Number 17: confusing comedy caper not a prime example of Hitchcock’s work

Alfred Hitchcock, “Number 17” (1932)

It has many of the ingredients of a typical Hitchcock suspense thriller film but “Number 17” is merely a daft and confusing comedy chase caper that’s part haunted-house movie / part runaway-train movie. The plot is threadbare with the main focus of it already having happened before the film begins (a diamond necklace is stolen and stashed in a vacant house) and the acting is very uneven with one actor over-acting and mugging for the camera and the others clearly under-acting. As it develops, the plot is unclear with puzzling character motivations: why does a gang of professional thieves hide jewels in an empty “safe” house when a hobo (Leon M Lion) can go in and out and the neighbours next door include a police officer and his nosy daughter Rose (Anne Casson)? Even the detective Gilbert Fordyce (John Stuart) on the thieves’ trail, walking into the house in the film’s opening scenes, has found the place quickly enough though how he does so is never explained. Other characters in the film do peculiar things: Nora (Anne Grey), one of the thieves, pretends to be deaf and mute among her collaborators but when alone with detective Doyle (Barry Jones) who turns up among the late-arriving thieves and Rose, speaks to them; and why is the hobo Ben lurking in the house at the start of the film and what’s his reason for nicking the jewels from one of the thieves? But this is a comedy farce in which the safest place to hide stolen jewels becomes a public forum for anyone and everyone who wishes to wander in and join the fun. People get tied up, a fist-fight breaks out and parts of the floor or the bannisters give way. Hmm, not such a safe house after all if every time you take a step or lean on something, you fall to ground floor faster than you can say “spiral staircase” which occupies much of the camera’s attention in the film’s first half.

With the staircase partly demolished by the very people who were supposed to be restricted by it, the thieves move onto hijacking a goods train on its way to Germany over the English Channel. The detectives escape from the house and take over a bus. From then on it’s a race to see who reaches the Channel ferry first, the runaway train or the bus so police can stop the thieves. Only one problem – after the thieves knock out the train crew, they realise they don’t know how to operate its controls or jam the brakes!

The real worth of “Number 17” is to see Hitchcock’s developing style and methods, notably the long opening scene which is completely silent with Fordyce investigating the vacant house after noticing that a window is lit from inside and a person’s silhouette can be seen. The voyeuristic camera follows Fordyce closely and follows his gaze up the spiral staircase to its top where Ben first appears in magnified shadow. The frequent and creative use of shadows to create an atmosphere of tension and menace in the house reek of German Expressionist influences. Quick cuts among scenes during the train journey, flitting from shots of the steam train chewing up the line on its mad dash to the ferry to the crooks climbing over carriages chasing Ben or one another to the bus on its equally mad charge on the roads, generate excitement and a tense build-up to the inevitable crash climax.

As mentioned before the acting is inconsistent: Lion plays up the comic aspects of Ben a lot while the other actors play their characters straight. For a bunch of professional crooks with self-interest in common, the thieves have remarkably clipped upper-class English accents and ways of speaking, and dress well; the detectives do likewise. Much of the confusion in the plot arises from the fact that the goodies and baddies are so much alike in looks and mannerisms, and this mass doubling turns out to be intentional: one of the thieves turns out to be a police infiltrator and the detectives Fordyce and Doyle are using the same name as a cover. The whole caper is revealed to be a parody in deception: people and buildings aren’t what they’re said to be, a bad guy is actually a good guy, and the people you see apart from Nora and Ben are dressed so nattily that they’re hard to accept as thieves or police. There are hilarious scenes as well: the first we see of Rose, she crashes through the ceiling right into Fordyce’s arms; in a slightly later scene, a detective takes a bullet in his wrist while defending Nora and suffers only a flesh wound. Perhaps he momentarily thought he was wearing invisible versions of Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting bracelets.

Combined with very poor-quality filmstock, cheap effects and Hitchcock’s own disdain for the whole project – he had wanted to do something else but ironically another director who had wanted to film “Number 17” got the project Hitchcock desired – “Number 17” is a below-average effort and not really worth bothering for the general public. It’s of interest mainly for budding film-makers to see how Hitchcock uses his knowledge of the German Expressionist style and his own bag of technical tricks to create atmosphere and suspense.

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