Produced by British Gaumont in 1937, Alfred Hitchcock's The Young and Innocent (1937) is the director's last film made in England. It occupies a curious blind spot in my imagination -- for some reason, I can never recall that I have seen this movie until I have watched about a third of it. I think this may be because the rather dire first part of the film doesn't exactly match the mood or tone of the funnier, larky last two-thirds -- this shift in mood mirrors later works by the director that seem to start in one genre and end up somewhere else entirely (romantic caper film to horror in Psycho and romantic comedy to nightmare apocalypse in The Birds). In fact, the movie, propelled by a blithe and ingenious chase plot, is a compendium of film devices that Hitchcock developed to perfection in later films -- and, in fairness, these devices are already highly effective in the 1937 picture.
The plot, typical for Hitchcock, involves a good-looking, insouciant man-about-town accused of a murder. The hero, a Hollywood scriptwriter, is alleged to have murdered a movie star who has made a legacy to the impecunious writer in her Will and who has been seen running away from the beach where the woman's body has washed up. Captured immediately, the hero is interrogated all night long and, while in police custody, swoons. His fainting spell summons succor from the heroine, the lavishly beautiful Nova Pilbeam -- she has the austerely perfect features of a silent movie star and Hitchcock's lighting lovingly gilds her with radiance. The heroine is the daughter of the Police Commissioner investigating the case. The hero can clear himself if he can find the film's MacGuffin -- in this case, a raincoat stolen from him at a shabby road-house. Escaping from the courtroom where he is being arraigned, the hero flees custody in search of the lost raincoat. The heroine, who believes in his innocence, ends up chauffeuring him around the country. The murderer is afflicted with a twitch in his eyes -- that is his stigmata, the sign by which he will be known. He plays drums in dance band that incongruously appears in minstrel black-face ("corked up" his features aren't recognizable). However, at the film's bravura climax, the drummer can't control the twitch in his eyes and his playing becomes arrhythmic -- he also swoons and, once more, is attended by the heroine (the two faints bracket the film). She recognizes that he is the killer and the film ends happily (or, at least, conventionally) with a close-up of the radiant Pilbeam looking with joy at her future husband and police-officer father. The effect is a little disquieting: we see the object of desire turning her head in extreme close-up to look at two icons of respectability: the husband and the domineering, police commissioner father. It's an example of Hitchcock's extremely laconic style -- packing an exposition of five minutes into one five second shot. By all accounts, Hitchcock loved the young debutante -- she was 17 or 18 when the film was made -- and Nova Pilbeam, herself, recalled the director's solicitude, saying that the set was a "very happy one." So, it's a little sad to see Hitchcock's cameo in the film, debasing himself: he appears in a fairly lengthy shot as a pudgy, dumpy-looking little reporter who can't get his camera to work right: the twitchy eye, the villain corked-up in black-face, the fat little man wrestling with an unprepossessing box-camera -- all of this seems to me to be cut from the same cloth. Hollywood Hitchcock was fat, sadistic, and extremely distinguished -- he deployed his accent like a straight razor. But 1937 Hitchcock is just a slovenly-looking boyish fat man wishing he were a slender movie star. (Nova Pilbeam married Hitchcock's assistant director, Pen Tennyson -- a grandson of Alfred Lord Tennyson; when he was killed in a plane crash making a propaganda picture in 1941, she was briefly a widow. She later married another distinguished man, retired from cinema and had a baby -- she never appeared in movies again.)
Hitchcock begins the film furiously enough -- another huge close-up of a beautiful woman ranting. We start out in the middle of ferocious marital combat -- it leads to the woman's murder. The camera whirls around the couple and lightning flashes outside. It's all Gran Guignol. Then, we see cliffs and a corpse washed up in the surf. The body has one of its arms wrapped up oddly in a crook over its head -- John Boorman must have seen this movie as a boy and been influenced by it: the dead body on the beach has the same crooked posture as the corpse of Drew in Deliverance. (Later, the proprietor of flop house puts one of his arms up in the same half-disjointed position). A shot of the dead body is intercut in a shocking way with a close-angle image of a screaming sea-gulls: it's The Birds. (Later, a birthday sequence in which childish songs and games are gruesomely protracted while the police are en route to the party reminds me of the sequence in The Birds in which schoolchildren sing a song with about a hundred repetitive verses while crows ominously gather for the attack.) There's a scene in a mill with a waterwheel similar to later scenes in mills in other Hitchcock films and, when a car crashes into a deep pit in a mine, the sequence of shots by which the hero saves the heroine, grasping her hand and pulling her up out of the abyss is similar to the climax on Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest. Hitchcock's use of rear-projection is very stylized and dreamlike in this film -- particularly weird surreal images of people running forward or backward against rear projected images. (The movie makes extensive use of exquisitely detailed miniatures -- and for no reason that I can ascertain: the use of the miniatures of a village and railroad station suggest that Hitchcock intended to stage a grandiose train wreck after the manner of Fritz Lang's Spione, but there is no such scene in the movie.) What Hitchcock inevitably lost when he immigrated to Los Angeles is the Dickensian background that he uses in The Young and the Innocent -- the movie is crammed with witty, affectionate portraits of English types: there is the mostly blind and feckless barrister whose representation doesn't inspire any confidence in the accused man, various belligerent lorry drivers who hang out at a truck's stop called Tom's Hat, the police commissioner and his many sons engaged in banter and bickering at the dinner table, and, then, the denizens of the flop house, including a tinker who seems to come right out of Oliver Twist and who is instrumental in the film's elaborate climax. From start to finish, this film is pure pleasure.