Amongst all our house renovations, I’ve managed to watch two elderly Hitchcocks, after finding them on DVD in The Warehouse. The first was definitely the better of the two, though it had its hammy moments; the second (which even Hitchcock didn’t regard highly) is so hammy and badly acted that you wonder why he let them get away with it.
Sabotage, the first of the two, is full of wonderful detail and energy, marvellous London characters, and an effective performance from Oskar Homolka. Sylvia Sydney is good in the early part, when she’s lively and bright, but she doesn’t seem to do well in the latter half of the movie, when she’s required to be much more emotional. John Loder was second choice for the male lead, and is adequate, but doesn’t exhibit much charm. Desmond Tester plays the young boy as a person full of beans and liveliness. He was actually 17 at the time the movie was made, but you’re never aware of his being much older than his character. (I don’t know what happened to him as an actor. He made a bunch of movies up until 1940, one more in 1947 and then nothing more until 1874. Seems he might have moved to Australia - he died in Sydney in 2002 at the ripe old age of 83 – because he appears in more than one Aussie movie after that time.)
[Should have checked Wikipedia first: there's a reasonably full bio of Tester there.]
The other movie, Number 17, is low on the list of Hitchcock favourites, perhaps with good reason. It’s either a complete spoof or a ham-fisted piece of rubbish, and since Hitchcock wasn’t much into ham-fisted work, even when he wasn’t enjoying making a particular film, we can only conclude that he plays his producers for suckers and produces a piece of nonsense.
It’s full of shadows playing around on walls, and strange empty rooms and enigmatic characters. Though based on a hugely popular play, Hitchcock has done such a re-treatment of it that little of the original survives. The main actor, Leon Lion, who was completely associated with the role of Ben on stage, reappears here, and it’s well known that Hitchcock detested his constant mugging and overacting. Between him and John Stuart, in the opening scenes, the acting is taken at a snail’s pace, with every gesture and reaction overdone. You have to wonder what Hitchcock thought he was doing.
Things heat up a bit with the addition of more characters, and there is some humour in it, but it’s hard to believe Mr and Mrs Hitchcock and Rodney Ackland really spent several months on the script. It makes no sense, and is full of stuff that couldn’t have been got away with on stage. By the time we get to the end, with its crazy train ride, a bus trailing it all the way, and the enormous crash onto the waiting ferry, things have reached the theatre of the absurd. Admittedly, Hitchcock intercuts models and real action and other special effects in a marvellous way; it’s just a pity it’s all for so little dramatic effect.