Young and Innocent (1937, Alfred Hitchcock)
Up to this point in Alfred Hitchcock’s Gaumont “thriller sextet” cycle, spanning from 1934 to ’38, the films have grown progressively darker in both story and tone, seemingly synchronized to the deteriorating political situation in Europe. Conventional wisdom is that Young and Innocent, by far the warmest and nearly the wittiest of the six films, coasts on lightness and charm in a way that the rest of Hitchcock’s 1930s thrillers do not; the storyline alone, despite the grim event (a woman is strangled with the belt from a raincoat, her body found on the beach) that sets it into motion, fully illustrates its brisk, freewheeling nature in stark contrast to the dread and misery of Secret Agent and Sabotage. It’s about a freshfaced young man attempting to prove his innocence of a murder with no help from incompetent lawyers and cops but plenty from a constable’s daughter, whose affection for him increases as their adventures across the countryside grow wilder and more purposeful.
Indeed, this is the film that most visibly harnesses Hitchcock’s uncanny ability to capture the occupants of rural England with good humor but without condescension, and it can be seen freely as a comedy, albeit a comedy (like North by Northwest) that’s positively filled with high-stakes thriller setpieces. It does not convey the weight of darkness, nor the corruptibility, of the later, similar Hitchcock exploration of family life Shadow of a Doubt, but it shows the same basic affection for, and painful acceptance of, humankind as that film and his black comic masterpiece The Trouble with Harry. What these and most other Hitchcock films — or, more often, just moments in his films — that touch on everyday family life and the lives of the working classes suggest is the same populism that lit such a fire under Frank Capra and lent such joy to his narratives. In quite many ways, Young and Innocent is a sort of British variant upon Capra’s It Happened One Night, not only because it revolves around a male-female not-yet-couple on the run but also because it so lovingly explores the people and places on their periphery as they travel. So much of the value of these two films comes from the odd little moments on the sidelines, in this case for instance the boy at the petrol station who has to stand on a stoop to do his job; or the pig farmer with a cart full of pigs who’s commandeered to give a ride to a couple of police officers, with no intention of making them comfortable; or a bespectacled young boy very into his Latin lessons; or a china mender with tattered clothes helping to track down a man who “blinks”; or even a cruddy public defender with no clear interest in his client’s case who can’t keep track of names, events, paperwork, spectacles. These are moments that feel snatched from lived experience, but they’re also caricatured and funny without being reflective of stereotypes so much as a general appreciation for the weirdness and endless human intrigue of day-to-day life. It’s all such great fun, and the constantly evolving story is just as effortlessly fun, and enjoyably tense to boot.
All that said, it seems to me that declaring Young and Innocent to be a breezy work of pure escapism does it a disservice, as does the widespread belief that it’s a sort of kiddie variant on The 39 Steps, much as it may share that film’s basic structure of a wrongly accused party giving chase across a wide geographical expanse. Donald Spoto spoke of the foreboding illustrated by the encroachment of tree limbs all around our characters, a bit of poetry suggestive of Vertigo; that energy extends to a couple of shadowy sets Hitchcock built — an abandoned mill, a collapsed mine — and the paranoia and accusation on various adults’ faces when they run across our hero and heroine. But more to the point, and less abstract, is the film’s profound sophistication as a character study and as an exploration of a relationship; though it can’t be considered a masterpiece on the same level as The 39 Steps, in these specific senses it actually betters than film and demonstrates that, by the time of this final collaboration, Hitchcock and screenwriter Charles Bennett had honed their craft completely and were now capable of bringing us characters that felt real, knowable, and fully formed without the mystery and harrowing moral emptiness of Sabotage.
Erica and Robert, the girl and boy wonderfully played by Nova Pilbeam and Derrick De Marney respectively, are not really kids, not quite adults, but as they get swept up in something so much larger than them, our sense of being taken along with them is completely convincing because the performances are understated and nuanced, and because Bennett has — with the help of two other writers adapting a novel by Josephine Tey — so effectively defined them as naive, kind-hearted and relatable. This is clearest when one compares them to Hannay and Pamela in The 39 Steps. Donat’s Hannay was an everyman but he was suave, handsome, extremely gifted at gaining control of a situation; and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) was the typical thriller foil, initially reluctant and wisecracking, eventually fully enraptured with her accidental partner in crime. The development of Erica in particular is vastly more organic; she’s a well-controlled, caring, ambitious late teen who’s serving as a de facto head of household over her brothers in the unexplained absence of their mother. Her compassion gets her caught up in what initially seems an ill-advised mixup with Robert, who was arrested for the murder of the woman in the sea (he had worked with her, a famous actress, previously in his capacity as a writer of stories and scripts) and has since escaped. De Marney, for his part, is a very good-looking actor who nevertheless doesn’t look like a glamorous movie star (the same goes for Pilbeam, really as attractive as Carroll but not at all interested in communicating the same specific kind of artificial Hollywood-like sensuality) and Robert’s wits match his appearance. He’s clever, but slightly bumbling and gracelessly direct in a way Hannay never was. The development of the pair’s relationship — they never become a couple, though they stand on the precipice at the film’s conclusion — is also much less of a cinematic conceit than the blossoming romance in The 39 Steps. For one thing, Robert repeatedly gives Erica an out — telling her she’s already done enough to help him and can call it a day — and his gratefulness and eventual affection for her feel actually believable in a manner that film partnerships, especially of this era, seldom do. As in The 39 Steps, the couple never kiss or have a “moment” — first of all, these films are too breathless for that, but also, the subtlety of the characters’ romance renders it more striking, and earthier.
Erica is driven by a determination to prove her new friend’s innocence — once she spends enough time with him to come to believe in it herself, after an initial Great Expectations-like reluctant offering of food and cash while he’s hiding out — but there’s more to it than that. We know her to be thoroughly steeped, and happily so, in life with her father and brothers, and the coworkers of her father whom — it’s strongly suggested — helped very much to raise her. (The script makes an interesting point of implying that Erica sees these men as her equals, not her superiors, when she refers to one cop who taught her drive not as her dad’s friend but as her friend.) Gradually, though, Robert comes to represent a new world, the same world that the forest, the cottage and Prince Charming represent in a certain notable film released a few months later; in other words, Young and Innocent is less about dramatizing the clearing of a wrongfully accused man’s name than about a girl’s induction into adulthood. Early on we watch her easy rapport with, and command of, her brothers at the dinner table, and one marvelous later sequence mirrors that after she and Robert have been caught together and she’s forced to contend with a staged return to normalcy, with everything suddenly seeming to her very small and awkward, all played impeccably on Pilbeam’s face. (She is brilliant throughout the film, as in her more limited role in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and it’s little wonder that Hitchcock and David O. Selznick both tried to talk her into moving to Hollywood at various times.) We’re made to understand that her move away from her roots toward this independent discovery, of justice or romantic love or just a life outside, is an important evolutionary step in her life, a push outward that had to happen, regardless of whether this eventful week was the specific catalyst. At the finale, nonetheless, Erica is able to introduce Robert to her father without shame and without a sense of betrayal to either of them — she is able to keep both men in her life, and there’s something inordinately touching, not to mention atypically optimistic for Hitchcock, about that.
She’s the protagonist of the film through and through, as Sylvia Sidney’s Mrs. Verloc is the protagonist of Sabotage despite its story hinging upon her husband’s activities; but Robert’s dual redemption narratives, one buried and one obvious, are also sorely important and intriguing. It’s never stated outright that he’d engaged at some point in an affair with the dead actress Christine; he denies it more than once, but we’re certainly made to wonder who her ex-husband is referring to in the first scene when he’s yelling at Christine about having “boys” come around. Speaking of said ex-husband, it’s a fundamental flaw in the narrative that he isn’t the very first suspect investigated by Scotland Yard when Christine’s body is found, especially since he remains in the area and is clearly terrified of being discovered. (And conversely, it’s probably a testament to Hitchcock’s brilliance as a storyteller that most of us won’t think to question this until we’ve seen the movie half a dozen times.) He has a twitch that is unceremoniously put on display in that first scene and becomes a major plot point later; the same, more plausibly, for Erica’s instinct to help people, elements that indicate that Hitchcock and the screenwriters knew that their story would feel right, emotionally, even if it had logical impurities.
Over and above all this, the big story of Young and Innocent — when compared, in a technical sense, to the films Hitchcock was making just three years earlier — is that it shows us a fully matured and absolutely confident director hitting the height of his powers, just two years before he would leave for Hollywood. That so many of this film’s scenes are remarkable in a way impossible to replicate in still photos — made artful specifically through movement — is indicative of his increasing deftness with the camera. The suspense setpieces are expertly mounted, and better melded than ever with the story and with the comedic elements of the film; as in all of the Gaumont Six, there are almost too many wonderfully strange and fascinating sequences to count effectively, set at times against some of the most beautiful location work the director had employed up to this point. In contrast to The 39 Steps, you really are out in the world this time, and you can feel it. In and outdoors, bravura moments pass by almost unceremoniously: a car sinks into a mine, a Blind Man’s Buff game at a child’s nervous birthday party becomes a minefield for our heroes, a messy bar fight is occasion for a perfect sight gag, and eventually, we get the most astounding shot of Hitchcock’s British career, which he would nearly replicate in Hollywood in Notorious — his camera, in one of several magnificent crane shots he and Bernard Knowles execute in the film, travels from a wide shot of a rather drab but well-populated party at a place generically known as Grand Hotel (to which Erica, Robert and their new accomplice Old Will have traced the probable murderer) to a slow zoom into the blackfaced “jazz” band on stage, to the suspicious-looking drummer, to his body, to his face, to his eyes, to finally his twitch.
You tend to wonder at this point what might have happened if Hitchcock had stayed in England, had continued to work with Charles Bennett, Bernard Knowles, et al. Would we have been blessed with another dozen or two dozen movies like this, thrillers that knock you out with their speed, realism, excitement while still remaining as varied in structure and tone as this and Sabotage? As varied in emotional depth as this and The 39 Steps, for all their similarities? The thriller sextet stands apart from the rest of Hitchcock’s filmography, and certainly from the American work that was enabled to exist by it; they are sharp films, full of secrets, made bolder by their ostensible scrappiness and modesty. But moments like that Grand Hotel crane shot, as well as the murder in Sabotage, the farm scene in The 39 Steps, and a great deal of the content of what would be the last and most popular film (and nearly the most extraordinary) in the series, The Lady Vanishes, indicate conclusively that Hitchcock was too great a talent, and still a growing and developing one at that, to remain ensconced in something so modest as the British film industry, no matter how much affection he might have had for it. In 1937, there was so much to the legend that still lay ahead, so many myths to be made, but surveying everything the great man ever directed, you cannot help but occasionally feel your heart being pulled toward that eerie morning on the beach with the seagulls cawing up above, and toward that perpetually discombobulated old car being driven by Nova Pilbeam, heading off into some other abyss of validation and love, so long ago but feeling so impeccably present whenever we choose to have it acted out for us once again.