Alfred Hitchcock is a name that has come to define cinema in all its forms, be it in reflexive commentary on the art itself (Rear Window), mastery of mise-en-scene (Vertigo), suspenseful, powerful stories (North By Northwest),or by subverting and redefining all we hold dear in a sharply written horror show (Psycho). But regardless of what kind of story Hitchcock was telling, they were undoubtedly the work of the same master. Hitchcock’s reputation surely precedes him, making it strange to look at a lesser known picture like Number Seventeen.
The story, about a group of people who meet in a house to locate a valuable necklace while trying to discern one another’s identities, is just simple enough to keep you interested as you get lost, urging you to find a plot point to jump back in on, but also just complex enough to provide a level of entertainment when you are on board, but keeping up with this film is a chore on its own.
In addition to its incomprehensibility, Number Seventeen is plagued by poor acting and characters utterly devoid of difference due to a lack of distinct costuming, a shortage of close-ups. Faring slightly better is the screenplay, but an adaptation of a play should have far more distinct characters than this one does. Worse yet, in moving the theater to the screen, Hitchcock employs very little that is cinematic, and at times, such as when the first corpse has disappeared or the policeman’s daughter walks along the roof, it often feels like the story is losing something by being brought to the screen. There are a few short sequences of fantastic editing, during the bathroom fights and when the aforementioned corpse is discovered, but they are few in number and disappointing in length. They let you know that this is indeed a Hitchcock film, as they create the same disorienting, subjective effect that runs through Psycho, but they are minor flourishes on a picture otherwise lacking cinema.
When the action is moved to the train, things begin to look up. Hitchcock beautifully creates suspense with a number of cutaways, and the success of the cross-cutting between the various groups of people is impressive if you somehow managed to keep straight who is who to this point. Sadly, doing so becomes incredibly difficult not long after our introduction to a second group of characters near the beginning.. It’s a shame that by now most of the audience is probably too far gone, but visual suspense and tight framing are a mark of redemption for Number Seventeen and a sign of things to come for a master in the making.