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still from Hitchcock's Easy Virtue

Easy Virtue

Early and pregnant Hitchcock

by James M. Manheim

From the April, 2014 issue

The Michigan Theater's Hitchcock Film Series began in February and runs through May, featuring thirty-three films in all. It's quite an accomplishment. All the Hitchcock classics are included; April brings Notorious (April 1), Strangers on a Train (April 13), and Rear Window (April 22), among others, and the ones so far, informatively introduced by executive director Russ Collins, have attracted a new generation to films that just are not suited to the Netflix medium. But the real draw for film buffs will be the rarities, including a group of silent films Hitchcock made in London in the 1920s.

One of these is the melodrama Easy Virtue (1928), loosely based on a play by Noel Coward. The film was lost until the late 1970s, and the Michigan will be showing it in a restored version on April 20. Do not fret about the irony of a silent film treatment of a work by one of British drama's great dialogue writers. Hitchcock and screenwriter Eliot Stannard radically alter Coward's story of a divorcee, Larita Filton, whose marriage to an abusive alcoholic dissolved in a well-publicized violent scene, and who now seeks tranquility in a marriage to the scion of a high-society British country family. The story is told through images, not dialogue, and narratively complicating details from the play, such as Larita's American origins, are eliminated.

The film is not a thriller, but, as a portrait of a woman's gradual entrapment it might as well be. It is rich in connections to Hitchcock's later films. Lead actress Isabel Jeans as Larita almost sets the pattern for Hitchcock's blonde heroines. As he later did with Ingrid Bergman's Alicia Huberman in Notorious, Hitchcock places the audience halfway between sympathy and voyeurism: Larita is a woman with an ambiguous past about which the audience is sympathetically informed. She is filmed on location in a scenic spot (the French Riviera) and faces hostile crowds. Easy Virtue--whose title is ironic--also introduces the sinister

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mother or mother-in-law figure in Hitchcock films seen all the way through 1964's Marnie.

It also marks just the second appearance of Hitchcock's trademark cameo (after 1927's The Lodger), and it's full of hotshot young Hitchcock moves. A marriage proposal accepted over the phone is recounted through the reactions of a telephone operator, listening in. The whole film is beautifully framed by images of a bewigged British judge, raising his head to stare harshly at his courtroom. And it includes several wonderful examples of the way cigarettes, in films of times past, could convey a wide range of emotions.

The story is a bit dated, and the film isn't a lost masterpiece. But it's definitely an enjoyable hour-plus for anyone with the slightest interest in Hitchcock. The Michigan is presenting it with live organ accompaniment, something that's done better here than almost anywhere in the country, and you'll be reminded anew how good it is to have a local institution that brings us some arcana along with the highlights.    (end of article)

[Originally published in April, 2014.]


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