Number Seventeen (1932)

Synopsis:

A group of strangers — a homeless man (Leon M. Lion, The Amazing Quest of Ernest Bliss), a detective (John Stuart, Sink the Bismarck!), a young woman (Ann Casson, George and Margaret) and a few other shady characters — bump into each other at an abandoned house that seems to be a hot spot for criminal activities.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“You don’t have to do nothing in this house, you stand still and things happen!”

Based upon a stage play by mystery author J. Jefferson Farjeon, Number Seventeen (aka No. 17) is one of Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser-known works for a lot of good reasons. While this is a comedy of sorts, there’s little here that will make you smile. In addition, the movie becomes increasingly convoluted as time goes on.

I’ve read that Farjeon’s 1925 play is more serious in tone. Apparently, The Master of Suspense disliked the then popular stage play, finding it dull and obvious. Hitchcock’s solution to what he perceived as a hopeless assignment was to transform the mystery play into a spoof (of thrillers). Author Farjeon wasn’t amused by the changes and neither was leading man John Stuart, who was allowed to reprise his stage triumph.

I totally get the idea. Faced with the real possibility that audiences would laugh at the story’s predictable twists, Hitchcock goes for exaggeration whenever possible, hoping that viewers would accept the movie as “deliberately silly” instead of “unintentionally funny.” It’s actually a clever solution — there is a certain logic to Hitchcock’s unorthodox approach. Number Seventeen doesn’t work, though. That said, the director’s cleverness does produce some interesting “Hitchcockian” moments.

Hitchcock, who had a thing for staircases, makes the house’s staircase the primary focus of the story. Fans of the filmmaker will also notice that Hitchcock managed to squeeze in a scene where the two leading characters are tied up together, and as every dedicated Hitchcock fan knows, this is one of the director’s preferred images — there is no point in denying that The Master of Suspense loved ropes and handcuffs!

Number Seventeen ends with a goofy chase. Since Hitchcock is trying to make fun of mystery clichés, this elaborate sequence relies on obvious miniatures and frantic editing that verge on the absurd — it’s another desperate attempt to engage viewers. Cameraman Jack Cox (The Manxman and Blackmail) does a terrific good job hiding the fact that most of the story takes place in one large set. The editing is fast and furious, which also helps you forget that this is all very silly and uninteresting.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Number Seventeen is mostly pointless and unexciting. It’s also very talky. The movie was meant to be a parody of mystery tropes and clichés, specifically the ones related to the then popular “old dark house” thing. For years, Alfred Hitchcock pretended that the movie didn’t exist and I can’t really blame him. I recommend Number Seventeen only to Hitchcock completists. B&W, 66 minutes, Not Rated.

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