Blu-ray Review: Number Seventeen

N17 - Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: December 07, 2021

Region: Region A

Length: 01:03:50

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 1553 kbps, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.20:1

Bitrate: 39.23 Mbps

Notes: This is the film’s North American Blu-ray debut, and it also seems to be the first legitimate release of this title on home video.

N17 - Title

 “A disaster! … I think that the Number Seventeen picture got me into a careless mood or something — or not stepping back to examine carefully what one was doing.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Transcript of the François Truffaut Interview, 1963)

The first two words of this quote probably do a better job of describing this odd curiosity in the Hitchcock filmography much better than any film critic could, but it might come as something of a surprise to learn that there are scholars who believe that Number Seventeen was designed “carelessly” from the ground up to be a disaster for the studio. One must place the film in its proper context if one hopes to understand why a professional like Alfred Hitchcock might resort to the intentional sabotage of his own film. When the director signed with British International Pictures, he fully expected to make ambitious films of his own choosing, but his situation soon mirrored the situation that led him to abandon Gainsborough. He was treated as little more than a “director for hire” as John Maxwell and Walter Mycroft simply handed him a series of projects based on stage plays that simply didn’t suit his creative interests. Number Seventeen would be yet another one of these endeavors.

Hitchcock’s biggest enemy at B.I.P. was undoubtedly Walter Mycroft. Most sources agree that the director was initially enthusiastic about the hiring of Mycroft as he had previously worked as a journalist for the London Evening Standard before joining British International Pictures as the head of their story department in later months of 1927. His enthusiasm may have also had something to do with the fact that the former journalist was one of the founders of the Film Society. Hitchcock was probably under the impression that his Film Society brethren might champion his ideas and secure him a certain amount of creative freedom. Unfortunately, this would not be the case at all. In fact, the opposite was true as he tried everything in his power to suppress Hitchcock’s preferred projects from seeing the light of day.

“Walter Mycroft had to be obeyed, deceived, or defied — or maybe, as only Hitchcock could, all three combined. By 1931, Mycroft was widely detested as a tinpot dictator, according to contract writer Val Guest. One day the head of production decreed a repainting of the Elstree lavatories. Afterward, these words were found scratched onto the newly painted wall of the men’s room: ‘Mycroft is a shit.’ People always suspected the culprit was Hitchcock, but years later he swore to Guest that it wasn’t him or any of his confederates. (‘Not that we didn’t agree with the message,’ Hitchcock added.)

…When Hitchcock showed apparent interest in [‘London Wall’], Mycroft decided to take his insubordinate employee down a further notch. He shuffled ‘London Wall’ off to another B.I.P. director, Thomas Bentley (who filmed the Van Druten play as After Office Hours), and reassigned Hitchcock to Number Seventeen…” —Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

It may seem to some that J. Jefferson Farjeon’s thriller was a perfect property for Hitchcock, but the director had never been a fan of the play. He frankly referred to it in later interviews as “very cheap melodrama.” Worse, he couldn’t stand Leon M. Lion and had clashed with the actor when he served as John Galsworthy’s intermediary during the production of The Skin Game. Lion was the producer and the star of the stage production, had stared in a European silent film version of the play, and would inevitably be cast in the talking film version. This alone would have been a deal breaker for Hitchcock. He wanted nothing more to do with the “awful old man.

Rodney Ackland had originally been chosen by Hitchcock to help with the adaptation of ‘London Wall,’ but he ended up helping the director create a script that was intended to thumb his nose at Mycroft’s authority by turning his assignment into a “burlesque” of the unwanted property. He wrote about all of these things at length in his autobiography:

“Hitch told the big shots that, after his next scheduled picture, he wanted me to work on a script with him: He wanted that script to be John Van Druten’s ‘London Wall,’ which the company had bought… Hitch was as enthusiastic about making ‘London Wall’ as I was about the idea of writing it with him. We made the fatal mistake of letting it be known. ‘London Wall’ was assigned to Thomas Bentley, who wanted to make [Joseph] Jefferson Farjeon’s Number Seventeen, and Number Seventeen was given to Hitch. When the news was announced Hitch looked momentarily almost thin, so deflated was he with disappointment — and as for me, I felt cheated of the chance of a lifetime.

‘What we need is a White Lady,’ said Hitch, and he bore me off to his flat in Earl’s Court Road where his darling little wife, Alma Reville, the collaborator on nearly all his scripts, soothed and sympathized with us while Hitch mixed the cocktails. White Ladies were his specialty. They knocked one out more quickly and unfailingly than anything I have drunk since — even in America. After one of them, I was prepared to go on living, and Hitch’s natural ebullience was restored. After a second, he glittered into a smile.

He had hit upon a new and fascinating plan for teasing the bosses. He would make Number Seventeen as a burlesque of all the thrillers of which it was a pretty good sample — and do it so subtly that nobody at Elstree would realize the subject was being guyed… Alma and I thought Hitch’s idea simply splendid, and we all had another White Lady on the strength of it. I do not remember anything further that happened that evening — but happily nobody forgot what we intended to do with the story that had been thrust upon us.

The script was evolved between the three of us during a series of hilarious conferences at the Hitchcock home, the atmosphere of which was considerably more stimulating than that of the studio. As the heroines of thrillers were invariably dumb, the leading lady of Number Seventeen, Hitch decided, must be literally dumb — must never utter a word from beginning to end of the picture… I worried a little over the literal dumbness of Number Seventeen’s heroine. ‘Surely,’ I said to Hitch, ‘we’ll have to explain somehow why she’s dumb, or the audience won’t stand for it.’ ‘They’ll stand for anything,’ said Hitch, ‘as long as you don’t give them time to think. I’ll prove it to you. At the end of the picture we’ll make her say ‘‘I’m not really dumb. It was just a crook’s trick.’’ You’ll see. It’ll get by.’ There was no conceivable reason in the story why this character should pretend dumbness, but — as Hitch had predicted — her explanation was never questioned… As the climax of a thriller was invariably a chase (generally between a car and a train, at this period), Number Seventeen‘s climax must be a chase-to-end-all-chases — its details so preposterous that excitement would give way to gales of laughter. It was on these lines and in this spirit that we conceived and wrote the script.” —Rodney Ackland (Celluloid Mistress: or The Custard Pie of Dr. Caligari, November 1954)

N17 - Production Photograph - John Stuart and Ann Casson 02

The suits didn’t even bat an eye at the intentionally outrageous (and decidedly incoherent) script and simply rushed the project into a very brief period of production.

“Besides Lion — the only actor carried over from the original cast — the ensemble included Anne Grey (The Girl), and Hitchcock veterans John Stuart (The Detective) and Donald Calthrop (playing yet another shady character). Hitchcock gave Lion his mugging close-ups, but no real chance to shine; likewise, he immersed the play in a froth of exaggerated special effects and hyperkinetic camera work. The play’s well-known opening — the introduction to the characters and the mysterious house — Hitchcock turned into a Grand Guignol satire, with silly, creepy music, lurid shadows, and the camera lunging around and racing up stairwells to freeze on terrified expressions.

The ending of the film was the biggest change from the stage. The three Hitchcocks devised a wild sequence with a runaway train chased by detectives in a hijacked bus, ending with the train smashing into a waiting cross-Channel ferry. Hitchcock was an acknowledged master of miniatures, and he sold the idea to Mycroft on the theory that he could stage it all cheaply with models and figurines. But some people think he deliberately staged the wild crescendo so it simply looked cheap. The director was fed up with the studio, and determined to burn his bridges. With Number Seventeen, he simply tore up the play and tossed it into the air like confetti.” —Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

In light of all of this, it is perhaps not surprising that Hitchcock rarely discussed the film in any real depth. In fact, he only had a single anecdote to share with François Truffaut during their legendary career-spanning interview:

“…There was a funny incident during the shooting. Part of the film was set in an empty house in which gangsters were hiding out, and there was to be a fair amount of gunplay. It occurred to me that it would be an intriguing idea if we used the house also as a refuge for all the stray cats of the neighborhood. Every time a gun was shot, a hundred cats would run up or down the stairs. These shots were to be separated from the action, for greater facility, in order to play around with the scene in the editing stage.

The camera was set up at the bottom of the stairway. On the morning we were finally all set to shoot the cats, I arrived to find the studio full of people. I asked why there were so many extras. ‘They’re not extras,’ I was told. ‘They’re the people who own the cats.’

We put flat panels all around the bottom of the stairway. Each owner came forward and put his or her cat in the stall and then we were ready to shoot. The cameraman switched his motor on and the prop man fired a gun. All the cats leaped right over the barrier; not one went up the stairs. They were all over the studio. And for the next few hours, all you could hear was the owners going around saying, ‘Pussy, pussy, pussy.’

‘That’s my cat!’ — ‘No, it’s mine!’

Eventually, we got them all together again, and this time we had wire netting put around that so that they couldn’t run away. Everything was ready. Camera. Bang! This time, only three ran up the stairs. All the rest turned and clung to the netting. So I gave up.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

Another version of this story appeared in the March 04, 1933 issue of ‘Boy’s Cinema.’

“Single cats have now and again appeared in films, but when it came to handling fifty of these animals at once, it is easy to imagine the job the director must have had. The fifty felines were the leading players in a dramatic scene in an empty house in Alfred Hitchcock’s production, Number Seventeen. As the story was a thriller, the cats were expected to dash out in terror when shots were fired inside the house. But the cats were not going to be frightened so easily. The precious time of the studio was being wasted, and then at last Alfred Hitchcock had a brainwave. He ordered quantities of cats’ meat and had it all placed outside the “empty house.” That was enough. Those cats just gave one sniff and then the great rush began. The scene was filmed.” —Unknown (The News Reel: Strange “Extras” in Films, Boy’s Cinema, March 04, 1933)

The scene is nowhere to be seen in the final film, so Hitchcock’s decade’s old memory may have been more accurate than the publicity that appeared in fan magazines at the time. In any case, one has to wonder where Hitchcock would have woven this scene into the fabric of his film, but it probably doesn’t really matter. As Donald Spoto points out in ‘The Art of Alfred Hitchcock,’ there is very little in Number Seventeen that is coherent.

“The narrative line — something about a safe house, thieves, a dead body that seems never explained — is hopeless, and Hitchcock seemed to settle for atmosphere as he accumulated Gothic elements: cobwebs, shadows on doorknobs, strange noises, [and] vanishing corpses…” —Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Then again, if Rodney Ackland’s recollections are correct, the film’s incoherent nature could have very well been intentional. If — as Hitchcock once claimed — Number Seventeen is “little better than a quota-quickie,” so much the better. The director was tired of being a mere cog in the B.I.P. wheel, and this would be his informal protest in the form of a practical joke played on the management. The film wouldn’t be released until after his next film (Rich and Strange) had already hit theater screens, and neither film was successful at the box-office. In the end, Mycroft terminated his contract without ceremony, and the unemployed Hitchcock signed on to direct a film for Tom Arnold (Waltzes from Vienna) out of desperation. This, it would turn out, would be remembered as his “lowest ebb” (although one could argue that Number Seventeen was the true low point).

Luckily, Michael Balcon — Hitchcock’s former boss — still believed in the rotund genius. “The Master of Suspense” was about to emerge with the release of the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, and his misspent years at British International Pictures would become little more than an unpleasant memory.

N17 - SS01

The Presentation:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber protects their disc in a standard Blu-ray case with an insert sleeve featuring artwork that utilizes one of the production stills. Our issue with this design is that the chosen photo utilized isn’t the best choice since none of the primary characters are represented. Several of the other available production photographs would have been more appropriate.

N17 - Menu - John Stuart and Ann Casson

In fact, the production photograph featured on the disc’s menu would have made for a superior cover. Unfortunately, the image is cheapened slightly by the addition of the film’s title. It’s still an acceptable menu that is intuitive to navigate.

N17 - SS02

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

This may very well be the first legitimate release of this title in North America. For years, Number Seventeen has only been made available by small “public domain” labels that featured terrible transfers that were too washed out and damaged to see clearly. Finally, Kino Lorber has corrected this terrible oversight by bringing a surprisingly healthy looking 4K restoration transfer of the film to Blu-ray! The resulting image is such an enormous leap forward in terms of quality that it almost felt like watching the film for the first time. We can actually see what is happening while before it was as if we were watching it through a heavy fog. Better yet, one can truly appreciate the film’s atmospheric cinematography at long last. Fine detail is impressive as we can make out textures that were never evident on any previous format. Contrast is also impressive as the image boasts rich blacks while still maintaining shadow detail. The 1.20:1 aspect ratio is supposed to be accurate, and there is much more detail in the frame as a rule. It is great to see such a terrific transfer of this film.

N17 - SS03

Sound Quality:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

The dual mono DTS-HD Master audio track is also a marked improvement over previous releases of the film, but there are serious limitations due to the early sound era’s production techniques (which were even more primitive in Britain). American viewers may find that these issues are exacerbated by the English accents. However, all issues are clearly the fault of the original audio and not the actual transfer. It’s something of a “sow’s ear” situation. Those expecting silk purses simply don’t have reasonable expectations as all that anyone should expect is a faithful representation of the film’s original audio, and that is exactly what we are given.

N17 - SS04

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature Length Audio Commentary by Peter Tonguette

Peter Tonguette (the film scholar responsible for authoring “Orson Welles Remembered” and “The Films of James Bridges”) contributes a decent commentary track for Number Seventeen, but some of his observations about the director’s work are incredibly problematic.

For example, he stresses that Hitchcock rarely employed lengthy mobile shots in his filmmaking and preferred to utilize montage. Tonguette’s insists that Rope and Under Capricorn were the exceptions and that the director never felt comfortable utilizing fluid camera moves. This is an incredibly inaccurate and reductive notion. Hitchcock used incredibly graceful fluid camera moves throughout his career. Think of the excellent move throughout a nightclub as it makes its way to a drummer’s twitching eyes in Young and Innocent, the legendary move through a party crowd as the camera finds its way to the UNICA key clasped in Ingrid Bergman’s hand in Notorious, or the expository move through James Stewart’s furnace of a New York apartment that tells us how he ended up in his “plaster cocoon” at the very beginning Rear Window. The list is endless. Hitchcock was certainly a master of montage (and he did utilize them quite often), but he was also a master of understanding which technique to employ at any given time. His mobile camera shots are legendary, and this makes one wonder why Tonguette constantly returns to this erroneous notion throughout the duration of his commentary track. If anyone was comfortable using lengthy camera moves in his work, it was the master of suspense.

We will agree with Tonguette’s insistence that Number Seventeen isn’t typical of Hitchcock’s preferred style. He mentions that his use of heavy shadows and the horror tropes utilized throughout the first portion of the film aren’t at all common in his work (our article on the film’s production offers one possibility as to why this film was an exception). Most will also probably agree that Leon M. Lion’s ham-fisted performance is way over the top, but our commentator never really goes “behind the scenes” to discuss the reasons behind some of the director’s creative decisions. We never learn that Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t particularly interested in the project, and this seems worth at least a passing comment. In the end, the track is worth hearing, but it’s also something of a missed opportunity. It still says something that Kino Lorber is at least trying to provide fans with worthwhile content when they certainly didn’t have to go to the trouble (and expense) of providing a commentary track.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon interviews Icon (Audio) — (05:42)

As is always the case, it’s wonderful to have this excerpt from François Truffaut’s interview with the director included here. It’s an amusing and worthwhile five minutes even if Hitchcock doesn’t have much to say about the film.

Introduction by Noel Simsolo — (03:37)

Noel Simsolo’s introduction isn’t particularly insightful nor is it completely accurate. He contradicts himself at least once, and certain pieces of “information” he divulges is speculative. (For example: How in the world would he know if Hitchcock was titillated by scene that finds Ann Casson’s Rose “handcuffed” next to John Stuart’s Barton? Certainly, we know that this fetishistic element was one the director found interesting, but let’s not go overboard.) It’s an interesting enough addition considering the shortage of information and material available for this title, but fans would do well to keep their expectations in check.

Hitchcock: The Early Years (Films de Juenesse: 1926-1934) — (54:38)

Noel Simsolo’s French documentary has quite a bit more going for it as it examines the director’s earliest works with an emphasis on Hitchcock’s early sound films. Interviews with Noël Simsolo, Clause Chabrol, and Bernard Eisneschitz shed light on the rarely discussed works made during this period as their comments are illustrated with footage from the films themselves. There are the usual questionable statements that lean more towards speculation than fact, but this is to be expected. Most fans will be pleased with this significant addition to the disc.

Theatrical Trailers:

The Paradine Case — (01:44)

Under Capricorn — (02:05)

It’s actually interesting to see trailers for two of Alfred Hitchcock’s more obscure films (even if they have nothing to do with Number Seventeen). It is no coincidence that Kino Lorber also released these titles on Blu-ray.

Blu-ray Release Promos: 

Number Seventeen — (00:45)

Blackmail — (01:16)

Murder — (01:12)

Lifeboat — (01:28)

Less essential are the home video promos for Number Seventeen and three other Kino Lorber releases. They are obviously included to arouse the viewer’s interest in making a few more purchases.

N17 - SS05

Final Words:

“British International Pictures were drawing in their horns, and they decided to make what are called ‘quota pictures.’ … Quota pictures were made very cheap, you know. This was a poison thing…” —Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Not all old films are classics. Number Seventeen is little more than a curiosity, and it isn’t likely to interest anyone who isn’t already a Hitchcock enthusiast. There is an incredibly atmospheric visual opening that is nearly worthy of the director, but the overall film is an incoherent mess by all objective standards. The production history is actually more interesting than the film itself.

Having said this, Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray release proves that Number Seventeen has more going for it than was previously evident. It offers Hitchcock completists a transfer that is vastly superior to the nearly unwatchable “public domain” (read “bootleg”) releases that have previously been available. In fact, the difference is so extreme that it might even be said that those who have only seen those indifferent transfers haven’t actually seen the film.

Review by: Devon Powell

N17 - Production Photograph - Ann Casson and Leon M. Lion

Source Material:

Unknown (The News Reel: Strange “Extras” in Films, Boy’s Cinema, March 04, 1933)

Rodney Ackland and Elspeth Grant (Celluloid Mistress: or The Custard Pie of Dr. Caligari, November 1954)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Donald Spoto (The Dark Side of the Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, March 01, 1983)

Tom Ryall (Alfred Hitchcock and the British Cinema, 1996)

Peter Bogdanovich (Who The Devil Made It, 1961-1972 / 1997)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

4 thoughts on “Blu-ray Review: Number Seventeen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s