Easy Virtue ★★½

Week 6 of 52 Weeks of Hitchcock!


This was a weird mishmash. For starters, it was based on a Noël Coward play. A silent film, based on a play by an author known for his rapid, witty dialogue. All right. As a result it features the heaviest use of title cards in a Hitchcock film so far -- less for dialogue, but more for wordy exposition between scenes.

Technically, it is impressive. The opening sequence, a courtroom scene which cuts back and forth between the court and the events the witness is describing, is a confident and masterful use of flashback, particularly for this era. Additionally, there are a couple of fun POV shots through the judge's monocle which echo the opening scene to The Pleasure Garden. It's an extremely well-done sequence. From there, however, both the story and the filmmaking become somewhat rote -- though I will admit that the sheer despair of the ending took me somewhat aback.

That said, I'm not certain what the film is meant to be about. Coward's play is evidently primarily concerned with hypocrisy, but the plot is so hastily sketched here (and Hitchcock dwells on the courtroom scene longer than is strictly necessary, though it is the most technically interesting part of the film), and the characters drawn so broadly and simply, that it's hard to get a sense of anything solid. It's why the ending threw me for a loop; for as lightweight as the rest of the film had been, I expected a happy ending in line with Hitchcock's other melodramas of the time.

There is a delightful scene where a telephone switchboard operator listens in on a marriage proposal. The very expressive face of the actor hilariously communicates the ups and downs of the conversation (and the eventual acquiescence) far better than title cards, or even Coward's dialogue, could have hoped to.

The film itself is not in great shape. Apart from the usual scratches and dirt, there are frames -- sometimes entire shots -- missing. A character dies in a bewildering jump cut. Wikipedia makes reference to title cards which don't exist. Apparently the film was considered lost until the 1970s, but unless someone's sitting on a better print out there somewhere, the version they recovered seems to have been fractured at best.

If we're starting from an average of 3 stars, I'd say take one away for the surface-level plot and characters, and add half a star back for some innovative sequences. But like so many of these early films, this one's probably for Hitchcock (or, I suppose, Coward) completists only.