Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films are variations of a few themes. Hitchcock liked going back to ‘wrong man’ stories or ‘perfect murder’ plots. He often featured amateur sleuths in big conspiracies or women evading dangerous men. Even with similar premises, each Hitchcock film has a different tone, with unique set pieces or character types. Hitchcock’s 1937 thriller Young and Innocent (titled The Girl Was Young in the U.S.) is your typical Hitchcock ‘wrong man’ movie in the vein of The 39 Steps and North by Northwest. I had heard of the movie, but had never seen it before.
In the film, movie star Christine Clay (Pamela Carme) is in a contentious divorce with her husband Guy (George Curzon). Christine is found dead on a beach, strangled by a raincoat belt. Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney) finds the body but is immediately suspected after it is discovered that not only did he know Christine, but he’s also named in her will. After being questioned by the police overnight, Robert faints and is taken care of by the constable’s daughter Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam). Robert escapes, and takes Erica with him claiming his innocence. Robert and Erica then set out to find the real killer.
The title Young and Innocent refers to both of the main characters—Erica is young, and Robert is innocent. Hitchcock said that he wanted this film to be about youth and innocence prevailing over the police in solving the crime. Hitchcock hints at the real killer in the first scene, so the audience is aware that Robert is most likely not guilty. And Erica’s youth doesn’t mean that she is naïve either. She’s some kind of girl scout, and doesn’t believe Robert until she follows the case further. Then, Erica applies her intelligence and creativity to solve the case and evade the police.
The youth vs. adults motif is made more explicit during a sequence at a children’s birthday party that Erica and Robert stumble onto while hiding out at Erica’s aunt’s house. Her aunt Margaret (Mary Clare) questions the pair, and they don’t really have any convincing answers. Suspicious, she almost sniffs out that something is amiss. But a children’s game of Blind Man’s Buff allows Erica and Robert to escape before she can figure out what’s wrong. That the aunt is the one who puts on the blindfold in the game is interesting. The elderly aunt is unable to see, or rather her vision is cut off just when she’s about to snitch out the on-the-run couple. Her being blindfolded reflects the eye-twitching of Christine’s ex-husband, and Robert’s bad defense lawyer who wears glasses. The young people are the only ones who can see the truth.
The most famous part of the film is a crane shot that tracks from a hotel lobby, over a divider, and through a ballroom to land on the real killer. The shot is about a minute or so long and is a key example of Hitchcock directing the audience. Through cinematic language, we can understand that the tracking shot will land on something important and it does. We finally figure out the real murderer playing in a band (it being 1937, the musicians are in blackface, which is incredibly uncomfortable). Hitchcock subliminally commands our attention to the drummer; the song “No One Can Like the Drummer Man” is playing over the crane shot.
Young and Innocent is a pretty fun movie. There’s a comedic sequence as Erica and Robert try to escape the police while hiding in an old mill. This film is also about as anti-police as a Hitchcock film can get. The police are after the wrong guy the entire time; either they are presented as stubborn robots following orders or incompetent fools. Erica even asks an officer if he can be a human for once.
None of this is anything new for Hitchcock, even at this early point in his career. He had already made The 39 Steps in 1935, which is far more formally inventive and iconic, with similar themes and story beats. However, Young and Innocent runs a tight 83 minutes. It’s highly enjoyable with numerous exciting set pieces and strong characters played with confidence by the actors.
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