Release Date(s)1932 (December 7, 2021)
Studio(s)British International Pictures/Wardour Films (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: C
- Extras Grade: B+
Number Seventeen is an often-overlooked early sound production from Alfred Hitchcock, the final film that he made while working for British International Pictures. Even Hitchcock dismissed the film, describing it to Francois Truffaut as “a disaster.” It’s hardly that, but it’s still clearly a hastily-assembled project thrown together to fulfill Hitch’s contract with BIP. Despite the rough edges and an incomprehensible plot, there are still plenty of flashes of the director’s gifts on display.
The screenplay was by Hitchcock, his wife Alma Reville, and Rodney Ackland, based on the play by the prolific British crime author Joseph Jefferson Farjeon. The story—such as it is—assembles a group of nefarious characters together at a crumbling house, all of them in search of a stolen necklace. A confusion of double-crosses and mistaken identities ensues. That much came from Farjeon’s play, but the screenwriters added a lengthy chase scene involving a train and a bus as a finale, and it’s actually the most interesting section of the film.
Hitchcock was testing the waters in Number Seventeen, playing around with long takes, quick cutting, and many motifs to which he would return in later films, such as a slow walk up a staircase. It’s all put together somewhat haphazardly, with little interest in maintaining spatial relationships. That’s most noticeable during the finale, which combines photography on a real moving train, miniatures, poor man’s process shots, and even a surprisingly effective composite shot, but with no sense of screen direction whatsoever. The individual shots are assembled randomly, but the scene still works pretty well regardless of that fact. That’s typical of the film as a whole; Number Seventeen doesn’t always make sense, but it’s never dull.
Cinematographers Jack E. Cox and Bryan Langley shot Number Seventeen on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at the 1.19:1 aspect ratio of early sound productions (the result of losing space on the frame to the optical soundtrack). StudioCanal supplied this 4K restoration to Kino Lorber, but the restoration work was performed by the BFI, and they did remarkable work for a film of this vintage. With only a few minor caveats, Number Seventeen looks simply spectacular here. All of the textures are well-resolved, the grain included, and there’s only fleeting damage visible. The grayscale is perfect, the contrast range is good, and there’s plenty of shadow detail in even the darkest scenes. There are a few shots where the contrast runs a bit too hot, such as in the scene at the 8:00 mark when John Stuart’s candlelit face gets too bright and breaks up into noise. There are also two brief shots at the 33:45 mark which appear to come from inferior elements, with softer detail and light scratches running through them. Otherwise, it’s a nearly perfect transfer, and those few flaws are only visible if you look for them.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. As an early talkie, the soundtrack for Number Seventeen has limited fidelity, and sometimes sounds thin and muffled. The dialogue is muddier in long shots, where it must have been more difficult to hide the microphones, though it’s clearer in closeups. Leon M. Lion’s cockney accent, when combined with the muddy recordings, can be difficult to understand. The bombastic score by Adolph Hallis tends to dominate the proceedings, and it sounds a bit shrill. All of those issues are limitations of the original production, so there’s not much that could have been done to improve them.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Peter Tonguette
- Hitchcock: The Early Years (SD – 54:38)
- Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon Interviews Icon (HD – 5:43)
- Introduction by Noel Simsolo (SD – 3:37)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – :45)
- Blackmail Trailer (HD – 1:16)
- Murder! Trailer (HD – 1:12)
- The Paradine Case Trailer (SD – 1:44)
- Under Capricorn Trailer (HD – 2:05)
- Lifeboat Trailer (HD – 1:28)
Film historian and critic Peter Tonguette’s commentary places Number Seventeen into context with the rest of Hitch’s career, noting that it was the director’s fifth sound film, and his fourteenth overall. He admits that the plot is convoluted and indecipherable, and the film is ponderous compared to Hitch’s later films. Yet Tonguette feels that it’s worth watching despite the flaws. He notes that it relied more on atmosphere than the director’s later films, and in some ways is reminiscent of the films that Val Lewton produced for RKO. It also relied on long takes which don’t have the fluidity of other filmmakers who were more comfortable with the technique—Hitchcock always preferred montage. Tonguette also talks about the artificiality of the miniatures in the film, noting that Hitch accepted and even enjoyed that kind of artifice. This is a good commentary for those who want to gain more appreciation for a film that even its own director rejected.
Hitchcock: The Early Years is a 2004 documentary for French television that was written and directed by Noel Simsolo. Featuring commentary from historian Bernard Eisenschitz and director Claude Chabrol, it covers the period from 1925 through 1934, up through the British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, with a section discussing Number Seventeen. Hitchcock/Truffaut is a brief audio only selection from the interviews that Francois Truffaut conducted with Hitchcock that formed the basis for Truffaut’s seminal book about the director. It’s identical material to the passage regarding the film in Chapter 3 of that book, but the language is different, presumably because the book translated those interviews into French and then back into English. Introduction by Noel Simsolo appears to be an introduction to a broadcast of the film for French television, with Simsolo giving a brief recap of that phase of Hitchcock’s career.
Number Seventeen isn’t a good starting point for anyone interested in learning more about the films of Alfred Hitchcock, but it’s still an essential part of his filmography, and a valuable look at the way that the Master of Suspense developed in the first few years of his career. This gorgeous Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics is the best way to experience the film.
- Stephen Bjork