the tennis courts one morning (and, really, what a silly place to sit) John Whittaker beans her in the face with a ball. He is mortified and frightfully apologetic, and demands that she allow him to tend to her woundeasyvirtuecameo.jpg (an unsightly bruise). Hitchcock’s cameo zips by right before the meet-cute takes place. He strolls past Larita with a walking stick and slips out through a gap in the hedge next to her. Had he dawdled a few more seconds, the ball would have hit him instead and he might have been able to alter the course of the plot in a more interesting direction (but that’s hardly a productive observation, is it?).

Larita and John whizz through a whirlwind courtship, and before long, on a long carriage ride amidst the beautiful Mediterranean scenery, he pops the question. She declines to answer right away, promising to telephone him later on. This slight delay prompts my absolute favorite scene in the movie, and one of the most imaginative and unconventional touches Hitchcock’s early career had yet produced. Late that night, Larita calls John up to give him her answer.

operator1.jpgNow, rather than show us the conversation by cutting back and forth between the two participants or resorting to a more complex overlay or split-screen shot and a crude “Yes” or “No” title card, Hitchcock relays the whole exchange through the reactions of the bored switchboard operator who connects the call. At first she barely looks up from her book, but after a few seconds she is staring off into space, wholly absorbed in eavesdropping on these two strangers. Her face changes from happy to surprised to anxious and back again so many times that one can hardly imagine what Larita can be saying , but the expressions are so priceless that one hardly cares. At any rate, an immensely satisfied look and a hand to the heart at the end of the scene tells us everything we need to know.


mother.jpgThe newlyweds head back to John’s “people” and Larita has great hopes for a new and happier life. Mr. Whittaker turns out to be all right and John’s two sisters are welcoming enough at first, but Mother Whittaker is a frightening hag of a woman whose severe gaze could curdle fresh milk. She is as menacing a mother-figure as appears (almost) anywhere in Hitchcock’s films. And just to add an extra layer of awkward to the situation, Mrs. Whittaker has invited Sarah, the woman she always wanted John to marry, over for dinner.

interior1.jpgThe dining room, decorated with medieval paintings of saints (possibly even Christ and his disciples), is terrifying. It’s a wonder anyone can eat in such a room. Actually, all of the interiors in Easy Virtue are noticeably minimalist . . . either extremely cheap or daringly expressionistic, take your pick. Knowing Hitchcock, he probably killed two birds with one stone by accommodating both. The courtroom, the artist’s studio, the French hotel, and even the Whittaker estate are all clearly low-budget sets, but they are undeniably striking and functional in a stagy sort of way.


scarf.jpgLife at the Whittaker home proves to be quite oppressive, and Larita is quietly miserable there, chain-smoking cigarettes as she buries herself in thick books whenever possible. Throughout these scenes at the Whittaker estate, Larita’s costumes feature trailing scarves, over-sized fans, and various other accessories that drag, dangle and trail in her wake. Despite her desperation to keep her emotional baggage under wraps, the truth about her past follows her everywhere she goes, both visually and psychologically. Mrs. Whittaker immediately suspects her of hiding something, and it is only a matter of time before these suspicions are confirmed.

Larita senses that her time is growing short when her ex-husband’s lawyer turns out to be an old family friend, but in the end he isn’t the one that rats her out. Mrs. Whittaker and one of her daughters make the connection themselves, digging up an old photo of her in the gossip rags they keep around the house. By this time, John has already been growing steadily indifferent towards Larita, his affections poisoned by his mother despite Sarah’s best attempts to talk him into standing by his wife. She turns out to be a rather decent sort, after all . . . either that or she’s just grateful to Larita for saving her from a mother-in-law worse than death.

The Whittakers make their fateful discovery on the afternoon before a big party, and Mrs. Whittaker all but orders Larita to keep to her room while the guests are around. The old crone peddles the excuse that her daughter-in-law has “one of her headaches” to any guest that inquires, but Larita has ideas of her own. She waits until everyone has arrived and then makes a grand entrance that stops the party dead in its tracks while everyone watches her slow, measured descent down the stairs. Mrs. Whittaker rushes forward quickly to cover her tail, “So your headache’s better, my dear?” But Larita is having none of it. “Headache? I haven’t had a headache,” she coolly replies before sweeping past.


Crashing the party proves to be a final, meaningless act of defiance. Larita tells Sarah later that evening that she intends to go away and accept a divorce without making a fuss. Heartbroken once more and dressed in funereal black, she sits in the nearly empty balcony of the courtroom as the same judge presides over the case. A lone reporter recognizes her and rushes out to inform his colleagues that the “notorious” Mrs. Filton is present. The paparazzi is waiting when she comes out, but this time she reacts differently. Striking a ridiculous pose, she covers her heart with her hand and declares “Shoot! There’s nothing left to kill.”

nothingleft.jpg“The worst title I ever wrote,” Hitchcock would later observe in a famous and lengthy interview with French critic and New Wave filmmaker François Truffaut. I cannot but agree. It is an over-the-top ending to a rather purposelessly somber piece of filmmaking. But try this on for size: A romantic courtship with someone who wants to forget their past life. A scandalous secret that threatens the couple’s new-found happiness. A menacing old country mansion ruled with an iron fist by a severe older woman. Does any of this sound familiar? Well, it should. Easy Virtue bears a surprising resemblance to Hitchcock’s first American film, the wildly successful adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s best-selling Rebecca (which wouldn’t even be written for another decade). Although, in addition to the sinister Mrs. Danvers, Mrs. Whittaker also anticipates Norman Bates’ domineering mother figure. The differences between the two works are more numerous than the similarities, of course, but one has to wonder what Easy Virtue might have looked like with the addition of sound and that extra decade or so of experience Hitchcock had when he made Rebecca.

As it is, the result is watchable, but by no means likable. Of the films Hitchcock had made by this point, this one is easily the most deserving of a mocking commentary track running constantly in the background to keep things entertaining (which I happily provided). Still, to his credit, Hitch didn’t select or particularly care for the material he was assigned. Happily (at least in some respects), his next film would give him the opportunity to really call the shots and put the technical knowledge he was continuing to amass to full use.

Next Week: Hitchcock puts up his dukes

~ by Jared on January 23, 2008.

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