March 30, 2018
Number 17 – UK, 1932
The less you think about Number 17 after watching it, the more you’ll enjoy it. I say this from experience, for in the first thirty minutes post-viewing, the film began to fall apart. Inconsistencies in the plot became crystal clear, character motivations became opaque, and what had seemed like plausible revelations began to look like anything but. In fact, had I not thought about the film so much afterwards, I might have given it three stars. Now I’m not so sure.
For example, consider the film’s opening scene. A ferocious wind is revealed to have blown a man’s hat off. We witness the hat make its way down the street and then take an abrupt turn into the walkway of a supposedly empty house. The owner of the hat enters the picture, quickly retrieves said hat, and then notices some unusual shadowy movements in the house. Now if this character is just one of your average Joes, it would make sense for him to alert the police right away. However, many of Hitchcock’s protagonists have a peculiar quirk: They insist on doing investigations themselves, and this one is no exception.
Soon he’s asking questions of a “humorous” tramp who calls himself Ben (Leon M. Lion) while trying to figure out what happened to a supposedly dead man lying at the top of a circular flight of stairs. I say supposedly because none of the characters sees fit to check him for a pulse and a few minutes later – cue the dah dah dah – he’s gone, without having made so much as a squeak as he exited. Soon other characters start arriving. One falls through the roof, while some appear at the door with a card that reads Number 17 and ask to be given a tour of the house, despite it being rather late in the evening. The question our hero must solve is this: Just what is so special about Room Number 17?
I have other questions, though. In no particular order, here they are: Just why did the supposedly dead man enter the apartment, and why doesn’t he warn our heroes about the assailant that must have hit him over the head? Exactly where did he disappear to, and why is his daughter sneaking across the tops of apartments looking for him if he is someone who would get a note like the one he got earlier in the evening? If the third criminal isn’t who he says he is and our hero is, just why does the first one hang around long enough to get arrested and the other take a city bus hostage? If the criminals know each other beforehand, why don’t they know the identity of the mastermind, and if they don’t know each other, how did they pull off the crime? Since when does a hand stop a bullet, and while I’m on the subject of unconvincing events, how exactly does a bus catch up to an out-of-control speeding train? Believe it or not, I could go on.
And that’s precisely the problem with Number 17. It crumbles under even the tiniest bit of scrutiny, and this renders the film a narrative mess in my mind. I’m still not sure who knew what when or why particular characters made the choices they did. Add to this the annoying distraction caused by Hitchcoch’s insistence on using Ben as comic relief when the character is more annoying than funny, and you’ve got a film that tries hard to be everything – a mystery, a comedy, a romance, an action film replete with the requisite chase scenes. You name it, it’s probably got a little of it in it. Sadly, what it’s lacking is logic.
Having said that, I must admit that I didn’t completely dislike the film. It has some pretty good performances – chief among them, that of Donald Calthrop – and the film’s climactic chase is both amusing and suspenseful, even though it requires a bit a suspended belief. I also liked the character arc of one of the henchmen’s girlfriend. If there is one character whose motivations stand up to later scrutiny, it is hers. However, the film errs when it tries to do more with the character in the final scene. Just letting walk away freely would have sufficed.
And now I’m at the part of the review where I have to sum all of my feelings in a tidy expression that best expresses my experience and relates to casual readers my overall impression of the film. I started this review off by saying that I would probably have given it three stars if I had simply turned it off and not given it a second thought, but having reread what I have written thus far, it appears that doing so would be disingenuous. This is a film with major flaws, and not even the efforts of a great director like Hitchcock were enough to cover them up. In a way, I want to like it. I want to give it the benefit of the doubt, as I did films like Flight Plan and American Hustle, yet for some reason, I find myself unable – or unwilling – to do so. Maybe I’m harsher on films that have directors of Hitchcock’s caliber at their helm - perhaps I just expect too much of them. Either way, the film has not aged well in my head, and no amount of admiration or respect for Hitchcock’s other works can make up for that. Here, Hitchcock disappoints, but only slightly and, more importantly, only if you can’t just finish the film and never give it a second thought. (on DVD)
2 and a half stars
*I watched the LaserLight release of the film, and there were many instances in which I had a hard time making out what the characters were saying. Buyer beware.