Alfred Hitchcock – Easy Virtue

Step up! Step right up! Do you have everything? Peanuts, popcorn, balloons tied in the shape of a rotund man’s iconic side profile? Perfect!

When last we met, we gathered to witness the swan song of Ivor Novello.  Downhill was the story of a destitute young boy fending for himself after being thrown out of a high society family. Now prepare for the story of a destitute woman fending for herself after being thrown into a high society family. Clearly, Hitch is in familiar territory.

So brush any errant kernels off the front of your shirts, and try not to reveal any long-buried secrets about your controversial divorce proceedings. The Wheel is launching into the sky!

But before we begin, let it be known that the Sarris Wheel is a cosmic, circular entity wheeling through outer space with a pronounced sense of purpose. To wit, the wheel will be rolling through Hitch’s filmography in chronological order and, if you’d like to get the most flash for your farthing, I’d advise watching each film before reading its corresponding entry.

The feature of the hour is 1927’s Easy Virtue, written by Eliot Stannard and adapted from the play of the same name by Noël Coward.

It stars:

  • Isabel Jeans as a Larita, a woman trapped by the societal conventions of her era.
  • Robin Irvine as John, Larita’s spineless young husband.
  • Violet Farebrother as Mrs. Whittaker, a mother-in-law who simply adores passive-aggressive scheming.
  • Frank Elliott as Colonel Whittaker, a father-in-law who simply adores bowing to the whims of his villainous wife.
  • Ian Hunter as Mr. Greene, an understanding attorney.

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The film begins with a woman on trial. And not just any woman. Larita Filton, wife of an abusive drunkard, finds herself in the middle of a divorce hearing in front of a room of sneering, unsympathetic old white men. She’s trying her best not let the shame of the event ruin her entire life.

But even if, as an audience, you believe that Hitchcock and the rest of the behind-the-scenes crew is on Larita’s side, there’s not much satisfaction to be gained from watching different men and women condescend and berate the protagonist for ninety minutes. This isn’t a work like The Handmaid’s Tale, where the point of the story is to learn from the mistakes of a populace-turned-fascistic morality police. The film, at least a little bit, finds Larita culpable for the crimes visited upon her and that’s a damn shame.

There isn’t much to be gained from dissecting the plot of the film, which concerns the aftermath of Larita’s scandal as she tries to hide her past from a wealthy family with a suspicious mother-in-law. Hitchcock himself admits that parts of the film are undercooked and describes the film’s bummer of an ending:

“It contained the worst title I’ve ever written. I’m ashamed to tell you about it, but I will…The word gets around that the famous Laurita [sic] is in the court. The photographers gather outside. Eventually she appears at the courthouse stairs, her arms out, and says, ‘Shoot, there’s nothing left to kill!'”*

Larita ends the film as she begins it. A victimized woman too broken to stand up for her own humanity. But, largely ignoring the last three slut-shaming quarters of the story, the courtroom scene in the beginning functions as a compelling short film. In the first eighteen minutes, Hitchcock is at his most inventive in his editing and camera movements. In addition, the opening narrative contains enough intrigue to lead a viewer to think that the movie’s going somewhere exceedingly interesting (even though it truly, truly isn’t).

The courtroom scene begins, as the best silent films do, with a visual pun. The judge, an extraordinarily sour-faced old man, tries his best to distinguish what’s happening in front of him. Hitchcock gives us his POV and we realize it’s shockingly blurry. Justice, as it were, is blind. And before you can say “fancy legume brand ambassador”, the judge pulls out a monocle to provide at least a little bit of focus.

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While the judge’s monocle is trained on the prosecution, his vision of Larita is completely blurry. Hitchcock uses depth of field to display how completely the case is biased against her. The judge isn’t even focused on her. He’s already made up his mind.

The prosecution’s job seems easy. In an effort to get Larita to recant her testimony, the prosecutor turns to a decanter (Recant? Decant? Is there something there? I dunno. You write the joke.) It’s here that Hitchcock plays with our shot-reverse shot expectations. In one shot, prosecutor holds up the decanter. The next, Larita looks concerned. A third shot reveals a close-up of hands holding the decanter, but they aren’t the prosecutor’s. Instead of the customary shot-reverse shot editing, Hitchcock has slammed us into a flashback of Larita recounting her husband drinking from the glass container.

 

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The scene recalls the moment in Downhill where Hitchcock gradually reveals that Ivor Novello’s character is a minor actor in a musical. This time, his technique is slightly more complex, launching his audience into a flashback with simple editing rather than blurring the edges of the frame or utilizing a dramatic harp glissando. In 2019, this device is sophisticated storytelling. In 1927, it must’ve been unspeakably jarring.

Larita goes on to regale the condescending courtroom with her tragedy. Recently, an artist, Claude Robson, was hired to paint a portrait of her. As Larita sits still regally draped in fabric for her portrait, Mr. Filton drinks from the decanter in the corner of the studio, glowering. Since the portrait will take four days to complete, Mr. Filton soon leaves, allowing Larita and Claude to grow close. When Larita lets slip that Mr. Filton is an abusive drunkard, the artist vows to protect her. It’s at this point in the proceedings where, as an audience, you’d expect the courtroom to be on Larita’s side. NOPE.

Apparently, the jury’s vision of morality is just as blurry as the judge’s. While Larita tells her story, the jurors scribble notes that can only be described as damning:

  • “Was the maid always present when Larita Filton disrobed?”
  • “The artist and the woman he painted alone together.”
  • “Pity is akin to love.”

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That last note sounds more like bad poetry than thoughtful deliberation. It would seem that Larita’s story, however clear-cut it may seem, is falling on deaf ears. Nevertheless, she continues, describing how Mr. Filton barges in on Larita and Claude in a consoling embrace. He then fulfills the part of the jealous husband and flies into a rage. Things escalate as Claude pulls out a gun and shoots his attacker. The police are called, Claude commits suicide, and, dispiritingly, Mr. Filton is found to be very much alive.

Although Larita tries to explain that the court should take into account Mr. Filton’s alcoholism and domestic abuse, no one seems to care or listen. At one point during the testimony, the judge asks, “Are all these details necessary?”, a very British way to express, “Can’t we just punish the woman already? Must we hear details about how guilty the man is?”

Hitchcock visually represents this power imbalance with an ingenious cross-dissolve between the prosecutor and Larita. They’re talking at such cross-purposes that Hitchcock presents the audience with a Janus-like image of the two joined as one head, unable to do anything but speak in direct opposition.

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After Larita is finished, the jury adjourns to its chambers, only to come back with the altogether expected verdict: “We find Larita Filton guilty of misconduct with the late Claude Robson.” It condemns Larita to a life of shame and misery.

While the remaining running time of Easy Virtue is indefensibly sexist, the court case is unmistakably compelling. The sequence displays Hitchcock’s growing directorial techniques: using the camera’s depth of field as an old man’s POV, subverting audience’s editing expectations during flashbacks, and creating a stunning cross dissolve image. All of his tools serve the story’s themes and strengthen the idea that a group of misogynist white men are against a scandalized woman. I just wish that Hitchcock used these tools in service of a better narrative.

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But enough about film theory. Let’s talk about something truly exciting…like the quality of the film transfer! For Easy Virtue, I’ll say it was…not great. BFI has restored this film as well as Hitchcock’s eight other surviving silent films, but the restorations haven’t made themselves to home video (at least in the United States). As a result, I can’t really recommend that anyone seek out this film to watch at home. The existing DVDs are poor-quality bootleg transfers created since the film’s copyright expired. Anything found streaming online will be of the same odious definition. All we can really do is sit on our comfy couches and quietly hope that some angelic media company will bring Hitch’s silent output to our living rooms in sparkling quality. Get on it, Criterion!

On the next revolution of the Sarris Wheel, we’ll be discussing pugilistic love triangles. So shove those meaty fists of yours inside a set of leather boxing gloves and prepare yourself for The Ring.

And remember, as always…the Sarris Wheel spins on!

*All quotes come from “Hitchcock/Truffaut”, a book detailing François Truffaut’s 1962 interview with Hitchcock. It’s a fascinating read and goes through Hitchcock’s films one by one, partially inspiring this very Wheel.

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