It is puzzling that the conventional critical wisdom underestimates Rich and Strange, Hitchcock’s delightful and charming early talkie. It is crammed with incisive observations of modern life and poignant perceptions of typical marriage. It is as amusing as it is true, and most of it is presented through the visual means that Hitchcock early loved and always employed — though I am not sure that TCM can be correct in stating that only 20% of the film’s sound consists of dialogue.
The simple plot takes a young couple, beset by routine, on an ocean cruise made possible by a sudden inheritance.
Among the highlights:
1) Quietly hilarious end of the workday in London as husband Fred starts home
2) The crowded tube ride featuring some London types
3) Fred aboard ship trying to focus a picture of wife Em (subjective camera)
4) Em and new male friend walking on deck amid lighting similar to that on the street where husband Fred walked earlier from the underground
5) Camera traveling with the feet of Em and suitor, her long gown sensuously flowing over chains on the deck; camera panning again as they walk back more quickly after a stolen kiss
SPOILER ALERT: 6) The rescue, after the shipwreck, the death of the cat and the birth of the smuggler baby (among the smuggler rescuers) — all done virtually without dialogue
Fred and Em are now experiencing a new birth themselves, but Fred — is this a problem in the film? — Fred overall remains his petulant, fussy self. He remains so even in the face of a dressing down from Em so sharp as almost to send her out of character.
But both Fred and Em are engagingly, touchingly real. While chuckling at their frailties and foibles, we care a lot about them. When they begin quarreling in the last few frames of the film — the same kind of quarrel we have watched them have from the beginning — we recognize a standard comic ending. Does it emphasize that Fred really has not, and cannot, change, despite having been lost at sea and eaten a cat?. We know that Em has grown. Unlike Fred, she always had the capability. Does the ending suggest that their quarrels will not mean as much in the future? Or that they prefer their rut to the too adventurous vacation they have had? Does all this signify that I’m taking Rich and Strange more seriously than Hitchcock did?
The ambiguity or insufficiency or inconclusiveness may explain why critics tend to be hard on this early film. For me, none of it makes the picture less a gem. It is amusing, observant, and pictorial in the silent manner but with the silences feeling natural.
The four lead actors are good (Joan Barry is Em and, yes, she’s blonde); but their delivery of dialogue clearly marks this an early talkie — speech too slow, sounding as if recorded in an echo chamber, and with all the lack of pace that distinguishes an amateur theatrical.
Rich and Strange 1931 Alfred Hitchcock
(writing credits include Alma Reville)
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