Thursday, March 15, 2012

Easy Virtue

Released in 1928, Easy Virtue finds the young Alfred Hitchcock still casting about wildly, fishing for his subject matter and landing himself a bit of a stiff. The film is adapted from the Noel Coward play about Larita, a high-society woman who divorces her abusive, drunken husband yet finds that she is the one to be tainted by scandal and infamy. All the elements necessary for a righteous assault on small-minded bourgeois hypocrisy are readily evident here, but the results are strictly lightweight. Lacking comic edge or tragic gravity, Hitchcock’s tone is too mellow to even qualify as melodrama. It’s The House of Mirth reduced to a lukewarm potboiler.

There are at least some glimmers of skill from the director, for whatever that’s worth. The opening courtroom sequence interweaves flashbacks with great brio (young master Alfie appears to have discovered the match cut, and likes his new toy very much). A later scene involving two lovers chatting over a phone conveys the substance of their conversation entirely through the changing expressions on the face of an eavesdropping operator—a lovely conceit native to silent film, and a sweetly innocent expression of the voyeuristic tendencies that crop up throughout Hitchcock’s work (well, Norman Bates was sweetly innocent in his own way, too). Notably, these stronger moments rely little on the weak central cast, most particularly Isabel Jeans as Larita, who lacks the substance to ground the film in real human pain. Instead, she bounces between insouciant defiance and weary resignation, sometimes the provocateur and other times the victim. A story like this lives or dies by its central character, and Hitchcock unsurprisingly detaches himself from the results, amusing himself with the finer points of craft while biding his time for a stronger cast and script.

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