"Rich and Strange" (the title comes from Shakespeare's "The Tempest") was both a critical and commercial failure for Alfred Hitchcock. It bears little relation to what one would expect of a Hitchcock movie, and viewing it today, one can understand the puzzlement that audiences must have felt at the time of its release. Pitched initially as some kind of light comedy, it never really gathers enough momentum to work in that respect -- the first half of the film consisting mainly of short and not hugely amusing vignettes separated by a profusion of title cards that give the film an almost silent movie feel. The second half meanwhile, takes such a distinctly nasty turn that the flimsy comedic aspects feel quite out of place. Nevertheless, so resoundingly odd and strangely resonant is the finished product that one can't help trying to read into it something more than may have been intended at the time. The film has therefore recently been "rediscovered" by film scholars intent on finding hints of the kind of profundity they discern in Hitch's prime Hollywood output.
Fred and Emily Hill (Henry Kendal and Joan Barry) are an average suburban couple, subject to the trials of everyday living, i.e. struggling through bad weather and faceless crowds each day to a boring job and then coming home to the routine of the daily papers and the radio. Out of the blue, they receive a huge sum of money from a rich relative who wants them to fulfill their dreams of travelling the world. Thus, the two embark on a sea cruise that finds them crossing the Mediterranean, going down the Suez Canal, and travelling across the Indian ocean to Singapore. During the Cruise, both Fred and Emily become romantically involved with other people: Fred falls for an exotic princess (Betty Amann), while Emily strikes up a relationship with a fellow passenger, Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont), who she spends all of her time with because Fred suffers from chronic seasickness. Eventually Emily decides that she cannot leave Fred, while Fred's 'Princess' turns out to be a con-artist who steals the money they were to have used to get home!
Forced to take a cheap and uncomfortable steamer home, the two think things can't get any worse; but unfortunately the ship is involved in an accident and they find themselves shipwrecked after the rest of the crew abandon ship, leaving them behind. Eventually they are rescued by a passing Chinese junk, where they witness a woman giving birth at sea, and later, find themselves eating the ship's cat! When the couple reach home once more, they quickly resume their old lifestyle of eating steak-and-kidney pie in front of the radio -- and the film ends with them re-treading one of the marital squabbles they were having at the beginning of the film.
Hitchcock once more gathered together his usual collaborators for the film: Frank Mills and Jack Cox (his assistant director and cinematographer respectively) had worked on all of his films for British International; while art director Wilfred Arnold had worked on and off for Hitchcock since the beginning of the director's career, including on classics like "The Lodger" and "Blackmail". Alma Reville, of course, worked on the screenplay as usual -- this time with Val Valentine. Despite this, the film is very different from anything Hitchcock had done before. For a start, it required filming in lots of different locations (although Hitch had a second unit do all of the location work and then integrated it, fairly seamlessly, into the finished film), and instead of suspense, the film seems to be attempting (rather half-heartedly as it turns out) some kind of satirical comment. The trouble is, both for audiences at the time and for contemporary viewers, it is rather hard to work out just exactly what the film is trying to say!
Laserlight's DVD edition comes with an introduction from Tony Curtis who tries to explain the film by placing it within the context of the depression era, when audiences wanted more escapism and exoticism than normal. But it was one of Hitchcock's biggest failures -- maybe since it appears to be depicting two people totally failing to escape their humdrum surroundings and ending back exactly where they started, principally because, despite their change of location, they are never able to escape their suburban narrow-mindedness, and so cannot come to any kind of understanding or appreciation of the different cultures they encounter on their journey. It could be said that the film is trying to make people appreciate their own surroundings, since by the end of the film, the couple come to appreciate their simple lifestyle more than they once did. But this appreciation is mostly borne out of the fact that they realise that the rest of the world is not like home ("Just think Fred, all these people have been here all along, with their odd buildings, eating their funny meals"), so maybe its not surprising that audiences didn't find the film all that appealing, since it seems to be arguing for the futility of escapism rather than providing it in the form of a romantic comedy/travelogue.
The film also suffers from some severe miscasting. The Hills are meant to be lower-middle class suburbanites, but neither Henry Kendal nor Joan Barry are very convincing in their roles. Barry suffers from the same problem she had when she provided Anny Ondra's voice in "Blackmail" — namely her cut-class accent makes her sound too upper-class; while Kendal comes over as too dandyish for his role. Elsie Randolph does provide a successful comic turn as the Cruise bore though (she had to wait forty years for her next role in a Hitchcock film, as a hotel receptionist in "Frenzy"), even if this does come over as a rather hackneyed stereotype these days.
Laserlight have made the disc worth purchasing for those who are interested by including an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" as an extra; although it isn't directed by Alfred Hitchcock himself, the teleplay is written by Robert Bloch of "Psycho" fame. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" stars Diana Dors as a magician's assistant who schemes to get rid of her magician partner by convincing a young retarded homeless boy he has taken in from the street as his apprentice, that he's the Devil! Needless-to-say the plan goes horribly wrong! These half-hour TV shows, produced by Hitchcock's own company, ran successfully for ten years before changing to an hour long format. The half-hour format means the stories are rather slight of course, relying on the "twist in the tail" genre of short-story, but it makes an entertaining enough extra -- plus you get one of Hitch's amusing intros at the beginning. This one sees him explaining how some ancient cultures used to predict the future from reading animal entrails — and then attempting to use an X-ray of a goat instead to avoid the messiness of such a practice!
"Rich and Strange" came almost at the end of Hitchcock's time with British International and its commercial failure was probably the last straw, since Hitch's relations with John Maxwell were already quite poor. It's rather hard to recommend the film as an undiscovered classic; it is a curious piece of work, and contains some good ideas here and there -- but none of them are developed well enough to hold the interest for ninety minutes and it will probably only be of interest to hard-core Hitchcock fans.