After Rich and Strange was a box office bomb, British International Pictures took Hitchcock off the film he wanted to direct – an adaption of John Van Druten’s play “London Wall” – and assigned him to Number 17 instead. Although he clearly tries to inject some energy into the project, Number 17 unfortunately continues with the early ‘30s trend of mediocre Hitch flicks.
The bulk of the story takes place in a creepy abandoned house, where a detective (John Stuart) is snooping around. Amid the shadows and cobwebs he comes across a jittery homeless squatter (Leon M. Lion) and a bludgeoned corpse. As a gang of thieves show up with a stolen necklace it looks like our hero’s night is just beginning…
At 63 minutes Number 17 is Hitchcock’s shortest feature film, but it packs a lot of plot in its running time. And not in a good way. Even upon repeated viewings I found it hard to follow what was happening. Character motivations, plot-points and dialogue exchanges are all utterly contrived and muddled. At least all the villains had the decency to have creepy moustaches. That made things easier.
And then there’s the “comedy”. At the time music-hall comic actor Leon M. Lion was film’s biggest draw, securing him top billing on the posters. Maybe he was funny back then, but I found him as entertaining as a colonoscopy. Expect exaggerated mugging, overblown cockney accents and a running “joke” about a sausage. There’s even a scene with a crook that resembles a game of “Grandmother’s Footsteps”. It’s dire.
Still, what the film lacks in plot or characters it (partially) makes up for in atmosphere. The flickering candle light, long shadows and groaning wind make for effective mood setters.
And thank God for the final 20 minutes where Hitchcock gets to show off his high speed editing in an exhilarating final chase between a bus and runaway train. There’s also an amusing sight gag as the bus rockets past a roadside sign which reads “Stop here for dainty teas”
Despite one or two saving graces, Number 17 is jumbled mess. Upon release it was probably the weakest Hitchcock picture to date. But the worst was yet to come…