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: A film actress is murdered by her estranged husband who is jealous of all her young boyfriends. The next day, writer Robert Tisdall (who happens to be one such boyfriend) discovers her body on the beach. He runs to call the police, but two witnesses think he’s the escaping murderer. Robert is arrested, but owing to a mix up at the courthouse, he escapes and goes on the run with a police constable’s daughter Erica, determined to prove his innocence.
Jason: Young and Innocent is a fun little movie that had me amused from the start because several of Hitch’s most obvious themes are present right from the beginning. In the first 5 minutes, the film is already about infidelity and “the wrong man” trying to clear his own name before buffoonish cops haul him to jail. After the murder that starts the movie, a woman’s body washes up on the beach, and we also get a shot of squawking birds, which we know is Hitch’s symbol for death or chaos. So I was getting a kick out of Young and Innocent quickly.
James: Yeah, I was immediately taken by this film for the same reasons. The intriguing opening sequence that showcases a woman’s infidelity and a possible murder provide a quick hook that sends the film on its way. As far as continuing themes go, there are more bumbling cops, too. There’s even a great train sequence at the end.
Jason: Speaking of the whole “wrong man” theme, did you notice that in the courtroom sequence at the beginning, someone actually calls out, “Hey, this is the wrong man!”?
James: Funny in-joke, yeah.
Jason: We talked about Hitch exploring situations that he’s done before, shooting scenes that are a lot like others in previous films. This film seems similar to The 39 Steps. It’s got the same basic structure: the wronged man on the run, meeting up with a blonde (twice) and falling in love with her, bouncing from situation to situation trying to clear his name. It also resembles Murder! at the start, with a similar situation involving the mystery of a dead actress (although this time a movie actress rather than a stage actress). But Young and Innocent is more frivolous. It turns out to be a fun, light movie that seems a step toward the tone of movies like The Trouble with Harry or his TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The lighthearted humor works really well. The jokes and the tone in this one keep it from being taken too seriously. Like the cops sitting with the pigs in that truck after the car breaks down, and the fountain with the water spout going up and down while the girl is trying to wash the guy’s head wound, and the way the girl inadvertently pops the cop car’s tire with a thrown coffee cup. And I laughed out loud when the guy gives a fake name at that children’s party: “Beachcroft Nanningtree. Extraordinary name, isn’t it?”
James: Again, I agree completely. It does feel a little like The 39 Steps in the fact that one scene leads to the next, and it’s got a fast pace that never really lets up from beginning to end. Overall, this movie feels fun. I wouldn’t call it a comedy, but it never really takes itself too seriously. The sprinkles of humor work really well for the plot and also helps these actors. The two were a good match, and the title works for both characters as well as the overall feeling of the film. If the film were any more dramatic, I think these actors wouldn’t have managed to pull it off quite so well.
Jason: What did you make of that children’s birthday party, anyway?
James: I liked the birthday party sequence. It was the whole film in microcosm. It was humorous but at the same time a little suspenseful. Will the aunt find them out? Will the cops come? Although I wouldn’t label it as tense, I would have to say there was a bit of that thrown in there for good measure. But what I really liked about that scene was the fact that it was fun. The way the hero answers some of the questions is sheer brilliance.
Jason: I read that theory about the birthday sequence, that it can be seen as the entire film in microcosm. That’s interesting. More interesting to me is something else I read, involving the Blind Man’s Bluff game that the aunt plays. This movie is very interested in vision. The fact that it’s an adult who’s blind in the game is telling. Most of the adults in the film don’t “see” things accurately. The villain has twitching eyes, the suspicious lawyer can’t see anything without his thick glasses, obviously the police don’t see things clearly (you could say they’re “in the dark”). We’ll need to watch “eyes,” “glasses,” and “blindfolding” in upcoming films, because it feels like the kind of thing that will be an ongoing symbol. I remember glasses being a big deal in a few films, including Strangers on a Train.
James: Man, Hitch just has so damn many themes and symbols. But which book talked about the birthday sequence as the film in microcosm?
Jason: Not sure which book I caught that in. But it’s not something I caught while watching, so bravo!
James: I’m surprised that I hit on something so deep! I guess I’m cutting down my own intelligence, but that’s not something I would normally notice and it’s cool that someone “validates” my thoughts in a book.
Jason: One question I had is how old are these characters supposed to be? It almost seems like a Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew mystery, because Erica Burgoyne (played by Nova Pilbeam, who was the little girl in The Man Who Knew Too Much (just 3 years earlier!) is so young. And the wronged man—Robert Tisdall (Derrick DeMarney)—also must be young, to develop a romance with her. They must be under 20. She lives at home with her father, Colonel Burgoyne, the police sergeant. (He’s played by Percy Marmont, whom we’ve seen in Rich and Strange and Secret Agent.) But I thought Pilbeam looked great. Not the typical Hitch blonde, but you could tell she would grow up to be one. I thought it was interesting how capable Hitch made her in this film, almost a tomboy character.
James: I was under the impression that she’s 18 or so (she lives at home yet she seems to be smart and have some schooling), and he’s maybe as old as 24 (he’s an established actor or writer). I thought this film was a perfect match for them both. As I said before, the title works for them both. She’s young and innocent, as in naïve, and doesn’t fully understand the ways of the world, while he’s innocent of the murder. At first, she comes across as a tomboy: She knows how to drive, she knows how to wake someone after passing out, and so on. But at the same time, she’s young and can easily get swept up by this man. I thought both their looks and mannerisms matched each other very well. Plus, as I said, the fact that this is more fun than dramatic also matched their looks and mannerisms.
Jason: Yeah, I like how “innocent” has two different meanings: “innocent of the crime” and “innocent/chaste/pure” . . .
James: I’d go so far as to say “innocent” works better for the girl than the man. Backing this up is that the US retitle of this film is The Girl Was Young, which is interesting, but I definitely like the original title better.
Jason: What did you think of Derrick DeMarney, the actor playing Robert Tisdall? I think he was pretty good, not as great as Robert Donat, but good for this role. He seemed to understand Hitch’s sly humor.
James: I thought DeMarney fit the role perfectly. I didn’t like him as much as Donat, but I think he fit the character just as well. His mannerisms added to the feeling of the film, which wasn’t as dark or as dramatic as The 39 Steps. Plus, he was the perfect match for Erica. His charm and youth would have been the ideal match for a naïve girl.
Jason: Is the raincoat/belt the MacGuffin? Maybe not, since it plays such a large role in the plot. Not sure this film even has a MacGuffin, because we do care about the real murderer and the clues.
James: To me, the coat/belt certainly felt like a MacGuffin. It meant more to the plot than some of his others, but at the same time the heart of the story isn’t in the finding of the raincoat, but in their budding romance.
Jason: I see your point. It has more of a relevance to the plot this time, but it’s still the thing that starts the actual plot in motion. But I guess I would argue whether the raincoat/belt conforms to the strict idea of the MacGuffin, which says that it actually means nothing at all. In this movie, it means a great deal, because it will determine whether he’s found innocent or guilty. It’s the key to his entire future, particularly with the girl, as we see in the movie’s final shot, of Erica beaming, looking from her suddenly innocent man to her police-chief father, who now sees the truth. The more I think about it, the more I like that shot. She’s just solved the central mystery, and she’s at once validated herself in the eyes of her father and done a great thing for the man she’s come to love. It goes back to that Nancy Drew notion of a young girl solving a crime against the odds introduced by her “innocence.” It’s the perfect way to end this movie, I think.
James: You know, I’m not terribly taken with most of Hitch’s endings. I agree with your points that this one featured some good shots of Erica, but too often for me the ending is abrupt. I understand that the real story is over and we don’t need a whole mess of wrap-ups like in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, but at the same time, everything seems to be wrapped up a little too easily in many of his films. After all the chasing the police did to hunt down the innocent man, and the fact that the chief “lost” his daughter, well, I don’t see it ending so happy so fast. That’s always bothered me to a point.
Jason: I would agree that a lot of Hitch’s endings, particularly up to now, have been lacking. Although I must say that I thought the 39 Steps ending, where Mr. Memory dies and Donat and Carroll clasp hands (his with the handcuffs still dangling) was perfect. But even though the Young and Innocent ending is abrupt, it perfectly ties up the story and leaves the rest to our imagination. Maybe this is another way Hitch’s silent days are still informing his storytelling: He left a lot to your imagination.
James: I hear you on the endings and I still agree. But next time you watch one of these films, watch the clock. I bet from the second the “secret is discovered” to the “fade to black” is less than 45 seconds. There’s something about that that bothers me. Not so much how it ends, but the fact that it’s so short after the discovery. By the way, you’re right about The 39 Steps: That was one of the better abrupt endings he’s done.
Jason: I see where you’re coming from. But another cool thing I read is that the ending shot of the girl silent and beaming is the exact reverse of the shot that opens the film, of a girl screaming and angry. There’s a kind of visual poetry there.
James: Nice! I wonder how many times we’d need to watch something to catch the whole circular thing. Now that I think about it, many of his endings hearken back to the beginning.
Jason: The Grand Hotel sequence amazed me: that big slow pull-in over the crowd to the drummer in the band with the twitching eyes. I had to watch that twice, wondering how long it took to choreograph. What a spectacular shot!
James: This is one of his best Hitch shots ever. We’ll have to remember it as we move forward so we can compare it to other high-angle shots that move over a crowd. I totally liked the leisurely pace of the camera movement to the reveal at the end. Very well done. That’s one shot I’d like to know more about.
Jason: How on earth did Hitch move from that high, wide-angle shot to an extreme close-up of a pair of eyes on the opposite side of the room? That would be a magnificent shot even today.
James: I’d have to watch that shot again, but I think it starts in the foyer and then moves into the dance hall. This would mean there was no ceiling and he not only had a hell of a big crane, but he zoomed in pretty much all the way to focus on the killer’s eyes. Not to mention the choreography of the action. That had to be well planned. I think his eyes twitching was timed to the music . . . it felt that way, anyway.
Jason: Yeah, that’s a heck of a shot. The beauty of it is that it’s not just some terrifically filmed sequence for the sake of being clever, but it’s vital to the plot and the suspense of the film.
James: What did you think of the model work? It seemed much better than some of Hitch’s earlier attempts.
Jason: I did notice the model work, and I found it more accomplished than other films. Except for one thing: the little model man, all stiff and plastic-looking. It’s interesting to think that something like that was considered an acceptable special effect, when it’s obviously fake. But the rest of the train sequence was well done, I thought.
James: And I thought the mine sequence was well done too. Only the shot of her silent scream didn’t work for me . . . I liked the shot, but I wanted to hear her yell.
Jason: That set piece in the mine was pretty remarkable, considering the time. I imagine that must have cost a pretty penny to build such an elaborate set. Hitch has done that silent-scream thing before. It’s an interesting effect that doesn’t really work today, so I wonder how audiences of the time took it. Is it a holdover effect from his silent-film days? Is he trying to convey an emotion of fear that’s so intense that she can’t even express it? Is he letting the audience fill in the blanks? Interesting.
James: I still don’t like that silent scream she does as the car is about to give way beneath her. She actually looks good in that clip (by that I mean both cute and frightened), but I don’t think the silence works.
Jason: One of the things that most interests me is the change in tone from Sabotage, a dark and brooding thriller, to Young and Innocent, a much more playful and “innocent” film. You have to wonder about Hitchcock’s state of mind during the period he made these two.
James: I wonder if he made this one after Sabotage with the mindset to make a lighter film, similar to Spielberg doing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade after the darker Temple of Doom. Then again, Sabotage and Young and Innocent were really close together, and I wonder if he had Young and Innocent in mind while he was working on Sabotage?
Jason: Interesting point. But when you bring up the Spielberg movies, it makes me wonder if Spielberg was going through something difficult in his personal life at the time of Temple of Doom. Then, he brightened himself up with Crusade. In the Hitch bio I’m reading, I’m approaching the section that discusses his making of Young and Innocent, and I’m getting the feeling he was increasingly unhappy with British constraints, and he was already getting offers from Hollywood, but he was locked into a UK contract. I’m curious how much that stifled him, and how frustrated he felt about not being able to get away. And if that affected his moviemaking so much that he put out the dark-themed Sabotage, what brightened him enough to make Young and Innocent?
James: I need to get a good biography.
Jason: I liked Hitch’s cameo near the beginning, where he’s a photographer at the courthouse bumbling with his camera. Another little in-joke there. And a great look he gives to the policeman, sort of encompassing his thoughts about police in general.
James: I really liked the cameo. It felt right for this film.
Jason: Did you recognize Felicity’s father Basil? That was Basil Radford, who will appear in The Lady Vanishes, as one of the British men obsessed with cricket.
James: I got one for you: Can you tell me what other Hitchcock film the actress who played her aunt (Mary Clare) was in?
Jason: Didn’t recognize her, no.
James: Also The Lady Vanishes…
Jason: I’ll watch for her…The Lady Vanishes is next. Overall, I thought Young and Innocent was a diverting little Hitch thriller with not too much at stake. It seems to adhere to what Hitch has done before while developing his “humorous personality.”