Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Number Seventeen (1932)

by Brent Reid
  • Woefully misunderstood mini-masterpiece is worthy of serious investigation
  • Convoluted comedy-thriller that’s more rewarding with each successive viewing
  • One of the Master’s most atmospheric films and the very epitome of expressionism
  • First use of a MacGuffin, the narrative trope most closely associated with Hitchcock
  • This remake is just one of five international filmed versions of a successful stage play
  • Only the many poor quality bootlegs are truly shocking; all official releases are here

Note: this is one of 100-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.

Number Seventeen (1932, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) UK pressbook.

UK pressbook


Contents


Production

Ann Casson and Leon M. Lion in Number Seventeen (1932, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Ann Casson and Leon M. Lion play it strictly for laughs in Number Seventeen

A beautiful female member of a gang of thieves falls in love with a detective who is on the trail of her confederates. She saves him from death at the hands of the gang and thereafter the film traces their adventures whilst fleeing from the revenge of her former associates. – Australian Polygram VHS/alt (1995)

This film is often lumbered with the unfortunate distinction of being Hitch’s worst, or at least one of them. Such supposed flaws as underdeveloped, cardboard characters and a near incomprehensible plot are regularly cited. A great pity, as those judging it thus are, to put it mildly, completely missing the point: it’s a burlesque; a straight-faced pantomime, if you will. Most folk clearly don’t realise its very successful source play is also first and foremost a comedy. It’s a parody of the mystery genre so popular at the time and Hitch’s take on it follows the text very closely. In other words, the film is supposed to be guilty of all the charges laid against it; that’s the joke. Sheesh.

L-R - John Stuart, Anne Grey and Donald Calthrop in Number Seventeen (1932, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

L-R: John Stuart, Anne Grey and Donald Calthrop desperately trying to figure out the plot

Saddled with directing another studio-mandated project after his previous outing, The Skin Game, stalled at the box office, Hitch clearly decided to relax and have a bit of fun with this one. As a result, Number Seventeen is replete with the technical and stylistic flourishes for which he would later become much better known. It’s absolutely dripping in atmosphere, and is all self-consciously clever expressionistic lighting and awkward angles. As for the nominal plot, forget it: all you need to know is it’s some hokum about a stolen diamond necklace and smuggling wanted criminals. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t go and see the frenetic, tongue-firmly-in-cheek stage production of The 39 Steps and complain it wasn’t taking itself seriously enough, would you? Well, would you? Said necklace, by the way, was the first use of a MacGuffin in a Hitchcock film; a trope that became most famously associated with him. It was present in the original play and is, of course, a wholly contrived device that serves no purpose other than to drive the plot.

Donald Calthrop, who appeared in five Hitchcock films, including as the main villain in Blackmail, again plays the chief baddie, but here it’s in a more suave, sophisticated vein. Number Seventeen even manages to spoof thrillers Hitch had yet to make, for instance, Anne Grey (“deaf-mute” Nora Brant) evokes the spirit of Lucie Mannheim (Annabella Smith), the mysterious spy and femme fatale in The 39 Steps. Ann Casson, meanwhile, was already on her fifth big screen outing despite being only 16 years old at the time of this film’s shooting and release. She plays spunky policeman’s daughter Rose Ackroyd, who is very reminiscent of the 17-year-old Nova Pilbeam in Hitch’s Young and Innocent, made just five years later.

L-R: Henry Caine and Garry Marsh in Number Seventeen (1932, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Lost the plot: Henry Caine and Garry Marsh get better acquainted, but Seventeen is not their lucky number

The eponymous 1925 play the film is based on is by prolific British author Joseph Jefferson Farjeon of the multi-talented Farjeon family. He novelised it in 1926 (French edition) and the book, with its title contracted to Number 17, as per the film’s US moniker, was the first of seven Farjeon penned featuring “Ben the wanderer”. Both play and novel were filmed on several occasions in addition to Hitch’s version, which was actually a remake. First was a German-Anglo production, Haus Nummer 17 (1928), shot in Germany and released initially as a silent and again eight months later, retooled as a talkie. It was directed by Hungarian Géza von Bolváry, who helmed Champagner the following year, which was a virtual remake of Hitch’s own Champagne. Now that’s what you call symmetry. Following Hitch was a fascinating-looking Swedish version, Huset nr 17 (1949), while the most recent filmed adaptation to date was a 1958 UK TV play. Sadly, all the above are unavailable. As a consolation, I’ve detailed all the other available Farjeon film adaptations here – and there are some real corkers!

Number Seventeen (1932, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) main title, UK Optimum DVD screenshot

In Hitch’s adaptation, Ben is played by Leon M. Lion, who spent most of his lengthy acting career on the stage, and here reprises his role from two of the play’s original theatrical runs. One presumes his parents had a sense of humour in choosing his first name. He’s commonly cited as also having produced the film, but it’s extremely unlikely: there is no actual evidence supporting this assertion and he has no other film production credits, though he did produce the play. As film historian Charles Barr points out in English Hitchcock (1999), the misapprehension appears to have originated with the otherwise generally accurate Alfred Hitchcock: A Filmography and Bibliography (1995) by Jane E. Sloan, based on her misreading of the film’s main title card. Credits relating to the actual film’s technical staff and cast appear on the cards following the one above.

Even after Hitch, old Leon was far from done with the play, as he went on to star again in a couple of BBC Radio adaptations: a 1938 ten-parter and a 1942 hour-long recording.

There's never a lift when you need one: Ann Casson and John Stuart in Number Seventeen (1932, dir. Alfred Hitchcock.

There’s never a lift when you need one: Ann Casson and John Stuart are tired of hanging around for the Number Seventeen.

This was the third and last Hitchcock for leading man John Stuart, following The Pleasure Garden and Elstree Calling. He had a prolific 50-year career in film and television spanning 1920–1979. In 2013, his son Jonathan Croall authored Forgotten Stars: My Father and the British Silent Film World, a very readable and detailed account of his father’s life and the milieu he worked in. For his part, Leon M. Lion, who worked primarily in the theatre and died in 1947, had his memoirs published posthumously the following year as The Surprise of My Life.

Cinema Then, Cinema Now: Number Seventeen

 


Home video releases

As well as being Hitch’s most (deliberately) confusing film, Number Seventeen is also his shortest at only 64 minutes (61 at PAL speed). The BFI Archive has a plethora of early film materials on the title, going right back to the original nitrate negative. This means that as good as the film now looks on licensed home video, we can always look forward to the possibility of a full digital restoration. According to the BBFC, it was cut prior to release, though viewing the finished film it’s difficult to see what could have so offended the censors. Any cuts must have been made very early on, as the longest of the vault copies correspond exactly to the currently published length. If you dare investigate the suspicious goings-on , these are all your official options:

The commonly available UK box set is the best choice overall, while next in line are the also-common French DVDs, though their forced subs rule them out for most. The remaining releases, though completely English-friendly with no forced subs, are extremely rare, especially outside their countries of origin. Take your pick.

What is no mystery is how terrible Number Seventeen’s numerous bootlegs look; in fact, it still hasn’t had a legitimate German release, largely due to the prevalence of domestic boots, some of which only contain its 1979 German dub. In contrast, the licensed releases are from an excellent copy preserved by the BFI which, though unrestored, is in great condition and conveys the visuals and audio well. Kino’s US discs have a new 4K restoration, along with Rich and Strange; both were originally announced in 2018 then delayed for three years due to only having unrestored SD transfers unsuitable for BD. The same problem is blocking a HD release of Secret Agent, which was also the recipient of a similar unwittingly faux BD announcement made by a French label. As you’d expect, Seventeen’s latest transfer brings a distinct uptick in audio and video quality, especially noticeable on a larger display and with a decent sound system.

Kino add the first ever substantial, film-specific on-disc extra in the form of an audio commentary by film historian Peter Tonguette alongside some Hitchcock/Truffaut audio interview excerpts (5:42). There’s also the subtitled French “Hitchcock: The Early Years” documentary (2004, 54:38) earlier released with the domestic and UK Studiocanal-owned films, an ‘introduction’ by film historian Noël Simsolo (2004, 3:37; actually a spoiler-filled mini-discussion) and trailers for their other Hitchcocks.

By the way, Kino botched their transfers of Murder! and Blackmail by releasing them in the wrong aspect ratio. But their discs for Seventeen, and Rich and Strange, are finally in the correct 1.20:1 ratio common to very early talkies; also a first on home video. Though they’ve made an effort with this film, it’s still cheeky of Kino to give it a standalone disc – again, its first – remember it’s only an hour long, and their package for both it and 83-minute-long Rich and Strange would have easily fitted on a dual-layered twofer.

Number Seventeen (1932, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) US Brentwood bootleg DVD screenshot

US Brentwood bootleg DVD: a faded, blurry, cropped, vertically stretched, scratched, jittery image and muffled audio to boot. Why would you bother?

Number Seventeen (1932, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) French Studiocanal DVD screenshot

French Studiocanal DVD: for both image and sound, the difference is clear.

Thankfully, not all critics are clueless about the film’s merits and intent:

“A peculiar and neglected early Hitchcock stage adaptation, notable because it was intended partly as an absurdist send-up and none of the contemporary reviewers got the point. (The opening sequence suggests a kind of delirium of continuity that the picture periodically returns to.) Most of the film is set in an abandoned house, where enjoyably murky intrigues abound, and the last ten minutes feature a chase sequence with miniatures that is almost as much fun.” – Jonathan Rosenbaum, May 14, 1993

Number Seventeen is a strong contender for being Hitch’s most misunderstood film but is very worthy of serious investigation. It may be unashamed hokum – in fact it’s pure cheese – but being Hitchcock it’s still served up as a very tasty dish, so just climb aboard and enjoy the ride.


The Old Dark House (1932)

The Old Dark House aka L'appel de la chair (The call of the flesh, 1932) 1950s Belgian reissue poster

The Old Dark House aka L’appel de la chair (The call of the flesh, 1932) 1950s Belgian reissue poster

Welcome to The Old Dark House, where genuine atmospheric horror is blended perfectly with black humor by James Whale, the director of classics like Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and Bride of Frankenstein. Meet the weird Femm family and their bizarre butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff, fresh from the success of Frankenstein), as a group of travelers take refuge from a violent thunderstorm inside the Femm mansion. But something sinister lurks upstairs … not to mention the madness that runs rampant downstairs. Will any of the “houseguests” survive this dark and evil night? And just what lies behind that locked door at the top of the stairs?
Ahead of its time with a clever mix of eerie suspense and black comedy, this 1932 gem was thought to be lost until it was uncovered in Universal’s vaults by Whale’s longtime friend, writer/director Curtis Harrington, in 1968. – US Image LD (1996) info

Number Seventeen is often compared, with good reason, to this other endlessly entertaining, comedy-thriller released across the Pond at exactly the same time. The film retained the US title of the popular British novel it was based on, Beknighted (1927), by J. B. Priestley. He was one of Hitch’s oft-acknowledged favourite authors, and as the director produced so many other adaptations of favoured stage and literary scribes, it’s tempting to think in a parallel universe he could have helmed this one, too.

This renowned film has long been available on a clutch of fine DVDs, however, a 2017 4K digital restoration left it looking and sounding better than it had in over 80 years. Here are all the licensed releases to date:

Restored editions:

Sleep tight and don’t let the bootlegs bite: apart from the usual culprits for films of this type, like Sinister Film in Italy, there are countless home-made DVD-R sellers falsely claiming it to be in the public domain, even though its copyright was renewed (p. 46) by Universal in 1960.

Trailers: Cohen/teaser/alt, Carlotta/alt, Elephant, vintagecredits, clip, 10 Best Quotes | Reviews: That’s on YT,
Dark Corners, Mark Kermode’s for BFI/UncutEmily Carman, TCM/intro/outro | Sara Karloff interview


The Old Dark House (1963)

The Old Dark House (dir. William Castle, 1963) US 6 sheet poster

US six sheet poster

The film was remade for a new generation of schlock horror fans by famed low budget horror producer-director William Castle, who was also responsible for the similar genre classic House on Haunted Hill (1959), among many others. It was precisely the runaway commercial success of such films by Castle and Roger Corman, another auteur working in the same field, that inspired Hitch to make his own low budget, black and white horror classic, Psycho. Amazing how often in Hitch’s career the dots eventually join up…

With grim predictability, Italian bootleggers Sinister Film strike again (DVD-R/reissue) – avoid.

Credits, Dark Corners


For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

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Anton
Anton
13th July 2021 14:19

Hey Brent, it was so good to read your positive – and informative – piece on Number 17. First time I’ve seen the film get any justice: I guess some people wouldn’t know fun if it jumped up and bit them in the ba-doingas. After my first viewing I looked up Lion on IMDb and was dismayed to see he had no biography so did some Googling and added one from the scant info I could find. High time I rewatched it. Cheers, Anton

Anton
Anton
20th July 2021 13:32

Hey Brent. Absolutely. Submitted the correction to IMDb so they should fix it soon. RE shouting into the wind, I can imagine that’s frustrating. I imagine you will have convinced quite a few to give it a / another go. BTW I really appreciate the info you’ve provided RE Nosferatu, too. I recently acquired the BFI blu ray after looking at DVDBeaver, Blu-ray.com’s forum, and your site. It’s… amazing. Previously only seen it on cheap dvd some years ago, and it’s another film entirely. I’m going to have a read of your Jamaica Inn stuff and if I decide to… Read more »

Anton
Anton
20th July 2021 21:04

I realised you meant the IMDb producer credit on the film’s main page, not just (or even at all) on my biography, so have now submitted another correction for the main page, including a link to this page as a reference. Thanks for pointing this out and all your good work. Cheers, A

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