In which a tennis ball to the eye proves an ace.
Despite being a fan of many Alfred Hitchcock films, with Rope from time-to-time being my favourite film, I haven’t seen any of his early silent films. I suspect that’s true of many of us, he has so many classics that watching them all is a challenge to begin with – so the less famous, less accessible and frankly less ‘good’ ones get lost.
Easy Virtue has perhaps the most title recognition of the director’s early work as it’s loosely based on a Noel Coward play that’s highly-regarded, has been performed for many decades and saw a 2008 film adaptation starring Colin Firth, among others. At only 80 minutes, the 1928 version is a brisk retelling of the story using traditional title cards to convey the key dialogue.
The film follows a few years in the life of Larita Filton, opening with her testifying in her divorce case. The courtroom is packed as she’s a wealthy woman and the marriage has ended in scandal. Through a flashback, we see that whilst having her portrait painted, the artist falls for her and begs her to leave her alcoholic and abused husband for him. The husband catches the two talking (misunderstanding Larita’s true intention to push the artists away) and a fight breaks out in which the husband is shot. In the aftermath, the artist tries to escape but is killed.
Larita leaves the country in shame, to start a new life in the French Riviera. After being struck by an errant tennis shot, she falls in love with the culprit John Whittaker. The two marry and move to John’s home in England. It’s here where the Whittaker family, suspicious and disapproving of Larita make her life a misery and begin to find out about her hidden past.
It’s a well-made film and there are a few moments of early Hitchcock that catch the eye. A POV shot from the judge that only comes into focus as he holds his monocle aloft is striking early on for its movement and use of focus pulling. In the same courtroom, as we enter and leave flashbacks, the camera moves towards then away from an item of evidence that is present in the scene.
Neil Alcock highlighted one final “ingenious visual flourish” where a “marriage proposal acceptance delivered over the phone is conveyed to the audience entirely via the reactions of the eavesdropping operator”.
Beyond that, there’s not much for the director to do in a traditional story with a few locations but little movement. One drawback is the story’s reliance on dialogue – where the sharp pen of Noel Coward delights theatre audiences, its power is reduced on-screen. Hitchcock does a decent job of keeping the title cards to a minimum, but they are necessary and often rather long. Each one serving to interrupt an otherwise fast-paced back and forth between sparring characters.
As this is a Hitchcock film I must, of course, note his traditional cameo. This takes place as he walks past a tennis court after about 20 minutes.
Easy Virtue is a quite breezy and at times funny character piece, which has moments of unexpected darkness within in. The ending is stark, coming as a surprise when we’re programmed to expect something quite different from our heroine. It’s not one of the great Hitchcock films but has elements of his early flair well worth seeing.
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