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Week 14: Number Seventeen (1932)

numberseventeenposter“Sausage. That’s what I ‘it ‘im on the ‘ead with.”
“Ya don’t have to do nothin’ in this ‘ere house – ya stand still and things happen!”
“I’ll remember that, guv’nor. Give you a job in the cabinet, next election . . . In the Messin’ About department.”
“Blimey, if I could blow like that, I’d blow the lot of you to Jericho, blast me if I wouldn’t!”
“Posh. His reputation’s probably grossly exaggerated.”
“It’s like the pictures, isn’t it?”
“Will you see me safely home, guv’nor, if I gives you a nice wedding present, eh?”

Number Seventeen

Hitchcock actually filmed Number Seventeen before beginning work on Rich and Strange in 1931, but it was not released until the following year. For the fourth time in a row, Hitchcock found himself making a movie out of a successful stage play. This one was written by J. Jefferson Farjeon, and adapted by Hitchcock, Alma, and Rodney Ackland. The play is ostensibly a cheap thriller surrounding a group of odd characters who all find themselves in a deserted house late at night because of a stolen diamond necklace.

suspenseThe material, as presented by Hitchcock, is often so broadly farcical and far-fetched that it all but refuses to be taken seriously. In fact, Hitchcock had wanted to make a completely different film, while fellow director Thomas Bentley wanted to make this one. However, Walter Mycroft assigned each of them to the project that the other wanted. Hitchcock, having already decided that his source material was hopelessly cliché, determined to film the play, according to co-writer Ackland, as “a burlesque of all the thrillers of which it was a pretty good sample – and do it so subtly that nobody at [the studio] would realize the subject was being guyed.”

He certainly succeeded in doing that, although his elaborate practical joke effectively torpedoed any chance the production might have had to amount to anything (and, at a mercifully short 63 minutes, there’s not much time for development either). The situation is patently absurd throughout, loaded with more plot holes than a gopher colony, and the result is far more reminiscent of an Alec Guinness Ealing comedy than a Hitchcock thriller.

benbartonHowever, be that as it may, Number Seventeen contains the first true example of Hitchcock’s use of a MacGuffin. “MacGuffin” (sometimes “McGuffin”) is a term popularized by Hitchcock as early as the late-1930s which describes a plot device that motivates characters and drives the forward, but is ultimately quite unimportant to the story itself. Hitchcock frequently made use of MacGuffins in his films, which might be anything at all: a person, an object, the answer to a question, etc. The MacGuffin in Number Seventeen is the diamond necklace which everyone wants to get their hands on, although ultimately nothing is revealed about its origins.

In describing the origins of the term, Hitch cited an anecdote about two men on a train. One asks the other about a package in the luggage rack, and the other tells him that it is a MacGuffin, which he goes on to explain is “an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” When the first man protests that there aren’t any lions in the Scottish Highlands, the other snippily replies, “Well, then that’s no MacGuffin!”

norabrantThe lone cast member to make the transition from stage to screen was Leon M. Lion, whom Hitchcock despised. As both producer of the play and original creator of the plucky comic relief, however, his involvement was non-negotiable. Lion’s character, a Cockney rascal named Ben, is ironically the best thing about the film, as he is the only one not playing things straight. Most of the best dialogue and all of the laughs belong to him. Other cast members included John Stuart ( who had played Hugh Fielding, the sympathetic young man in Hitchcock’s very first film, The Pleasure Garden) as the leading man, and Hitchcock sound-picture regular Donald Calthrop (Blackmail, Murder!).

notemptyThe film opens on a deserted street late one night as the camera tracks a man’s hat being blown along a sidewalk until it comes to a stop just inside the gate of number seventeen. The owner of the hat appears and retrieves it from the ground, replacing it on his head before peering up curiously at the house. He immediately notices two things: first, that the house is for sale and second, that there is someone wandering around in one of the upper stories.

ascentThe man walks slowly forward to the door, with the camera following just behind, and steps inside. The house is definitely deserted, with not a stick of furniture in sight. The entryway is dominated by a large spiral staircase that disappears into the darkness above. As he steps towards the stairs, a black cat descends to meet him and he finds a box of matches in his pocket, lighting one so that he can see where he is going.

cobwebsAs he makes his way carefully up, another man holding a lit candle peers down from above, but apparently doesn’t see him coming up, wandering off into a side room. As the first man continues to ascend, Hitchcock treats us to all sorts of weird shadows created by the odd shape of the staircase and the faint sources of light. Everything in the house seems to be coated with a thick layer of cobwebs and dust, and the banister is broken in several places. Hitchcock makes great use of this staircase throughout the film, having already shown an aptitude for filming scenes in stairwells in earlier films like Blackmail and The Lodger.

shadowsReaching the top floor, the first man walks into one of the other rooms. Just then, the second man comes out of the room he was in and stands looking around on the landing. When the first man re-emerges, the second starts and drops his candle, which goes out. Just then, a train passes by just outside, and the light it throws into the room illuminates the corpse of a third man lying on his face between the first two. The second man lets out a yell, which is drowned out by the noise of the train, and bolts. The first gives chase and brings him down before he can get far.

shadows2Up to this point, about five minutes in, there hasn’t been a single bit of dialogue, the stage having been set by the faux-creepy ambiance of the deserted house and a thick layer of melodramatic mood music. Now, at last, the characters begin speaking to each other. Eventually, the first man will introduce himself as Thorndike, while the second reveals himself to be Ben. (“Ben what?” “Well, if it wasn’t for you, guv’nor, it’d be Ben Bolt.”) Most of the characters remain nameless for long periods of time, but I’ll be introducing them as quickly as possible to avoid “first man,” “third man,” “seventeenth man” and that sort of thing.

Thorndike, for no more apparent reason than the burning curiosity that led him to enter an abandoned house at nearly midnight in the first place, takes it upon himself to interrogate Ben about the body at the top of the stairs. Ben claims to be just as much in the dark as Thorndike is (and quite reluctant to investigate further), but Thorndike forces him to return to the scene of the crime anyway.

roseOver the course of the next half-hour, a host of characters assembles. First, there’s the girl from next-door, Rose Ackroyd, who crashes through a skylight as she wanders the rooftops looking for her father. She has a telegram for him, and was worried when she couldn’t find him to hand it over. The telegram is from someone named Barton, who advises Ackroyd to watch number seventeen in anticipation of his arrival, as he expects someone named Sheldrake to stop off there with the “Suffolk necklace” before making his getaway later that night.

Just as they are trying to decide what to do, the bell rings to announce the arrival of more characters. Thorndike goes down to answer the door and finds a shady-looking couple named Brant and Nora. Brant claims to be interested in buying the house, despite the lateness of the hour (as the camera zooms in slowly for an ominous close-up of his face). Nora is a deaf/mute. As they step inside, another man, Henry Doyle, walks up and asks if he can come in, too. He calls Brant his uncle, and though it is plain that the other doesn’t recognize him, he doesn’t say anything.

spookedbenMeanwhile, back upstairs, Rose and Ben discover that the corpse has mysteriously disappeared. Thoroughly spooked, Ben is ready to leave, and when the others come up from below, he pulls a gun he found earlier. As he tries to push his way down the stairs, Doyle grabs at him from behind and they struggle. The gun accidentally goes off, and Thorndike instinctively throws his arm out to protect Nora, saving her life when he takes the bullet in his wrist.

necklace1As Nora helps him bind the wound, the newcomers draw a gun of their own and quickly take charge of the situation. They search the others and find the telegram. When Ben tries to escape again, Brant and Doyle wrestle him into the bathroom and lock him up. Unbeknown to all of them, however, the bathroom is not unoccupied. A pair of thick,necklace2 meaty hands appear from behind Ben and strangle him until he collapses to the floor. However, he is not dead, or even unconscious. He is merely pretending. As he watches carefully from the floor, the other man climbs onto the toilet and fishes the necklace in question out of the tank. When the man, presumably Sheldrake, climbs down and peers through the keyhole, Ben surreptitiously slips the necklace out of his pocket and stows it away.

ascendingMeanwhile, Brant and Doyle are discussing their situation on the landing. Apparently they’ve heard of Sheldrake and his necklace, but how they came to be at the house remains a murky subject. In any case, now that they know they determine to stick around and receive a cut of the spoils. After a few moments, the front door opens again and someone comes up the stairs. It is a man with a gash in his forehead; the very man, in fact, who formerly seemed to be a corpse on the floor, and he says that he is Sheldrake.

confederatesAt Brant’s suggestion, he and Sheldrake tie Rose and Thorndike to the banister, but as Sheldrake ties Rose up, the two trade winks. Next, Sheldrake ushers the other three to a side room to retrieve the diamond, but quickly slams the door on them and locks it once they’ve gone through. It seems that he isn’t Sheldrake, after all, but Mr. Ackroyd, Rose’s father.

struggleAckroyd has a bit of trouble undoing Brant’s knots, and Rose suggests that he retrieve Ben from the bathroom first. Of course, he finds the real Sheldrake waiting inside, and the two struggle furiously while Rose and Thorndike watch helplessly from the banister. After a few moments, Ben comes out and tries to land a hit with a piece ofhandbag wood he’s picked up, but he hits Ackroyd by mistake. Sheldrake gets Ackroyd and Ben back into the bathroom and locks the door and releases the other criminals. The four of them turn to leave, and Nora drops her handbag on the ground next to the prisoners. Doyle notices, but says nothing. As the three men turn the corner, Nora, the supposed deaf/mute, tells the prisoners, “I’m coming back.”

danglingBefore she returns, though, the rotting banister gives way, leaving Rose and Thorndike dangling by their wrists two or three stories above the ground. Nora arrives just in time to free them before the banister drops to the ground below. Thorndike asks her what she’s doing with the criminals, but her only explanation is, “You don’t think I want to be, do you?” She takes off to rejoin the others, while the freed prisoners rush to release the two locked in the bathroom.

cellarRose stays to tend to her father while the other two men rush down to the cellar to intercept the crooks. They arrive just in time to overhear the escape plan. Just outside the house is a train-yard, and the thieves plan to board an empty train car, which will then be loaded directly onto a ferry and taken across the Channel to France, where they will be Scot-free.

boarding1Nora doesn’t want to go, but the others force her. They get out just as Thorndike and Ben break through the door. Thorndike refuses to go to the police for fear Nora will be arrested if they get involved, and decides to handle things himself. They rush outside and locate the criminals just as the train begins to pull out. Ben manages to get aboard, but Thorndike is left behind.

boarding2boarding3boarding4

busThe three criminals realize that the guard on the train has spotted them, and they leave to take care of him. Ben has landed in a car full of wine and is gleefully getting drunk while he plays with the diamond necklace, which he still has. Meanwhile, back at the depot, Thorndike is trying to figure out what to do. He runs out into the street and commandeers a bus, forcing the driver to follow the route of the train at gunpoint.

friskOn the train, the three criminals have discovered that the necklace is missing, and they all suspect each other. There is a great deal of running back and forth, up and down the speeding train. Doyle, it turns out, is Detective Barton, and he manages to evade thecaught others and slip back to the car where Nora is waiting. Ben is already there, and as Barton begins to frisk Nora, who he suspects of having the necklace, Ben produces it for him. Unfortunately, just as he pulls it out, the other criminals poke their heads in. The necklace drops into the straw in the ensuing scuffle, and Barton makes a break for the front of the train, with the others in hot pursuit.

trainOn the way forward, he gives them the slip again, but they continue on and take out the engineer and the fireman, discovering too late that they have no idea how to bringcontrols the train to a stop once it reaches the ferry. Barton, meanwhile, has returned to search for the necklace in the straw. As the train speeds out of control, Hitchcock brings his monumental piece de resistance into play. Since all thrillers end with a chase, his would be the greatest chase of all time: a mad race for the coast between a train and a bus.

While there are some actual shots of trains and buses edited in here and there, the bulk of the climax was shot using models (which are quite clearly just that and nothing more). Nevertheless, the scene is quite elaborate, as the bus squeals around hairpin turns and under (model) bridges while the train flies over them, faster and faster all the time. On the final approach to the (model) ferry, the two speed along, side-by-side, past (model) villages and other scenery.

race1race2race3

crashAt last, the train, with Sheldrake and Brant still watching helplessly from the locomotive, plows onto the ferry. The force of the collision snaps the ropes mooring the ferry to the dock and shoves it away from the dock, dragging the train cars that are not already on board out over the water. The noise is terrific, and it’s all quite a spectacle, though clearly it is nothing more than a spectacle that has been built to scale.

rescueAs some of the cars begin to sink, Thorndike, dashing up to the water’s edge, spots Nora inside one of them, handcuffed and hanging on as best she can. He strips off his coat and dives into the water to rescue her. Much to the delight of the gathering crowd, he swims inside the sinking train car and drags her out before it sinks. Ben, not handcuffed but apparently not much of a swimmer either, is left to fend for himself, comically clinging to the outside of another car.

rescue2rescue3rescue4

stoicIn the final scene, Ben, Thorndike, Barton and Nora are gathered indoors, bundled up in blankets for the final denouement. Barton tells Thorndike who he is, and lets him know that he hasn’t got the necklace yet, but he has got the girl, which amounts to the same thing. Nora, knowing she doesn’t have it, but certain she’ll be offexposed to jail soon, remains stoic. However, there’s one thing that Barton, and to a greater extent, the audience, hasn’t counted on. Barton isn’t Barton at all, he is notorious criminal Henry Doyle, whom the police are just as anxious to capture as they are to retrieve the necklace. Thorndike was the real Barton all along, and he delivers Doyle into the waiting arms of the police outside.

diamondsBarton, the real one, then goes over to Nora and tells her, “You’d better come along with me.” “Where?” she asks, expecting him to answer “The police station.” Instead he says, “To get some breakfast,” and they share a good laugh. All seems well, but where is the necklace? Not to worry, Ben is wearing it around his neck, as he gladly reveals in exchange for breakfast.

Audiences didn’t understand what Hitchcock had been trying to do with his satirical take on the film anymore than the studio did. Number Seventeen and Rich and Strange were the beginning of the end of his association with British International Pictures, which was continuing to shy away from risk in favor of reliable adaptations and cheaply-produced “quota pictures.”

lordcambersladiesLater in 1932, Hitch supervised one of these, Lord Camber’s Ladies, which he only produced. About the film, he later said, “This was a poison thing. I gave it to Benn Levy to direct.” The movie did poorly, and Hitchcock, his standing at the studio already tenuous, was terminated. Disgruntled and out of a job, Hitch began to feel the lure of Hollywood, and he was briefly courted by Universal. With the Great Depression going on in America, however, the deal ultimately fell through.

Alfred Hitchcock was the most famous director in Britain, but he was also unemployed after a particularly poor run of early talkies, and had yet to establish his famous niche. The future of his film career looked bleak. However, his greatest opportunity yet, in the form of an old friend and an abandoned script, was waiting just around the corner.

Next Week: Hitchcock arrives at last

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~ by Jared on April 2, 2008.

One Response to “Week 14: Number Seventeen (1932)”

  1. I love this movie. One of my favorites among Hitchcock’s early underrated British films. It’s short, sweet, fun, and… catchy. I only wish there was a cleaned-up DVD release here in the States. The Laserlight edition is decent but messy; both the UK and France have some nicely remastered copies available, so I hope one heads our way in the future.

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