May 11, 2007

Young and Innocent (1937)

Whenever one thinks of Alfred Hitchcock films, it's almost impossible not to think about his famous Hollwood period where he directed a series of movies considered among the most important American films in history. Due to this powerful reason, his early British work is sadly often forgotten despite of having an enormous importance in the development of his style and a quality sometimes as high as his American films. Of the films of that period, 1937's thriller "Young and Innocent" is a very special case, as despite being an excellent movie, it's often ignored as is overshadowed by the movies that were done before and after it: the popular "Sabotage" (1936) and the classic "The Lady Vanishes" (1938). Nevertheless, "Young and Innocent" is an excellent thriller, that represents another step in the development of Hitchcock's favorite theme: the innocent man on the run.

One morning, writer Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney) is taking a walk along the seaside cliffs to clear his mind when he makes a gruesome discovery: the dead body of actress Christine Clay (Pamela Carme) washes ashore. As he runs to call an ambulance he is seen by two young swimmers who begin to believe that he is the murderer and call the police. As he returns to the crime scene, Tisdall is arrested as a suspect and taken to the station; but while at first Tisdall is confident that it's all a mere misunderstanding, soon he finds himself in a predicament: he had met Christine Clay and she left him a large sum in her will, giving him a motive to be the killer. Without any way to prove his innocence, he escapes in order to find the real killer and clear his name. On the run, he'll find Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam), a young woman who begins to believe him, even when she is the daughter of Col. Burgoyne (Percy Marmont), the man in charge to find him.

Written by Hitchcock regular collaborator Charles Bennett (with Edwin Greenwood and Anthony Armstrong), the movie is very loosely based on "A Shilling for Candles", one of the Alan Grant series of novels by Josephine Tey. The adaptation is not faithful, as what happened was that the writers took only the chapters where Tisdall is a fugitive and built their movie from that (it doesn't even include Tey's signature character, Inspector Alan Grant). What is left, is a similar story to "The 39 Steps" (also penned by Bennett), but where the romantic comedy elements and the relationship between the couple get a more prominent role than the adventure and suspense of the previous classic. The dynamics between the characters is what sets this movie apart, as the main characters have remarkably well developed and have some nice jabs at some screwball comedy during the movie that gives it a charming tone.

As written above, "Young and Innocent" is essentially a thriller on the vein of "The 39 Steps", but while the tone of this story is considerably lighter, the Master manages to shows off his dominion of suspense through the film. Brilliantly using the excellent cinematography by Bernard Knowles, Hitchcock creates some of his best shot scenes among his British work, with a very clever uses of camera-work and miniatures that make this movie one of his most visually pleasing films. However, Hitchcock knew that in this story the characters were the star, so while many of his "camera tricks" shine through the movie, he never lets the visual effects to overshadow his actors, and keeps an excellent balance between the action sequences and the dialog-ridden scenes. While it certainly feels a tad unpolished when compared to other movies from that period, it has plenty of that special something that can only be described as "Hitchcocknian magic".

In a film like this, based entirely around the personalities of the characters, the performances by the cast are a key factor in the success of the movie, and fortunately this cast doesn't disappoint. Derrick De Marney is quite effective as our innocent man on the run, Robert Tisdall, delivering his lines with a charming wit that forecasts the characters that Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant would play years later. However, who really shines in the movie is the beautiful Nova Pilbeam, as Tisdall's unwilling partner in crime, Erica Burgoyne. Previously seen in Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much", Pilbeam shows off her natural talent in one truly remarkable performance. Edward Rigby has a small yet quite funny role in the film, and he makes an extraordinary display of his talent for comedy. The supporting cast is good too, and includes nice performances by well-known actors Percy Marmont and Mary Clare.

While in many ways this movie could be considered a minor gem in Hitchcock's career, it has enough interesting elements that make it an important movie. The film's blend of suspense and humor wasn't new to Hitchcock, who always liked to spiced up things in order to break the tension, but "Young and Innocent" took this one step forward and set the basis for many of the Master's future films. In fact, in many ways "Young and Innocent" could be seen as the companion piece to "The 39 Steps", in the sense that many years later, Hitchcock would take elements from both in his masterpiece "North by Northwest". As many critics have already pointed out, the witty figure of Derrick De Marney's role has a lot in common with Cary Grant's suave character from that movie.

While definitely not a perfect movie, "Young and Innocent" is a nice movie to watch, as its charming wit never fails to be amusing. It certainly feels dated by today standards, but despite its old age, it still is a thrilling tale of adventure and comedy. Sadly neglected as a classic from this period, "Young and Innocent" is definitely as good as most Hitchcock films. Fans of Hitchcock should not miss this one.


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