Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

Hitchcock’s EASY VIRTUE

Some critics feel Alfred Hitchcock’s EASY VIRTUE (British, 1927) functions mainly as a foreshadowing of later works, rather than as an accomplished film in its own right.  However, this adaptation of the Noel Coward play deserves another look, and not just because it has recently been remade. 

Certainly the film is a prefiguring of Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS, using some of the motifs and plot devices of that 1946 classic.  Nevertheless, Hitchcock’s direction of EASY VIRTUE, is so assured, so very visual in its conception,  that this silent film stands tall among Hitch’s early British works.  In EASY VIRTUE Hitchcock and his scenarist Eliot Stannard tell the story of Larita (Isabel Jeans) a young woman with a scandalous past, who marries John (Robin Irvine), an aristocrat, and is subsequently persecuted by his family.  Here we see the comparison to NOTORIOUS and it’s heroine (Ingrid Bergman) an infamous party girl and daughter of a Nazi spy, who marries into a family of fifth columnists and is tormented by her suspicious ogress of a mother-in-law.  Implicit in both films is the condemnation of news photographers (and by inference, filmmakers) as corrupt voyeurs.  They are people who, in essence, make their living spying on others hoping to exploit the worst in humanity.  (This theme is also explored in Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW).  Few who have seen EASY VIRTUE, can forget the title card accompanying the conclusion, as Larita addresses the vulture like photographers who seem to be everywhere: “Shoot, there’s nothing left to kill.” 

As stated above, considering EASY VIRTUE as only a linking film between Hitchcock’s early British period and his more accomplished Hollywood years, diminishes it greatly.  For it is the visualization of the film that marks it as prime early Hitchcock.  Admittedly, most of the more bravura effects are in the first half of the movie.  Among these are the startling opening divorce court scene which begins with a subjective shot of a judge’s magnifying glass as it comes into view bringing a barrister across the courtroom into extreme close up.  Later in the same scene we have a lovely match dissolve from the barrister’s hand swinging a monocle to a courtroom clock’s pendulum.  In a flashback, Larita’s first husband confronts her about her relationship with an artist who paints her portrait.  The painter slowly turns from the wife to face the husband.  The action is staged and shot in such a fashion that only Larita’s left eye can be seen peeking out from behind the artist, glaring at her cuckold across the room.  A tennis match also provides opportunity for Hitchcock to impress us with his visual acumen.  A player on the far end of the court is framed by a racket held in the foreground, suggesting the imprisonment of the rich, a gilded cage so to speak. 

Along the way, there are sublime moments, more subtle visually, but just as powerful.  There is the humbling extreme longshot of the aristocratic couple’s carriage traveling along a bridge on the Mediterranean.  The carriage seems so small, so insignificant.  For even the rich, outside forces can be overpowering. 

The harshness of the forces coming against Larita should not blind us to her own harsh edges.  Several times Hitchcock shows her in close up exhaling cigarette smoke.  It billows around her head as though she were some sort of fire breathing dragon.  No one remains untainted.  Even the viewer is implicated.    At the film’s climax, Larita’s mother-in-law confronts her about her past while looking directly into the camera.  She is angry with Larita but the staging by Hitchcock makes something else quite clear.  The old woman is condemning us as well – for our own moral weaknesses, perhaps. 

There are countless Alfred Hitchcock websites.  One of the most complete is http://www.hitchcock.nl/mov3.htm.  It features stills and a plot synopsis of even the earliest films.  There are also video and audio clips of many of the films.

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October 14, 2009 - Posted by | Alfred Hitchcock | , , ,

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