Detective Gilbert is searching for a necklace that has been stolen by a gang of thieves. He shows up at a seemingly empty house that’s open for sale or rent. The door is unlocked, so he enters into the shadows.
But what he finds in those shadows isn’t exactly what he expected. A dead body is in the house, and a number of mysterious characters are encountered by Gilbert. It begins with one stranger, but as the many eerie shadows hint to the viewer from the beginning, there are many odd folks hiding in the house.
One such odd folk is Nora (Anne Grey), who happens to fall through the ceiling. She’s been crawling on the roof. Nora is knocked out by the fall but is eventually revived, at which point she explains that she was looking for her father, who lives next door in #16.
The plot thickens with the introduction of each new stranger (with the barrage including Mr. Ackroyd – portrayed by Henry Caine – and Rose Ackroyd – portrayed by Ann Casson), and becomes even more suspicious when the body disappears. Without giving too much away, the thieves eventually end up on a train. A chase ensues, complete with an unstoppable locomotive and a whole lot of confusion.
Number Seventeen (1932) was the last film Alfred Hitchcock directed for British International Pictures. Hitchcock allegedly hated the film and didn’t want to produce it at all, but the studio forced him into it after his film Rich and Strange (1931, released as East of Shanghai stateside) proved a box office failure. It is based on a play by J. Jefferson Farjeon.
While the film is decent overall, it certainly shows that Hitchcock wasn’t into it. He had enough natural talent in his pinky toe to pull it off even though he wasn’t enthused with the project, but there isn’t nearly as much inspiration or passion behind the project as there is in his other work.
Despite his reluctance to work on the project, there are Hitchcock trademarks at work here. The necklace serves as the mighty MacGuffin. According to Alfred Hitchcock Wiki, there is a cameo in which Hitchcock appears as a passenger on the bus, though I had trouble spotting him. And we all know how much Hitchcock loved stairs, which serve as a major focus of the setting of Number Seventeen, especially in the beginning.
The film begins in a very eerie way. The house that Gilbert enters is the perfectly stereotypical creepy mansion, and the environment is topped off with windy weather and the threat of strangers lurking around. The creeps keep up throughout the entire film, but often in a bit of an obvious way, through shadows that are clearly meant to spook the audience. The result is a mood not typical of Hitchcock films, but stuck with the project, he aimed for a comedy-thriller rather than the true suspense he’s remembered for. It brings more chuckles than spine-tingles, which is something I’d expect more from a William Castle film such as The Tingler (though the result here is not nearly as successful).
On the positive, the acting style used here does go very well with the Castle-ish mood. I’m unfamiliar with most of the actors in this film, but they’re all quite effective considering the film’s overall mood. Their performances (especially in facial expression) can be a bit over-the-top, but it works for this particular film.
Interestingly enough, the ending of the film is very reminiscent of one of his much later works: the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The ending packs the most punch out of any moment in the film, which I see as a bit of a trademark of the television series, because there’s always some little surprise thrown in at the end. Similarly, the end of this film comes as a bit of a shock, leaving the viewer thinking “Did that really just happen?” and making the conclusion seem quite abrupt.
Despite the many pitfalls of this film, the biggest of all is no fault of Hitchcock’s. It’s a preservation problem. The sound on this print of this film is so muffled I could die. It’s terribly difficult to hear the dialogue, which also makes it difficult to keep track of what’s going on in the story. It’s still watchable and some of the actors can be clearly understood, but the sound is definitely a problem, so proceed with caution before checking this one out on DVD. It appears in many Hitchcock box sets. (I discovered the film through the 15 film Alfred Hitchcock Collection set.) On a more positive note, this does make it hard for the viewer to get distracted, because you must become 100% focused on deciphering the garbled noise being tossed at you. The picture quality is a bit better. The viewer still gets a sense of the beauty of the shadows used and the cinematography in general, but it isn’t in perfect condition.
The score: 3/5