Number 17 (Alfred Hitchcock, 1932)

The opening of Number 17, the last film Hitchcock made for the Associated British Picture Corporation, features “a delirium of continuity” (to quote Jonathan Rosenbaum) and  a montage of chilled imagery, fluid camera movement and unsettling effects that recalls comparable sequences in the films of Murnau. In these minutes we feel not so far from the brittle, post-WW1 nightmares of Nosferatu (or Dreyer’s Vampyr), gliding through a claustrophobic world haunted by the creeping shadow of something unimaginable, which is both physical and settled deeply within the subconscious, straining for release.
This spectre of feeling hangs over the film for much of its first half, but dissipates little by little as each new strand of the plot emerges and the film morphs into something approaching a very well-directed conventional British thriller. However, there are still  some impressionistic touches, like the excursions into a curiously deserted nighttime London which contains something of an inkling of the mystery of the first half hour. Hitchcock’s growing mastery of mise-en-scene and montage, particularly in action sequences, is clear but he seems most interested in those moments and stretches that allow him to push further into a more abstracted, uncanny territory, building the titular Number 17 into a house of the unstable and the occult, a terrain where one enters a more malleable, tormented reality. The plot barely seems to matter all, Hitchcock rushing through it’s dull twists with a gritted determination that obscures as much as it illuminates. No matter. Number 17 lives most when it situates itself outside the margins of conformity and the concrete (in the matter of the best Ulmer films) and these moments are the kind more than worthy of living long in the memory. On a side note, try and imagine Ben as played by Michel Simon.

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