Welcome back to Weekly Hitch, where I watch most of Hitchcock’s movies in chronological order for a year and then try to make you read about it. It’s like having a friend who is a huge movie-nerd, only you don’t also have to come to my birthday party. (Please come to my birthday party)
Four weeks in on the project and we are still just 2 years into Hitch’s directing career – as we plunge into a emotional and moralistic world in Hitchcock’s 1927 silent film dramatization of Noel Coward’s play Easy Virtue.
Easy Virtue is a very simple story – almost too simple, no not even almost, it just is too simple – but I’ll tell it to you anyway because we’re both here for a couple thousand words so we may as well make them count.
We meet the film’s protagonist Larita Filton (played by Isabel Jeans – who was the gold-digging actress in Downhill) as she sits in court, fighting to clear her name during a messy divorce! As we learn in some very clever flashbacks with some great transitions, Larita is caught in a scandal after refusing the sexual advances of a portrait-painter who fell in love with her. The painter then tries to murder her husband, Aubrey, before turning the gun on himself! It seems that Aubrey was a bit of a violent type, and Claude – the painter – didn’t like seeing the woman he loved getting bruised up. And yet, in spite of Larita’s innocence in the whole affair – she is still found to be to blame because the painter left her all his money in his will!
So, shamed before the court and society – even though all she did was get beat up by her husband and was then forced to witness a near murder and the suicide of a man who was in love with her – Larita flees England for the anonymity of life in the South of France.
But, as we all know, no one in the movies gets to escape their problems so easily, and while hiding away under a false name (due to a sudden fear of cameras it seems), Larita meets John Whittaker (played by fellow Downhill alum, Robin Irvine) while watching him play a round of tennis – and before you can say “did I mention my divorce and the horrific tragedy of my life,” Larita completely fails to mention her divorce and the horrific tragedy of her life while falling in love with John – who proposes marriage to her, specifically telling her that he doesn’t want to know about her past. Big mistake John. Larita thinks about the proposal and eventually accepts – a moment which we see cleverly played out on the face of a telephone operator listening in on the call and smiling as the verdict comes in. Marriage it is!
Soon John takes his new wife back to the English countryside to meet his family and a whole new drama begins to unfold. See, John’s mother had high hopes that her only son would marry his local sweetheart Sarah (played by the beautiful Enid Stamp Taylor) and takes a sudden and virulent dislike to his new blonde bride from the big city. And wouldn’t you know it – John is a total momma’s-boy who starts to take his mother’s view of things because he’s a wimp and can’t see that she’s just sour. Even John’s sister is a bitch to Larita – who still hides her past and starts smoking like a chimney. Only John’s father seems to be a nice person – but that doesn’t matter because no one listens to him.
After some number of weeks of her terrible mother-in-law and her husband’s old flame and hiding her past from everyone being all nosey about where she comes from, Larita’s new marriage is beginning to fray, and John has started to doubt his choice of bride. Larita begs him to take her back to France where they were happy – but John refuses, and then John’s sister discovers the truth about Larita in an old magazine and all hell breaks loose.
John’s mother has a full on conniption about her son marrying a notorious sex-fiend harlot or whatever, and worries that it’ll bring shame on the whole county and family and Larita smokes more – and what’s worse is that there’s a big dance being held at the house that night! At the party, Larita shows up on the stairs all She’s All That style and wearing a scandalously cut-out dress with a big fan and everyone’s shocked. But even after trading barbs with her mother-in-law and showing that they’re all hypocrites for ruining John’s marriage while judging her for the loss of her own, Larita can’t convince John to be a man, and so she decides to divorce him.
And in the end, we’re back in the divorce court – with Larita still notorious, standing before the cameras saying the terrible line, “Shoot! There’s nothing left to kill.”
A total bummer of an ending.
But how was the movie? I can hear you clamouring for the answer, so here it is:
Really, that’s about it. It’s okay, but if it wasn’t a Hitchcock film no one would ever want to watch it. I understand it was a tough subject to tackle, and adapting a Noel Coward play to a silent film, given his reputation for dazzling dialogue, seems like a terrible idea – but even with Hitch’s cinematic eye, the movie is – at best – a curious tale told with occasional cleverness, outweighed by its own rampant boringness.
Kind of like this blog. Ha! Beat you to it.
As with all of “The Hitchcock Nine” (as his early silent films are called) Easy Virtue is technically proficient, sometimes brilliant – Hitchcock is so amazing at telling a very complex story with a minimum of title cards and narration. He has great, playful camera tricks and inventive scenes, (like using the phone operator listening in on the call to tell the audience how a proposal went instead of seeing the call). He even cleverly intercuts two people kissing with two horses touching noses as a way of alluding to the animal nature of love I suppose.
There is also the possible interpretation of Easy Virtue as a direct reaction to the misogyny and callous treatment of the women in Hitchcock’s previous picture, Downhill. Wherein the earlier picture Ivor Novello’s hero was beset on all sides by horrible women lusting for money or youth or flesh – in Easy Virtue Hitch tells a very similar story, a person wrongfully accused and slandered who goes on a journey to try and recover themselves, but only finds more hardship, but in this case the wrong man is a woman – and she is formidable and self-possessed, in every way she is stronger than even Novello’s bobbing-cork of a man in Downhill. Because, as we will come to see in the future, women in Hitchcock’s films are rarely weak and wicked – they are worthy of respect, and while sometimes evil (as is John’s mother in this one) they are never looked down upon.
But, even with all the classic Hitchcock brilliance, we still have trouble getting over the fact that it’s just not a very interesting or complex story. Hitch and his writer, Eliot Stannard, try very hard to imbibe the film with a sense of irony and thematic reflections on moral hypocrisy – which was very much at the forefront of Coward’s play – but in the end, without sound – the wit and cleverness of the story and the acting is lost.
What Easy Virtue does well, however, is serve to highlight that even with a seemingly impossible task – adapting a play by a writer famed for witty repartee and wordy dialogue – Hitchcock still found a way to make the film his own – and to turn it into something, if not brilliant, at least watchable. And since I’m watching it nearly 90 years later – that’s still pretty impressive.
For such a famous and well-regarded director, it’s pretty amazing to me that so much of Hitchcock’s early work is missing. His very first directing work on two short films is completely lost, as is his second feature The Mountain Eagle, and this film – Easy Virtue was completely lost to the world until 1970 when a print was found in Austria in terrible condition.
But lost along with these films and snippets of creativity – we also lose a bit of the history of their making. Hitchcock considered Easy Virtue to be a lesser work, and during the period in the sixties when film critics (led by François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer) were starting to reconsider Hitch as a true auteur and master filmmaker, they couldn’t really talk to him about this film because it was still lost. But we do know a few things about the production which make for an interesting glimpse into his process.
Easy Virtue was the last picture Hitchcock would direct for Gainsborough before going on to British International, and it’s shooting came so close on the heels of Downhill that most of the same cast was just rehired to play in Easy Virtue. At one point Ivor Novello was even going to star in the film, but a disagreement between him and Hitch seems to have soured their professional relationship. As it happens though, Hitchcock went into production on Easy Virtue with a full script by Eliot Stannard and the editing talents of Ivor Montagu on hand as well (Montagu will be remembered as the critic and artist who helped reshape The Lodger into something useable).
Considering the very dry and melodramatic boringness of Easy Virtue, it’s interesting to find some of Hitchcock’s most inventive camera tricks and filmic flourishes within the picture. In fact, it opens with a great effect – in which a nearsighted judge lifts up a monocle which suddenly brings a lawyer across the room into view. Hitch loved being technical ahead of his craftspeople – and would often invent camera tricks before telling the crew what he was hoping to do.
For this trick, Hitchcock had a large mirror made to look like a monocle, and placed the lawyer behind the camera and then lifted the monocle in front of a double across the room – reflecting the image of the lawyer behind camera so as to look like he was in truth being magnified by the lens. It was a fairly clever special effect for the time, and like a lot of Hitchcock’s camera angles and tricks – he would go on to use this same basic effect years later during Strangers On A Train in which a murder is reflected in a pair of broken spectacles.
But in the end, the greatest production achievement to come out of Easy Virtue was Hitchcock himself. He began his employment with Michael Balcon at Gainsborough a young man of uncertain future and with no seeming ambition – and left seven years later as the most highly respected and famous film director in the entire country. Hitchcock had become a celebrity, and even though he was leaving the nest, as it were, there were no hard feelings between him and Balcon. Both men had benefited and in spite of his great stature, it would be a few years before Hitchcock would again find the wild success and personal satisfaction that he found with The Lodger
Easy Virtue also marks the second Hitchcock cameo – coming around the 21 minute mark at the tennis courts, though recent restoration has put some doubt on whether or not it’s him.
Now then, where does this bummer of a drama fit in the legacy and future of Hitchcock? Weirdly enough – it fits rather neatly.
For such a bland and not entirely successful film – the more I think about Easy Virtue, the more Hitchcock I see in it. All the classic elements of a Hitchcockian film are present, just not at the service of a Hitchcockian story – which really only serves to make them stand out more.
We have the blonde woman, someone wrongly accused, there’s tennis, the overbearing mother-figure, the weak-willed son, the power of a camera-lens, distaste for moralistic hypocrisy. In just that small list, I’ve described not only Easy Virtue, but also Notorius, Strangers On A Train, Rear Window, North By Northwest, Vertigo, Psycho, Rebecca, Young And Innocent, and who knows how many others. As with so many of Hitch’s very early work – you can feel him drawn toward certain themes and ideas, and I don’t even know if he was aware of it at the time.
Of course, the most obvious future relation to Easy Virtue will be Hitchcock’s 1946 masterpiece Notorious – in which a slandered woman, instead of merely falling in love with a man who happens to be dominated by his evil mother, is actively recruited by the government to become a spy by marrying a wimp of a Nazi. It’s Easy Virtue with an actual plot – and it’s magnificent.
But that’s all for another day far off in the future. Until then, I think it’s safe to say that Easy Virtue is a primordial Hitchcock film. It has all the elements, but none of the story-telling ability or determined sense of style and audience. It is a Hitchcock film made by an amateur, clearly on his way to becoming a genius. And I like watching him grow.
Next week we’ll look at Hitchcock’s first film for British International Pictures, and one of his few sole screenwriting credits as he leaps into 1928’s The Ring.