The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: Fred and Emily Hill are leading a boring life in London. They receive a big inheritance from a rich relative and suddenly they can realize all their dreams. They leave for a cruise behaving as rich people … but this is the beginning of the end. Richness makes them soon forget their love and family.
James: I have surprisingly little to say about this flick. I didn’t enjoy this movie nearly as much as the others. I had an okay time watching it, and I found myself interested in the outcome during the first half, but by the end, I just didn’t care anymore.
Jason: Hmmm, I think I liked this one more than you did, if only because I found myself laughing out loud at certain spots, and there were several scenes that got me thinking. No, I’m not saying it was entirely successful, but I definitely preferred it to Murder! At first, I thought the story was going to be all a dream, from when Fred (Harry Kendall) opens that convenient letter from his uncle, telling him he’s getting his inheritance early so that he can realize his dream of “living his life to the fullest.” Everything that happens after that has the feel of ridiculous fantasy, then adulterous fantasy, then surrealist fantasy (aboard that Chinese junk). And then when Fred and Emily (Joan Barry) finally get home, everything is just as it was. I really thought we were going to see them wake up in bed one morning, having shared a dream or something.
James: I must admit to being intrigued at certain points along the way. Once again, we get a cheating wife, but this time, we get a two-timing husband too. I didn’t like any of the characters. The way they just go on cheating, right out there in plain view. I couldn’t bring myself to care. Particularly Fred, who is a buffoon. His makeup might have had something to do with that, but he certainly isn’t a man in my book. Even Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont) turns out to be an ass. I mean, he knows the Princess (Betty Amann) is a liar and a money-hungry wench, but he doesn’t tell Fred or Emily! To me, that makes his character go from a decent gentleman who gets caught up in the whole love thing to a real loser.
Jason: You make some good points. But let’s go back a bit. I loved the whole opening sequence. It reminded me of the opening to Brazil or some Coen Brothers movie, with the office workers at their desk, waiting for quitting time. When 6 o’clock arrives, they shuffle out as one large group and open their umbrellas in rhythm outside. In the subway, we get some very funny slapstick with the woman’s hat and the newspaper, and at this point, I thought I was in for something really cool. The movie did settle into a slower pace after that, but it was a great opening.
James: Yes, there were some funny moments in Rich and Strange. Like when Emily and Fred get drunk and try to find their way back to their hotel room. Then he slips to his knees next to his bed, she sees it and thinks he’s praying, so she does the same. That was pretty good stuff.
Jason: And when Fred tries to set his watch to the elevator dial, and tries to move the veil to kiss the Princess, and his preoccupation with the number 19 (her room number). As you said, the prayer scene at the bed was clever. But I laughed the most at the seasickness jokes, with Fred miserable in bed while Gordon is wooing Emily. There’s a hysterical scene of Fred reading a menu as the words fly off the page at him.
James: Some of the stuff you found humorous just drove me batty. When he tries to remove that veil . . . man, I was so taken aback. I mean, this guy is a complete loser. It wasn’t funny at all. I just kept thinking about how unrealistic it was, or how much of a complete idiot he had to be. This actually helps the ending when we learn that she’s pulling a con, since there is no way anyone would be with him if she weren’t out for his money.
Jason: Once they got on the ship, I was reminded of the Titanic, and I wondered if that was intended. Maybe a metaphor for doomed love. When the adulterous fantasies started happening, I admit that I was surprised. I guess I didn’t expect it of Emily (another Hitch blonde). I didn’t expect that kiss between her and Gordon. At that point, the movie changed course for me, and became not as interesting. Although it still totally felt like a dream or fantasy. I did like that the Princess turned out to be pulling a con, and a good one. Fred, the buffoon, falls head over heels into it. There was one scene where she places his hand on her breast, and I swear he had an erection underneath that ridiculous costume. But their individual scenes of adultery felt forced to me, and yes, made them less likeable.
James: I agree that the film takes a wrong turn once Emily kisses Gordon. Or more to the point, once Fred wakes up. I thought the film was going right along toward a dramatic conclusion. I was thinking it could be The Ring, which had similar themes, only better. Instead, Fred had to find a lover too, and the rest of the film turned into ridiculousness.
Jason: What did you think of the final act?
James: I can totally see Hitch trying to add suspense to the movie with the sinking ship, but man, did that backfire. Fred comes off as even more of a loser in that scene. I can’t remember specifics, but I cringed every time he spoke. And the way Emily keeps dabbing his head with water while the ship sinks, as if she can’t hear the commotion outside—that was painful to watch.
Jason: But I thought the scenes after all that were crazy and kind of redeemed the movie. They survive the sinking of the ship, miraculously, and they wander around in their nightclothes (more gratuitous lingerie for Hitch), eventually to be saved. But is it possible that everything after they wake up inside the locked cabin is a death dream? I mean, how is it possible that the water is lower at their window and letting in sunlight? How did they fall asleep in the stress of the sinking ship? It’s almost as if they’ve woken up in an afterlife and are in another dream world. I’m thinking of the craziness of the Chinese junk saving them, and that sailor getting caught in the rope to slowly drown—that was horrible! Then we get that weird birth, and they eat some great food but it turns out to be the cat that’s just like the one from home. And then there’s more vomiting. It’s all very surreal and intriguing. When you lay it all out like that, it’s gotta be some of the most black and weird humor in Hitch’s early career, if not his entire career.
James: All I could see was how ridiculous the whole junk scene was. It just seemed so fake to me. First the water is above the window, and then it’s somehow lowered. Then there’s the fact that they can’t hear the commotion, the fact that Fred continually calls the Japanese people idiots, or stupid, or whatever (although the eating of the cat is funny). I would say that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, but some of the humor really worked for me. I think it’s just that I needed a leading male who wasn’t such a twit.
Jason: I agree that Fred doesn’t add up to much, but this is interesting, it’s our first real disagreement. Although, I wouldn’t say our reviews are polar opposites. I agree that it wasn’t entirely successful.
James: Emily is damn cute, don’t you think? Interesting that Joan Barry, the actress who played her, was the uncredited voice Alice in Blackmail. I thought I recognized her voice but not her face.
Jason: How interesting! Yes, Emily is delicious, and she reminded me of someone, but I never could place it. Maybe a young Anne Archer with blonde hair?
James: That was driving me crazy for the longest time too. I still haven’t figured out who she looked like.
Jason: What was with that nosy, unpleasant woman with the glasses (Elsie Randolph)? She was a dowdy, mousy type that I think turns up in later films. Actually, she reminds me of Hitch’s daughter later on. That type. But this one was more obnoxious and actually provided turning points in the plot. Emily and Gordon escape her and end up in an intimate moment.
James: I know Hitch has a thing for this character type. I think it’s an annoying personal characteristic that helps throw off the viewer. By that I mean, it’s part comic relief, and also one way to divert attention from the main plot.
Jason: We’ll have to watch for more of her type. I wonder if her near-sightedness is significant.
James: Say, what did you think of the bumping carts when the two are on land? Remember that scene? They’re on the road in separate carts that get stuck together. It’s like a fight between the two, without being a fight.
Jason: That was an entertaining way of communicating what the characters were feeling inside. Seems to me, it’s yet another way Hitch is trying to communicate emotions solely with imagery. I’m reminded of the scene in Murder! when the actor trudges through the carpeting toward his idol. That didn’t work, but this one does.
James: I thought it was great, for the same reasons.
Jason: One thing that struck me was how little dialog there was. I noticed long silent passages go by, and I was reminded of something Hitch said in Hitchcock/Truffaut about silent movies. He said most sound films are just pictures of people talking, and he liked the action to speak for itself. I think that attitude is going to resonate throughout his career. It’s something to keep an eye on, the way his silent period will inform his later period.
James: Yes, I also noticed the lack of dialog. It’s obvious what’s going on without the need of dialog. In some of his previous efforts, certain scenes were hard to follow. Here, none were that way. (I did think it was odd that the Chinese guy who comes to clean the room later in the film has no dialog even though his lips move.) Overall, I thought there were some nice technical aspects in this film. The ones you noticed (including the menu scene) and the way he used light flashes or circles when Fred is taking Emily’s picture. That was decent. I think Hitch’s directing, as far as the camera work, is continually getting better. His panning is still stilted, but getting better.
Jason: Yeah, that house-cleaner moment was weird. You can really tell that Hitch hadn’t mastered the art of marrying sound to film, but he was probably ahead of most of his peers. What we see as quaint was probably ahead of its time back then. Some of his sound tricks must have been amazing. Another silent-era thing I noticed is the drunk effects, the blurring camera, the wobbling. They all seemed like effects from out of silent comedies to me.
James: Plus, the music wasn’t an obstruction at all, except in Singapore, when I couldn’t help but notice that the parade outside is playing American-style of music instead of Asian.
Jason: I’m probably harping on this racism thing, but did you notice it? At one point, Fred says, “Those damn Chinese breed like rabbits.” I mean, you’ve gotta wonder if these were commonly held views and whether Hitch felt them or was mocking them through that twit Fred. We’ll have to see if racism plays a role as we move along.
James: In Hitchcock/Truffaut, I read an interesting discussion about a missing scene (which Hitch just glossed over in the interview).
Jason: What was the missing scene, again? Oh, the belly dancer’s tummy swirling into the titles?
James: I’m talking about when Hitch describes the underwater scene in which the woman holds the dude underwater between her legs.
Jason: Oh yeah. Fred swims between Emily’s legs, and she closes her legs to hold him there. He says playfully, “You could have killed me!” And she replies, “Yes, but wouldn’t it have been a beautiful death?” I almost got the idea that it was shot but not included in most prints. As in, it’s out there somewhere but he self-censored himself, knowing the British censors would have balked. I can picture just where it would have gone, too, in that abbreviated pool scene on the ship.
James: I don’t remember seeing that pool scene. I just thought the interview took a surreal turn when Hitch didn’t respond to the fact that Truffaut didn’t see that scene.
Jason: Another interesting aspect of that discussion was when Hitch acknowledged the film’s autobiographical elements. Hitch basically admitted that the story (even though it’s loosely based on an existing idea) was about he and his wife, Alma. I enjoyed his discussion of the “research” they did at the brothel. And we find out that the film was also titled East of Shanghai.
James: I thought the autobiographical portion had to do with the original writer, not Hitch.
Jason: Original writer? I think this screenplay was written by Hitch and Alma, based on “the idea” of a colleague.
James: Oops, I thought Rich and Strange was loosely based on a novel.
Jason: You’re probably right, but the key word here is “loosely.” Anyway, I did notice more brandy—twice in this film!
James: I did notice the brandy, yeah.
Jason: But I didn’t spot Hitch, did you?
James: Didn’t see Hitch either. I wonder if he was even in this one. You know, I’m actually a bit surprised at how little I want to say about Rich and Strange. It was just an unremarkable movie, I guess. I don’t think it was bad necessarily, just not all that good. I blame the makeup and the actor. Fred is a bozo.
Jason: I’m mostly in agreement, but I got a little more out of it.