Let me begin by describing a Hitchcock film in sparse detail:
The film begins with a murder, a cheery-eyed fellow is wrongfully blamed for the crime, the fellow goes on the run, meets a young blonde woman, gets her wrapped up in the deal, spends the rest of the movie trying to convince the girl that he is innocent, and then wraps the adventure up in the last ten minutes with a nice bit of Hitchcock’s usual visual bravado.
By filling in just a few more details I could turn this into any number of Hitchcock films, couldn’t I?
The particular film in question is Alfred Hitchcock’s fun little British film “Young and Innocent” (1937); but if I added a detail about a spy ring it could be “The 39 Steps” (1935), or if I added an extended sequence on a train it might be “The Wrong Man” (1956).
The formula for this type of film is actually referred to as “the wrong man” story. In the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews Hitchcock speaks in great detail about this story structure, and, as I hinted to before, is a story structure Hitchcock would return to multiple times throughout his career. He would even do a variation on this story in the film “North by Northwest” (1959), which substitutes the murder plot for a case of mistaken identity.
The fact that Hitchcock essentially made the same types of films throughout his entire career could easily be viewed as a weakness when one considers the startling lack of variety in his body of work. But what it enabled Hitchcock to do was to create a cinematic language and technique all his own, and to develop and refine it slowly over the course of many years.
“Young and Innocent”, in comparison to “The 39 Steps” or the other great British film “The Lady Vanishes”, is remarkably silly in its storytelling. For instance, to clear his name of the murder charges the male lead, Robert Tisdall (played by Derrick de Marney), has to find a raincoat which was stolen from him at a diner in the country. Robert has (in line with “the wrong man” structure) managed to get a blonde wrapped up in the affair: a young woman named Erica Burgoyne (played by Nova Pillbeam), and is using Erica for a chauffeur of sorts. The two have been given directions to the diner and know that just down the road a few miles the road will fork, the left heads to the diner, the right heads back to town. Erica has made it clear that she does not want to be involved no matter how many times Robert tells her that he is innocent (also in line with “the wrong man” structure) and therefore plans to turn right and go back to town.
But when the car reaches the fork in the road, we see that a crew has the right fork blocked off! Erica pulls the car to a stop, looks at the blocked road with a blank expression and remarks “I was going to take the left fork anyway!” She turns the car left and heads towards the diner. But now comes the really silly part! As soon as the car turns down the left fork, the road crew picks up the roadblock and opens the right fork up for traffic!
The whole movie operates on this odd sort of happenstance logic, but it’s not like it particularly matters as long as we get a nice bit of suspense and visual bravado in the finale, right? Right!
Hitchcock delivers what might be my favorite shot in ANY and I mean ANY of his films. Erica and a homeless man who is helping her and Robert look for the real murderer, are in a hotel’s ballroom. The homeless man does not remember what the murderer looks like, but can recognize him by a twitch in his eyes.
The camera then pans over a crowded room of people dancing, and down through the musicians in the band, into a close up of the drummer’s eyes. In my mind this camera move is even more impressive than the famous crane shot in “Notorious” (1946), when a camera pans over a crowded room and into a close up of a key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand.
The following five shots (which I won’t spoil) then manage to elevate the tension of the entire moment to a nearly unbearable level. I only wish that the wrap up of the plot were stronger; the murderer’s (inevitable) confession comes too easily and his laugh is too diabolical for the scene to be convincing.
But thankfully, the chemistry between the two leads is strong enough to carry the film through to the wonderful ballroom sequence, and even though the wrap up is weak I still give the film a very high recommendation. While somewhere below the quality of “The 39 Steps”, “The Lady Vanishes” and “The Wrong Man”, “Young and Innocent” is a wonderful addition to Hitchcock’s body of work, and a must see for a fan of his.
The film is in the public domain, and is available for viewing on YouTube thanks to OpenFlix. Here is a direct link to the crane shot into the close up of the man’s eyes for those who are interested, but I would also recommend watching the entire film (which is currently streaming in HD on Netflix Instant): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghnUMF0Bn1c&t=72m24s