October 19, 2017
Easy Virtue – UK, 1928
There are moments in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1928 film Easy Virtue that resonate and intrigue, moments when we feel empathy for the film’s heroine and lament many people’s tendency to be critical of something or someone that doesn’t conform to the high standards they set for themselves. The reasoning here seems to be that if they wouldn’t do something, someone who does must be doubly wicked.
To get this message across, the film presents viewers with the sad story of Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans). Interestingly, the film begins in a court room, yet not one devoted to the trials of suspected murderers. No, this is divorce court, and the defendant, Mrs. Filton, is attempting to do something that science tells us is an impossibility – to prove a negative, in this case, that she was not having an affair. In between court room cross examinations, we see the events that led to the trial – sessions in front of a handsome painter, a husband who loses control when he drinks too much, and an unsolicited (and unwanted) opportunity to get out of a troubled marriage. The events that eventually transpire are not favorable to any of them, yet the film is most concerned with Larita’s fate, for she is the biggest victim. Wrongfully accused and erroneously found guilty, she is forever marked as an adulterer and thereafter referred to as the “notorious Larita Filton.”
If this description seems like the entire movie, rest assured that it is only a small part of it, for Hitchcock intended not just to show viewers how justice can fail women, but also how society can conspire to deny one like Larita a further stab at happiness. In fact, the majority of the film focuses on her subsequent attempts at love and a normal life, and during these parts, the film is an eye-opening view into the values that society places above truth and empathy, mainly family honor, something a woman with a “bad reputation” can prove an anathema to.
There is a lot to like in Easy Virtue. It is a timely statement about the effects of alcoholism on a marriage, as well as a revealing indictment of some of society’s ridiculous priorities. I admired the way it provided a peek into the minds of the jury that convicts Larita, a jury that bases their verdict of their personal values rather than facts, and I liked the way the film depicted Larita post-verdict. She is very much a changed woman, and perhaps the greatest clue to this is her habit of smoking. She is the only female character in the movie to smoke, a fact that sets her apart from the “more respectable” ones, especially sweet Sarah (Enid Stamp-Taylor), her rival to her second husband’s affections.
And yet, Easy Virtue is never quite a satisfying film. The way in which its two incidents are presented in uneven and at times a bit forced. For example, the actions of the artist are never completely realistic. There are also a few odd directorial decisions. At one point, Hitchcock focuses his camera on a dog and some luggage for no apparent reason. In another, it gazes unnecessarily at a table of food, and later, he casts it on a character making a drink and lets it linger there for far longer than necessary. In these and other similar moments, the film practically grinds to a halt, and this is a problem, especially since the movie only has a running time of 69 minutes. Much of that time should be spent establishing characters and their motivations, but by the end of the film, I felt I only really understood Larita and her husband’s parents. In contrast, her second husband remained an enigma, a chameleon-like character who is whatever a particular scene requires him to be – be it romantic, child-like, protective or weak. Another problem: the personalities of some of Larita’s in-laws. They often resemble something out of a completely different genre.
There is another problem with the film, and it has nothing to do with the plot, the acting, or the direction. It seems that time has taken a toll on it. Entire scenes appear to be missing, and badly-needed intertitles have obviously been lost. For example, there are long stretches of the trial in which characters get emotional and throw accusations about that are never explained. When an intertitle does finally appear, it is often in reference to a comment that we didn’t “hear,” and it is not always easy to fill in the blanks. By the end of the film, I felt slightly frustrated. There were many things I liked, yet those elements that had irritated me stood out far more in my memory.
We have become accustomed to using the word lesser to describe substandard works by great artists. In fact, it has become something of a cliché. However, I can think of no other way to put it. Easy Virtue is lesser Hitchchock – still watchable in its own right, especially for the performances of Jeans and Violet Farebrother, who plays Mrs. Whittaker, but the film never rises beyond that. It is a view of a director still finding his craft, and while it has moments which viewers will recognize as unmistakably Hitchcockian, such as those set in the court room, the film’s awkward pacing is a reminder that even the great ones had to work to perfect their craft. For Hitchcock, Easy Virtue represented a step in the right direction, but it was a flawed one, a noble effort bogged down and diluted of some of its power by questionable decisions on his part and the nagging sense that at one time there was a better film there. (on DVD)
2 and a half stars