Classic Film Guide

Number Seventeen (1932) - full review!

This is a most unusual film. You can witness elements of what will become the director's style, but overall the pace is fairly plodding and the story pretty lame and confusing. One immediately notices the experimentation with the camera, from the hand held shot at the beginning when the actor John Stuart enters the "house for let", to the many candle lit scenes as the characters mount the stairs and explore the house, to the quick cuts used later in the chase to add suspense. Additionally, the comic elements used during moments of tension foreshadow the director's later works. One shot, which he used again in The 39 Steps (1935), occurs when the two men discover the body and their screams are masked by a passing train's whistle. The suspenseful, harrowing chase, though clearly done with miniatures, is also a tried and true characteristic later associated with Hitchcock, to say nothing of the use of trains in his films in general.

The story begins with "Stuart" entering an abandoned house, full of cobwebs. He soon meets another man, a rather odd cockney-accented Igor type, who says his name is Ben, and the two of them stumble upon a corpse. Rather oddly, "Stuart" is able to "control" Ben, and there are some really slow moments where not enough tension is built before the next thing happens. Plus, oftentimes what happens next is not enough of a payoff for our wait. There are also some seemly disconnected cutaways, e.g. to doors slamming etc., which show us that the great director was still finding his way in this film.

Shortly thereafter, a young woman (Nora) falls through the rotted ceiling and onto the two men. She provides a clue, a telegram from her father which mentions necklace stolen by Sheldrake from a detective named Barton. Soon there is a knock at the door which "Stuart" goes to answer. After inserting a card with Number Seventeen scrawled on it, a man and a woman are revealed behind the door. They want to see the "house for let". As "Stuart" is closing the door, a second man, not connected with the man and woman, also enters.

When all of them mount the stairs, "Stuart" tries to slow them so they won't discover the corpse, but Ben informs him that the body has disappeared. This leads the two men and woman, who is identified by one of the men as a deaf-mute (and looks a little like Mary Astor), to take control. They tie up "Stuart" and Nora while Ben hides in another room. Ben is then "strangled" by Sheldrake, the "corpse", who'd been hiding in the room. With far too many cuts back and forth between the prone Ben and Sheldrake, who's not sure Ben is really "out", Sheldrake removes the diamonded necklace from the loo (the director's humor was in tact back then;-) but unbeknownst to him, Ben pilfers it from him before he exits.

What follows is a really poorly done fight sequence which allows Sheldrake's gang (the two men & the woman) to leave after tying up "Stuart" and Nora. A chase ensues with perhaps the most suspense the film can manage, though it feels somewhat overlong. A crash, a rescue in water, and a couple of not altogether unexpected twists end the film.

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