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Young and Innocent

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Network Distributing
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Alfred Hitchcock
Nova Pilbeam
Derrick De Marney
Percy Marmont
Edward Rigby
George Curzon
Bottom Line: 

On the south coast of England a youthful would-be Hollywood screenwriter, Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney), notices the body of a young woman is being washed up on the beach below the cliffs whilst he takes his morning stroll. Running away across the sands to fetch help, he is assumed to be fleeing the scene of the crime by two young women who’re passing by at that precise moment. The evidence soon begins to stack up against young Robert: not only did he know the victim – a famous actress by the name of Christine Clay (Pamela Carme) to whom he’d once sold a script idea – but it is established that she was murdered using the discarded belt of a raincoat … and that Robert’s own raincoat (of the same make) is missing having been stolen from a transport café a few days earlier. When the police discover that the actress had also left Robert £1,200 in her will, this, as far as they are concerned, also gives their only suspect a good enough motive for committing the crime, and so he is duly charged. Faced with this seemingly damning circumstantial evidence, Robert breaks custody during the courthouse hearing and goes on the run, initially hiding in a parked car to wait out the authorities’ search of the area, until the vehicle is driven away and turns out to belong to the pretty daughter of the chief of the constabulary who is leading the hunt for him. Initially sceptical, the prim but smart and independent-minded Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam) is soon convinced of Robert’s innocence and helps him by bringing him food stolen from the pantry at home, while he hides out in an abandoned watermill. The couple set out to track down Robert’s missing raincoat, hoping to prove that it couldn’t have been he who committed the murder, while Erica’s father, Colonel Bourgoyne (Percy Marmount), assumes she has been kidnapped and so initiates a huge manhunt. Their quest takes the fugitives on a picaresque journey down idyllic hedge-lined English country lanes that lead them from punch-ups in working class roughhouse roadside eateries to a game of Blindman’s Buff at a children’s birthday party held by Erica’s formidable bourgeois aunt; from there we encounter a dosshouse for the homeless, where Robert enlists the help of ‘Old Will’ (a tramp and China Mender, played by Edward Rigby), who was sold Robert’s coat, minus its belt, by the real murderer –  a man identifiable by his nervous facial twitch, and end up in the ballroom of The Grand Hotel, where the actual killer now works as a drummer in a blackface jazz band …

Any discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s majestic run of 1930s British thrillers naturally tends to turn on key titles such as “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes”, yet the light, 1937 comedy suspense thriller “Young and Innocent”, although rarely mentioned in the same breath as these bona fide classics, if at all, definitely belongs among the top rank of the work Hitchcock was producing during this fertile period, which established the ground rules for the suspense techniques the master was set to continue working up variations on for the rest of his Hollywood career. If you’re at all familiar with Hitchcock’s later movies and are coming to this piece for the first time, it’s almost impossible not to see in it the unmistakable foreshadowings -- in visual motifs, plot points and themes -- that would, during the following years, be used as the seeds for entire films after Hitchcock’s move across the Atlantic, but are served here in fleeting moments sketched out amidst a flimsy cross-countryside chase scenario that moves airily from one soufflé light set-piece to the next.

Hitchcock, in collaboration with his screenwriter Charles Bennett (soon to depart for Hollywood himself, where the two would be briefly reunited on “Foreign Correspondent” in 1940) , is clearly also re-working and re-exploring older ideas with this film, which is based very loosely on the opening chapters of Josephine Tey’s novel ‘A Shilling for Candles’ . One of them had been alluded to as far back as 1927 in Hitchock’s first thriller “The Lodger”, where that films heroine becomes attracted to a possible murder suspect, played by Ivor Novello, who is somehow involved in some grisly Ripper killings of blonde-haired women taking place across London. The first British talkie of the sound era, “Blackmail” (based on one of Bennett’s own stage plays), from 1929, also contained a domestic scene set across the breakfast table, in which Hitchcock utilised the new sound recording technology to demonstrate a woman’s psychological fragility and internal anguish the morning after having used a breadknife to murder a man who’d been attempting to rape her the night before – an event which is now the subject of the morning’s gossip amongst her family and a talkative next-door neighbour. A variation on this internal guilt-conflicted conscious motif is played out again here, when Erica listens to her younger brothers and father discussing how the ‘killer’ will surely be corned and caught when he runs out of food, unaware that they are providing her with information she has just made up her mind to use in order to help Robert evade the police net. In “Young and Innocent” these ideas are subtly and lightly fused in what emerges as a jovial interrogation of prevailing British class and patriarchal structures during the interwar years, while the very randomness of the means by which the film’s ostensible hero, played by fresh-face leading man Derrick De Marney (“Things to Come”, 1936) ends up being suspected of committing a murder he had nothing at all to do with, anticipates the existential angst of a much later and heavier film like “The Wrong Man” (1956), although the unlikely train of events, bad luck and random coincidences that lead to Robert’s detainment as the number one suspect here, are treated more like an absurdst comedy in this instance. The picture’s spirited eighteen-year-old heroine (played by Nova Pilbeam, who had previously been the teenage daughter kidnapped by terrorists in “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, and now gets top billing for her first adult role)  is a plucky British test-run for conflicted yet sympathetic ‘guilty’ Hitchcock blonde heroines of later years, like Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia in “Notorious” or Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels in “The Birds”; someone who discovers that the moral certainty provided for her by sophisticated upper-middle-class mores in a domestic environment in the service of which she is called upon to don the traditional mantle of faux parent to her younger motherless siblings, is being increasingly undermined as her loyalties become more and more divided between her duty to her trusting widowed father (representative of law and the order of the family unit), and the boyish murder suspect he’s hunting -- who she initially has no reason at all to trust, yet nevertheless feels compelled to assist anyway.

Thus the film deftly balances ‘the innocent man’ and ‘the guilty woman’ motifs which would always be central to Hitchcock’s cinema, ricocheting between these two flags with a lightness of touch assisted by an almost vaudevillian taste for comedy which is essayed by the range of British character actors who here offer their keen support, most notably Edward Rigby in the pivotal role of’ Old Will’, who provides a Chaplinesque comic turn on the dance floor with Erica, as the two scan the Grand Hotel’s ballroom for the twitchy-eyed killer who sold Will Robert’s raincoat. Strikingly, “Young and Innocent” is a film that contains many bravura examples of Hitchcock’s developing  film craft, while seeming to play host to no great narrative depth: unlike previous thrillers in Hitch’s ‘30s filmography, it contains no topical interwar references to spies, secret agents or assassination plots that threaten terrible consequence for international politics, etc, and merely contents itself instead with the most trifling essay in the ‘double chase’ plot structure – the kind in which the police pursue the innocent protagonist who has been falsely accused of a murder, who in turn chases after the real culprit in order to clear his name – a format then recently encapsulated to perfection in “The 39 Steps”. The chemistry between the two leads is romantic and chaste rather than kinky or sexual (with unusually little of the innuendo that was becoming Hitchcock’s forte), and authority figures are relentlessly lampooned (useless short-sighted defence lawyers, stodgy judges and bumbling bobbies abound). Children and their relationship with adults becomes a noticeably recurring motif: this movie is full of children: from the petrol pump attendant’s young son (who needs a box to stand on in order to help his dad fill up the tank of Erica’s old car) to Erica’s very much younger siblings and the child guests attending Aunt Margaret’s birthday party for Erica’s niece -- Erica’s uncertain positioning between the two worlds of childhood and adulthood (and by implication guilt and innocence) is lightly being symbolised by this depiction of the mixing of children and adults in a variety of social situations throughout the film. The film’s internal logic may well fall apart on the most cursory of examinations, and the ambiguity in Robert's exact relationship with the murder victim makes one wonder if the husband who murdered her had just cause indeed to be suspicious (‘the first thing I throw out is logic,’ the director was quoted as saying around this time), yet there is an almost mathematical symmetry and economical precision to its structure that gives “Young and Innocent” the air of possessing a crystalline purity of intent even as you scratch a little beneath its sunny surface. Bearing in mind the glimpses and foreshadowings of later masterpieces that can be attributed to it, there’s a strong case to be made for this being one of the director’s most psychologically probing pictures at this stage in his career, as well as one of his most purely enjoyable.   

The film went in to production during a corporate crisis at Gaumont-British (Hitchcock’s home ever since “The Man Who Knew Too Much”), which resulted in the company closing down its filmmaking provision and becoming a dedicated distribution company. This didn’t affect Hitchcock personally, as his contract was taken over by the studio that had been his original employer in the silent era, Gainsborough; but the two producers who had done the most to promote Hitchcock’s career thus far, Ivor Montagu (who’d recut “The Lodger” after its disastrous initial screening for the Gainsborough board of directors, then later became an associate producer on “The Man Who Knew Too Much”) and Michael Balcon (who’d also given Hitchcock his first break at the same studio and renewed their partnership a few years later after Hitch had left to work at BIP, by offering the contract at Gaumont-British that resulted in Hitch’s classic run of 1930s thrillers) were both sacked from the company during the resulting tumultuous upheavals, the latter to become chief of production at Ealing Studios the following year as a result.

These changes at the top did initially disrupt production, as studio and laboratory space changed hands during all the shuffling and toing and froing , forcing Hitchcock to move from Lime Grove studios to Pinewood. But this proved to be a blessing in disguise, since the vastly more spacious facilities at Pinewood Studios enabled Hitchcock to pull off some of his most elaborate and show stopping set-pieces for this film and one of the most spectacular extended single-shot camera crane movements of his career thus far attempted. Using Pinewood’s biggest soundstage, Hitchcock created a striking sequence set designed by German-born, ex-Ufa art director Alfred Junge (later associated with many of Powell and Pressburger’s greatest triumphs such as “Black Narcissus”), which takes place in a collapsing mineshaft after Erica’s car falls down a sinkhole and she is only just plucked to safety in time, at the tip of Robert’s grasping fingers, as subsidence sends the vehicle plummeting to the rocky depths below. It’s a set-piece which is a very clear precursor to the climactic scenes in “North by North West”, made twenty-three years later in 1959, where Carry Grant performs much the same service for Eva Marie Saint at the edge of Mount Rushmore. Even more important to the development of the grammar of Hitchcockian suspense is the virtuoso crane shot designed and shot by top British cinematographer of the 1930s, Bernard Knowles. This starts as a wide-angle long shot from the ceiling of the set of the Grand Hotel lobby, sweeping down and across without cutting to a large ballroom full of dancing extras, and gradually moving in on the jazz band playing at the very back of the hall, until the eyes of the band’s drummer fill the entire screen, Hitchcock only cutting when the subject’s nervous twitch reveals him to be the killer who is being sought by the three protagonists out on the floor.

 Not only is this a complex display of technique which required two days of intense rehearsal in order to perfect the many changes of camera focus and complicated positioning of a great many extras that was needed to be able to accomplish the feat, it’s also a watershed in Hitchcock’s use of the camera as an independent observer of the action: a piece of information Erica and Robert are unable to ascertain for themselves from their position in the narrative proceedings is revealed to us from ‘on high’, the camera representing no-one’s point of view but its own as it homes in relentlessly on its target. As the face of the killer fills the screen and dominates out attention, he seems to become more and more unnerved, and the effect of the sequence as a whole is to create the impression that the killer's sense of imminent exposure is becoming magnified by the very intrusion of the camera’s gaze, and by our own viewer's knowledge of his whereabouts. The suspense comes from wondering where and when the protagonists will catch up and become aware of the same information. There are other elements of the film that do seem curiously gauche by today's standards given the sophistication of the above mentioned sequences, though: Hitchcock often used miniatures to great effect in a good many of his British thrillers from this period, but the attempt to pull off a car chase sequence by mixing studio scenes in which the actors are filmed against primitive back projection flats with miniature shots in which toy cars that have wax figurines inside them are pictured racing to cross the tracks of a table-top train set, can discreetly best be described as ill-judged to say the least.       

This sort of stuff, of course, suffers greatly from the unforgiving crystal clarity now afforded the film by Network Distributing’s lovely new HD transfer, as, apart from a few soft scenes and the occasional retained bit of film damage, the viewer will mostly be delighted with the superb rendering of the film elements highlighted here, with the beauty of the art direction and some rare instances in a Hitchcock film of location shooting that doesn’t feel like it was only shot reluctantly (the beach scene at the start in which Robert’s panoramic cliff-top view picks out the body of the victim below is echoed by the crane shot picking out her killer at the Grand Hotel at the very end) as well as numerous daytime shots of Erica and Robert escaping across summery bucolic vistas, open the film out and give it a vastly different feel to the claustrophobic “The 39 Steps” with its looming craggy moors and shadowy interiors. This is well worth the upgrade if you already own the somewhat softer DVD version, the increased clarity highlighting all the more what a vital piece of Hitchcock cinema this movie actually is. The picture quality is a vast improvement, while the disc extras consist of the same Charles Barr introduction from the Carlton DVD release, and a 25 minute documentary on Hitchcock’s beginnings in the film industry and his subsequent career in British film, ending with his 1939 adaptation of “Jamaica Inn” for Charles Laughton, from the classic Daphne du Maurier novel. Critics and surviving crew members from this period, including film editor on “The Man Who Knew Too Much” Hugh Stewart, uncredited third assistant director on “Sabotage” and “Young and Innocent” Teddy Joseon, and second assistant director on “The Lady Vanishes” Roy Ward Baker, contribute the anecdotes in this straightforward account of Hitch’s early career that covers the familiar ground, and the disc content is rounded off with a short image gallery of contemporary poster images. This is one of the master of suspense’s most sublime offerings from the British period, coming off as effortless and joyful. It’s an easy film to recommend.


Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

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