Rich and Strange (1931, Alfred Hitchcock)

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HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

“It should have been more successful,” Alfred Hitchcock said in 1962 of his oddball comedy Rich and Strange, made thirty years earlier. An “innocents abroad” marital odyssey about a couple falling apart during an expensive vacation but by no means an affectionate screwball affair, it stands dead-center in the director’s least fondly remembered period, when he was under contract to British International Pictures and apparently had only sporadic control over his material as his relationship with the studio became more fraught (accompanied by his salary expanding, the box office returns for his work shrinking). The arrangement had some positive results in the form of Blackmail and Murder!, both films that more or less fit in with the director’s eventually famous aesthetic and propensity for strong, incisive thrillers. But there are just as many BIP productions that are uncharacteristic of Hitchcock to the point of seeming slightly absurd: the frivolous silent comedy Champagne, the breathlessly tragic love triangle The Manxman, and the oppressively straightforward if serviceable play adaptations Juno and the Paycock and The Skin Game.

Whether this was the result of tension between Hitchcock and his producers or simply the signs of a very young director still finding his footing is best left for biographers, not least because the available evidence is contradictory, but it’s enough for our purposes here to note that the films that seem to have excited Hitchcock most during this period when he reflected on them weren’t necessarily straight thrillers either (including Murder!, a conventional whodunit that he was very proud of): the boxing melodrama The Ring, the bawdy comedy The Farmer’s Wife, and especially Rich and Strange itself. When the director’s work of the early 1930s is mischaracterized as a series of domestic dramas about love triangles, it’s generally this film that’s being shaded as such, but it’s actually a nuanced tale of a malcontent named Fred Hill and his wife Emily sailing around the continent on an uncle’s advance inheritance, whereupon the two of them both commence exmarital affairs while bumbling around France, Sri Lanka, Japan and their cruise ship.

Though it’s a relatively faithful adaptation of a novel by Australian author Dale Collins, evidently known for “sea romances,” Rich and Strange was seen by Hitchcock and his wife and cowriter Alma Reville as an opportunity to infuse sharp, lived-in humor, borrowing from their own experiences as a baffled, sheltered pair on their own honeymoon, then initating a further research trip to get additional ideas. In his biography The Dark Side of Genius, Donald Spoto recounts Hitchcock and Reville getting a thrill out of working on the film’s screenplay while wrapping up the failed mystery lampoon Number Seventeen (which was so poorly received by the studio that its release was delayed until after this subsequent production; the previous Hitchcock film to make it to theatrical release was The Skin Game, a not entirely dull illustration of the Galsworthy play but almost by default one of his least interesting movies). It should be stated that, judging from contemporary reviews of the novel and contrary to Spoto’s assertions*, the Hitchcocks’ primary contributions were in details and extra observations, as the plot and characters in the film seem to be verbatim from the text (although, mercifully, Collins’ bizarre decision to include himself as a character in the story was nixed, though apparently it was considered for a time that Hitchcock would play a similar role as a film director!).

Given their enthusiastic work on other scripts, it’s entirely possible that Hitchcock and Reville were enchanted by the odd, misshapen narrative structure of Rich and Strange, which builds to a crucial moment of self-realization… then moves well beyond it, entertaining the often nearly compulsive desire to know “what happened then” to characters we come to know in film and literature. When we meet them, Emily Hill (Joan Barry, last heard as the hidden voice of Anny Ondra in Blackmail) is a contented and high-spirited housewife, Fred (Henry Kendall) a grouch who’s stymied in an office job depicted almost inescapably as reminscent of the geometric army of desks in Vidor’s The Crowd (if on a small scale; this is England). He comes home and complains about their economic condition and the routine of their lives and relationship, and we’re given to think it’s not the first time. With remarkable timing, a letter arrives indicating that a conveniently wealthy uncle is offering the couple a portion of their inheritance to spend early and to enjoy; the rat race is quickly abandoned and the cruise begins.

None of it goes the way the Hills expect, and in fact their lives, relationship and entire dynamic is rapidly and irrevocably changed by the events of the ensuing trip. First Fred proves his mettle as a lifelong sealed-off and dry Englishman; he spends ages in bed, unable to find his sea legs, and in the meantime Em begins a friendship with a low-key bachelor onboard named Gordon (Percy Marmont). In their interactions we, and they, quickly detect something that’s never apparent when Fred and Em are together: a genuine connection and warmth. Throughout the film, Fred’s really only seen fit to demonstrate a kind of entitled childishness, and he rarely seems to hear Em or take her seriously; Gordon’s conversations with her, though, quickly attain depth, seriousness, intellectual honesty: two equals on the same plane. To put it much more rudely, he’s so much more right for her than her husband is. In a particularly telling moment, Emily asks if Gordon’s ever been in love and accidentally articulates precisely the unbalanced and oppressive nature of the so-called love she shares with her husband, a wrongheaded definition of romantic love but the only one she has known: “Naturally I want him to think well of me. When I talk to him, I’m always so frightened of saying something foolish. You see, he’s terribly clever.” She goes to contrast this with her comfort around Gordon, then says this: “I don’t think love makes people brave, like they say it does in books. I think it makes them timid. I think it makes them frightened when they’re happy and sadder when they’re sad.” Gordon watches intently, with great compassion and a hint of pity, as she gives voice to this odd philosophy. It’s unmistakable from this exchange of dialogue that what Emily is experiencing with Gordon is actually love, mutually respectful and compassionate; whereas the constantly whining Fred is just a hindrance to her, something she’s loath to admit and, sadly, never really will.

This isn’t the first stark, bleak comment from the Hitchcocks on love and marriage, and it wouldn’t be the last. To ascribe the tendency toward cynicism about the romantic relationships depicted in the director’s films to either a blanket disdain for coupledom itself — the sense some writers have observed that Hitchcock didn’t think people were meant to be married at all — or to some sinister undercurrent in Hitchcock and Reville’s own romance is both to infer too much and, in this case, to deliberately misread the film’s actual message, and generally the still-relevant message being purveyed here. Bluntly, this marriage is being marked by Rich and Strange — by the Hitchcocks as well as by Collins, presumably — as a toxic and life-sucking situation, but also a painfully true-to-life one that reenacts the lives of people everywhere in a sense that goes deeper than the mere process of being unworldly city slickers out in the world for the first time. The message is made unmistakable by the contrast drawn between the Hills and Em’s easy rapport with Gordon (Percy Marmont), who significantly is presented not as a rich boy-toy (or a dullard like the greengrocer in Sabotage) but just as someone who talks, and listens, and models a kind of patience and goodness alien to Fred. This contrast isn’t necessary for us to dislike Fred (while still finding him engaging and funny, even occasionally relatable) but its presentation makes it impossible not to discern what a dire situation this union has turned out to be, and that this trip Em was only slightly interested in taking will expand her world in such a way that — like the farmer’s wife in The 39 Steps — she will never have the same oblivious perspective on her quiet, subservient existence.

Once he’s recovered from his ailments, Fred gets a side piece of his own, and their physical relationship escalates far more quickly. The moment when Fred lays eyes on “the princess” (Betty Amann) is likely the weakest, most illogical note in the film simply because Fred has been so dependent on Emily and such a colorless prig for so long it’s difficult to believe he might possess significant passion to give immediate vent to such carnal urges without any external prompting. Then again, he is a cad, and his dim, cold-hearted complaints about his wife being common and ordinary certainly seem in keeping with the hyper-defensive, mopey, condescending way he repeatedly addresses her throughout the film. There’s a touch of farcical satire on the stereotype of the easily fooled male who thinks with his cock, as Fred gets completely taken in by the princess’ act (which turns out to be a ruse to run off with a thousand pounds or so), but all the strong material in this portion of the picture has to do with the change in the Hill marriage’s dynamic once they’ve both started to realize that their partner has a paramour aboard the ship. Hitchcock milks this for the comic awkwardness you’d naturally expect, getting them thrown together at dinners and at one point in a couple of rickshaws, never sure quite what to say, but there’s also the ring of horrible truth in their strained, obligatory interactions at this point. Their marriage has become a dead-end job from which they’ve both moved on, and their attempts to put on even the faintest appearance of complacency rapidly fall apart, with Fred especially inconsiderate. They’re no longer able to see or hear one another.

It’s Emily who makes the decisive maneuver; when the film is seen today, you can’t help wanting her to respond to her own obvious urges and run away with Gordon, but her selfless faithfulness to her husband remains, at least insofar as she hates the idea of him being duped by the con artist posing as a princess and goes to warn him. She’s too late to avoid seeing him ripped off, and in a matter of moments their potential futures with new loves are both shattered; he’s abandoned by the princess, who’s already absconded with the money, and Em has ignored her instincts and is standing by Fred even after a strikingly lovely final goodbye shows up on paper from Gordon. Down to the bottom of the barrel with their finances, the Hills are forced to take a discount voyage home, and the overloaded ship takes water on in the middle of the night and begins to sink with the two of them trapped in their tiny cabin.

The sequence that follows permits Hitchcock his one and only technically outlandish sequence in the film, intensely exciting and then desolate, and it’s a monumental achievement in this context, one that strongly suggests future moments like Lifeboat and the plane crash in Foreign Correspondent. Hitchcock shows us the beginnings of a catastrophe in the most unnerving way imaginable: we see cargo falling over and confusion on the bridge, but mostly we experience the sinking from the Hills’ point of view, when they’re shaken awake by loud noises and falling objects, then hear the rustling and chaos of footsteps above them, people making their escape. As the sea level rises visibly outside a porthole and the water begins to creep in underneath the doorway, the Hills cling to one another and suddenly tell one another everything that they all but involuntarily were not capable of saying earlier. To his credit, it’s Fred’s words that seem to leave the deepest wound and say the most somehow: first, when his wife asks if he really minds dying all that much, his response lingers eerily — “No. I did at first.” And then, he holds on tighter to her. “There’s only you. There’s only ever been you.” There’s little doubt he only apologizes to and professes love for his wife because of the dire circumstances and seemingly certain death, but in this flood of emotions he accidentally lays out the nature of this one-sided relationship, that it’s only she who is propping him up and providing him the ability to function. This gives a person little cause to think optimistically of Emily’s own future — they do, after all, wake up, and they are alive — but one also cannot doubt for a moment that there are marriages exactly like this, then and now, and millions of them, all comprised of people who never will catch up to their own feelings, and partners who never will fully stand up for themselves.

And even this deeply felt, truly touching moment is subverted by the film; no sooner do the Hills wake up, relief washing over them as they explore what’s left of the boat, than Fred immediately begins belitting his wife again even during this harrowing ordeal. They still manage to have those inevitably bonding moments of huddling together against the unfamiliar for the final act of the film. They’re thankfully picked up by the crew of a Chinese junk, who keep them warm and feed them and carry them to safety; there’s a rather tasteless gag about an abandoned cat found onboard the passenger ship being skinned and fed to the Hills, serving mostly as a final nail in the coffin of this vacation and as further evidence of just how much at sea these two are in the universe beyond their apartment. Throughout this “morning after,” they display the weird, uneasy alliance familiar to anyone who’s been part of a couple that tried to move on beyond an act of infidelity. Without either of them really saying so much, you sense that something very deep has shifted.

Rich and Strange doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and I’m quite sure it has considerable precedent; it certainly bears many resemblances to subsequent low-key films about couples having their feelings about life and one another challenged by decisive outside experiences. Staying in Great Britain for a moment, there’s Alexander Korda’s much warmer Vacation from Marriage, about a couple whose inability to communicate one another is exacerbated when both serve in World War II. The most closely related film obviously is William Wyler’s film of the Sinclair Lewis novel Dodsworth, a tremendously realistic and moving portrait of a dying marriage whose fate is sealed during a long cruise and sojourn in Europe. Ironically, Hitchcock’s film borrows more of Lewis’ biting, satiric tone than the actual adaptation does; Wyler harnesses the skeleton of Dodsworth‘s plot to tell a more straightforward, sensitive story, and a stirring one at that. Hitchcock and Reville’s script retains far more of the mockery of the petite bourgeoisie and their tourism foibles, and while they treat the marital rift that unfolds with the seriousness it warrants, they also display a giddy relish for the pair’s interpersonal travails and in particular the pure absurdity of Fred’s affair with the “princess” that enhances this film’s wicked tone but wouldn’t work at all in Wyler’s much starker drama. Both films mostly avoid class commentary but if you want to find it, it’s there more clearly in Hitchcock than in Wyler, insofar as the “better life” denied the Hills at the outset ends up both nearly killing them while also lending them a tantalizing, brief glimpse of something larger that the structures of their society dictate isn’t truly meant for them ever to know. At bottom, there is really no other movie I know of that feels quite like Rich and Strange — its brash, underhanded commentary on its characters’ lives, its peculiar rhythm, its offbeat structure and tone, its unsentimental directness — and Hitchcock was quite right to champion it long after it was mostly forgotten.

It takes little perspicacity to detect that Rich and Strange generated perhaps the greatest, more tireless enthusiasm in Hitchcock as director out of any of his films to this point — with little doubt, it’s the most visually accomplished of his early sound films and his most innovative work as a stylist since The Ring in 1927. The elaborate sets and the unusual proportion of location work (including what appears to be stolen footage from the Folies Bergère) set it easily apart from the obviously studio-dominated productions The Skin Game, Juno and the Paycock, Murder!, Number Seventeen and even Blackmail (which used process shots to replicate the British Museum). Several elaborate camera moves and dissolves suggest the later work of F.W. Murnau, while King Vidor’s subtle presence has already been mentioned; in its style as well as the elegance and modernity of the plot, the film repeatedly calls back to Hitchcock’s silent work. There are a number of sequences in which he even uses title cards in lieu of dialogue, though mostly just as a framing device. (Contrary to what even some sympathetic reviews of the movie have stated over the years, the film is not “mostly silent,” nor does just “one fourth” or less of it include dialogue — there is a great deal of talking in the film, in fact, but presumably the several silent montages make a strong enough impression that they lingered in the minds of many critics and writers. It’s also rather baffling to see suggestions that the revival of silent techniques in the film extended to excessive makeup and overacting, given that not only is it a misconception that silent film performances were universally broad, especially in Hitchcock’s work, but that no such criticisms of any of the actors in this movie seem justified at all.)

There are also delightful special effects and editorial tricks, and tirelessly novel methods of conveying the story, with Hitchcock reluctant as always to just deliver everything through “photographs of people talking.” His growth is further implicated by the way the individual scenes light up solely as cinema; still pictures from any of the best moments don’t properly convey their beauty. A sequence documenting the Hills’ overwhelmed attempt to “take in” Paris uses jump cuts to capture them gazing hurriedly this way and that, a tricky bit of “negative acting” that would be recycled in The Birds. My personal favorite gag in the film comes when a terribly seasick Fred, cringing at the very thought of food, first glances at the ship’s dinner menu and has various unappetizing phrases literally fly out at the screen, including “Gorgonzola Cheese,” which hops up and down and zooms forward like something out of a hellish PowerPoint presentation. But as much as these technically impressive ideas seem to indicate a fire lit under Hitchcock, that fire was there because of the strong story and performances. Barry is excellent as Emily, giving a sensitive and witty read of the character with the perfect measure of naivete; Kendall puts across Fred’s boorishness with ideal whininess and subtlety; and Elsie Randolph’s comic-relief turn as an annoying passenger on the ship is a well-timed and memorable treat.

Only minimally advertised, Rich and Strange was dumped unceremoniously by BIP in the middle of winter, before they’d even got around to releasing the long-complete Number Seventeen. Whether given the chance to succeed or not, it most certainly didn’t, both a flop with audiences and critically panned; it sorely disappointed the director, for the first of many times, that his audience wasn’t with him. Only three years after he became the leading British director overnight with Blackmail, Hitchcock’s career seemed to be sinking fast. With his old allies at British International increasingly skeptical of his abilities, a change was looming — first, after Rich and Strange and Number Seventeen ended a run of three disappointments in a row for the director, he was relegated to a status as a producer of younger filmmakers’ work at BIP. (This odd turn of events resulted in Lord Camber’s Ladies, directed by Benn Levy and starring Gerald du Maurier; legend has it that Hitchcock so detested the assignment he constantly disrupted it with practical jokes.) Hitchcock ultimately left the studio in a cloud of controversy over studio founder John Maxwell’s disallowing him to go forward with a Bulldog Drummond story he wanted to film. At the frustrated “lowest ebb” of his career, he would make the slight Waltzes from Vienna for an independent producer and impresario named Tom Arnold. One day Michael Balcon, studio head for the film’s distributor Gaumont and a major, somewhat contentious figure in the director’s early career, visited the set of Waltzes and heard about this discarded Bulldog Drummond screenplay. His next actions would cast a shadow over cinema history thereafter that is unlikely ever to lift.

[* Spoto in fact bizarrely claims in his book that the film credits Collins merely as source of the “idea” for the film, not as author of a novel (the opening title unambiguously reads “RICH AND STRANGE by Dale Collins”), that he’s been unable to figure out who Collins even was, and that he has no way to determine the nature of Collins’ “contributions,” all pretty much to serve the author’s thesis that the film is personal and autobiographical. It’s hard to imagine any of this information was much harder to come by in the early 1980s than it is now. This further illustrates how advisable it is to take a great number of the assertions in Spoto’s book with a healthy amount of skepticism. The in-depth information I was able to glean about Collins’ novel — which is quite difficult to find — comes from the Sydney Morning Herald of December 12, 1930, and it gives sufficient detail a full year ahead of the film version to conclusively indicate that the plot of the book and film are close to identical. Speculation about Hitchcock appearing in the film comes from the man himself, in an interview recorded before casting of the film began, published in the London Evening News of March 5, 1931 and reproduced in Sidney Gottlieb’s anthology Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews.]

[Additional note: This is annoyingly difficult to confirm, but it’s possible that there are several different versions of Rich and Strange in existence, judging from a story Hitchcock tells in the Truffaut interview about a scene that — if it really exists — must have been censored in every print I (or Truffaut) have ever seen. It involves the princess wrapping her legs around Fred’s head in the swimming pool and, when he emerges in a panic, chiding him for protesting what would have been a “beautiful death.” The IMDB is little help but does list multiple running times, and comments from others about bawdy footage during the Paris scenes also have led me to believe that the multiple edits of the racy Folies Bergère sequence exist. The best presentation of the film on American DVD is on the Hitchcock boxed set released by Lionsgate, but even it is a less than ideal transfer (all other discs are public domain gray market releases) and I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if it came from a truncated print. Further information anyone has would be much appreciated.]

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