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The Times (28/Apr/1977) - When Hitchcock adapted Noel Coward

(c) The Times (28/Apr/1977)

When Hitchcock adapted Noel Coward

David Robinson

Perhaps it was from a surfeit of hommages, rather than capricious ill-will, that Alfred Hitchcock could on no account be persuaded to give his consent to the inclusion of Rope, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble With Harry and Vertigo in the major retrospective organized as part of the recent Viennale by the Ostereichisches Filmmuseum, in collaboration with the National Film Archive of London.

To offset this discouragement, however, the Osterreichisches Filmmuseum managed to pull off a modest coup with the first showing in Europe of the rediscovered print of Hitchcock's 1927 adaptation of Easy Virtue, for many years thought to be irretrievably lost.

Easy Virtue was Noel Coward's thirteenth play, following Fallen Angels, The Vortex and Hay Fever. The first production was in New York in December, 1925, and the play opened in London the following June. Basil Dean directed both the American and British productions, each of which had Jane Cowl in the leading role of Larita.

If it was not received with the vituperation accorded to Fallen Angels, the play did not greatly impress the critics of the time. The New York Times called it "spotty". James Agate tartly wrote: "Mr Noel Coward gets younger with every play, and in Easy Virtue has attained to that pure idealism which prompts the schoolboy who has been taken .to see La Dame aux Camelias to believe for the next ten years that a cocotte is the noblest work of man if not of God".

Michael Balcon bought the film rights of both Easy Virtue and The Vortex for Gainsborough Pictures; and the two films seem to have been put into production at the same time, with Adrian Brunel directing the latter, and Easy Virtue assigned to Hitchcock. In his autobiography, Balcon recalls, "It was no doubt wrong of us to seek to bask in the reflected glory of people like Noel Coward; we followed trends and did not try to make them. It was doubly a mistake to lean on stage plays because we were making silent films, so the plays were deprived of their very essence, the words... Our policy did not always pay off. We filmed Coward's Easy Virtue and The Vortex and both were financial, failures."

Coward's original play, it is true, relies wholly on its words. It is set in the house of the Whittakers, a family belonging to the county set, somewhere in Fortnums' farther-flung delivery area. In the first act they are awaiting the return of the son of the house, John, from the Riviera with his new wife, Larita.

The second act, three months later, finds the marriage strained by Larita's boredom and lack of sympathy with life in the Whittaker household. John's odious younger sister produces an old newspaper cutting which, implies that Larita was once the cause of an admirer's suicide.

Act III, the same evening is the dance. The Whittakers busily inform their guests that Larita is too ill to appear; but are discountenanced when, in a great coup de theatre, Larita appears in a daring dress and dripping with jewelry. Having caused the desired sensation, she tells a confidante -- John's former fiancee -- that her husband "falls short of any ideal I ever; had" and that she is leaving him She slips away into the night as the dance continues.

Hitchcock's adaptation, by Eliot Stannard, spreads the action over a variety of settings. It begins in the divorce court, from which flashbacks reconstruct the story of the suicide -- an artist who fell in love with Larita while trying to protect her from her bullying drunken husband. The story then follows her to the Riviera where she meets John and accepts his proposal of marriage. The film is, in fact, half way through before it catches up with the original plot, after which it adds an epilogue in which the unhappy Larita goes through the humiliation and publicity of the divorce court for a second time. Subtly, in this way, the plot has been transformed from the story of the sophisticated, innocent woman morally triumphant over the bigoted family to the theme -- no doubt more acceptable to the larger audience of the picture houses -- of the innocent woman wronged and betrayed in an unyielding and unforgiving society.

Even given the changed emphasis, Isabel Jeans makes the Larita of the film a glamorous and fascinating figure -- the Modern Women to the core as she stalks boyishly around, puffing endless cigarettes which she flings flamboyantly, half-smoked, into the baronial fireplaces. Hitchcock retains die third-act coup of the entry, staging it with virtuosity. The first indication of Larita's appearance is the shock reflected in the faces of the party guests and their hosts.

Elsewhere there are characteristic touches in the treatment. Hitchcock introduces a visual leitmotif of lenses (recalling later effects like the murder reflected in the victim's dropped spectacles in Strangers on a Train). The audience's first view of the courtroom at the start of the film is through the old judge's eyeglass, with the image pulling slowly into focus. Leaving the court, Larita is menaced by the "eyes" of the reporters' camera lenses. The opening of an outdoor scene is framed, as if in a lens, through a tennis racket.

At the end of the film, leaving the court, Larita is again faced by the battery of cameras. A title announces, "Here comes the notorious Mrs Filton". In the earlier, parallel scene she has pushed through with her head bowed. This time she defiantly faces the cameras, challenging them (in a title) to "Shoot! -- There's nothing left to kill".

Hitchcock in later years told Truffaut that this was "The worst title I ever wrote". True, it has the ring of Joan Crawford dialogue from the 1940s, but it makes a pretty effective end.

The most remarkable scene, however, was later quoted by Hitchcock (in his book-length interview with Francois Truffaut) as "an example of suspense that is not related to fear". Larita has promised to telephone her answer to John's proposal of marriage at midnight. The film cuts to a telephone operator (an early appearance by Benita Hume) sitting at her switchboard engrossed in a romantic novel. Her watch shows the time as midnight. Absently, the plugs in a call and returns to her book. Gradually her attention is distracted by what she hears through her headphones, until she puts aside her book and begins to register a variety of emotions -- curiosity, anxiety, excitement, relief and finally ecstacy -- telling us clearly what is Larita's answer.

It is Hitchcock in the making (and perhaps, into the bargain, Coward unmade), but as a period curiosity the National Film Archive and the Ostereichisches Filmmuseum deserve gratitude for its resurrection.