December 27, 2018
Rich and Strange – UK, 1932
A word of caution right off the bat. My low opinion of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange may have less to do with any deficiencies the film has – and there are many – than it does the atrocious quality of the DVD I watched it on. The film, like many of Hitchcock’s early works, was released by LaserLight, and its DVD is touted as a special edition. In fact, one of the things that makes it a special edition is the following claim: “Digitally mastered from the best available sources for the highest quality possible.” If we take the company at its word – and there is really no reason not to at this point – then the hisses, scratches, and indecipherable dialogue are all deficiencies that simply could not be fixed. Therefore, this line of thinking goes, we should be content with what we have and not lament what we do not.
So, what then do we actually have with Rich and Famous? The film is about a struggling married couple, Fred and Emily Hill (Henry Kendall and Joan Barry), one of whom laments what they don’t have, and the other that is grateful for the few blessing they do. We learn early on that Fred has a wealthy uncle and that he has recently suggested that he not be made to wait until his uncle’s death to enjoy the riches that are eventually coming his way. Surprisingly, his uncle agrees, and after an early scene in which Fred complains about their economic struggles and the hardships that come with them, Fred’s face quickly lights up, as he reads of his uncle’s generosity and begins to contemplate what to do with his newfound fortune. Do they buy a bigger house? Upgrade their means of transportation? Purchase the latest technology in order to make their lives easier? Nope, they elect to travel.
While there is nothing about these early scenes that foreshadows what comes next, it is important to remember what people often put up with when they don’t believe that have the option of leaving. If we keep this in mind, then what follows begins to make more sense, for once on the boat, both Fred and Emily begin to yearn for new lives and new lovers. While Fred lies in bed with a fever and possible delirium, Emily begins spending time with a handsome bachelor named Gordon (Percy Marmont), who seems quite popular with members of the opposite sex. In one scene, we see a horde of women accost him while he is engaged in conversation with Emily, each one wanting him to join her for lunch or dancing. After recovering, Fred takes up with a German woman who claims to be a princess (Betty Amann), and for some time, each of them puts all of their time and efforts into their new relationships. They even begin to contemplate divorce.
While Hitchcock devotes ample time to Emily budding romance with Gordon, he neglects to establish Fred’s devotion to the Princess. Perhaps this is a case in which the eyes confuse the heart, yet Hitchcock does not even explore that possibility. Perhaps, though, it would be more accurate to say that it does not appear that he does, for much of Fred’s dialogue with the princess is indistinct.
A more daring movie would have addressed the fact that the pair’s relationship falls apart as a result of their newfound cash flow. Traditionally, tackling hardships and making sacrifices were seen as proof that a couple’s bond was strong. Yet, it is often said that the true test of a relationship comes when those challenges are removed. In other words, is the bond still as strong when they no longer have to rely on each other for emotional or financial support, or when the kids have moved out and there is less that they are working together on? Dale Collins’s screenplay never explores these issues, likely because the times did not really encourage it. Convention seemed to dictate that a couple that was pulled apart had find their way back into love and each other’s arms by the end of the film. It’s a cop-out, really, one unfortunately found in many films from this and later eras.
In the end, the film simply didn’t hold my interest. Partly as a result of the rushed set-up and the predictable ending, and partly due to the quality of the DVD, the film never quite packs a punch. It is not zany enough to be a comedy or dramatic enough to keep viewers more than mildly interested in whether Fred and Emily find each other again. At least, the film ends better than it begins. It is entirely believable that two people would get back together under such circumstances, yet it is hardly believable that they would ever truly be happy again. And wisely, the film acknowledges this. Nonetheless, to me it was too little, too late: I just didn’t care anymore. No, that’s not exactly true. I did care because as the film ended, all I could think was: See, she should have stayed with Gordon, a sentiment I'm not sure Hitchcock intended.
Hitchcock didn’t misfire much, yet when he did, he did so with such great flare that it seems practically criminal to give the film a bad review. After all, what about the camera work, the use of light and shadows, the carefully choreographed scenes of workers leaving the factory in ways reminiscent of Fritz Lang or Busby Berkeley, or the moving performances of his leading lady? Surely, those things warrant a positive review, one that includes the acknowledgement of this as “less Hitchcock.” To them I would say this: What about the tonal inconsistencies, the frequent use of techniques more common in silent films than talking ones, and the fact that the film never presents Fred as someone worth returning to? I could go on, but what would be the point? Rich and Strange is truly for Hitchcock aficionados only. Everyone else, I’m afraid, is likely to be left wondering what happened to the genius behind the camera. The answer is simple: He was off his game. It happens to the best of them. (on DVD)