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Rich and Strange, Alfred Hitchcock's third sound feature, is a sly and strange film indeed. Made in 1931, after such early classics as The Lodger (1927), Blackmail (1929) and Murder! (1930) but before Hitchcock had firmly established himself as "the master of suspense," Rich and Strange is not a thriller at all but a romantic comedy of innocents abroad directed as a satire of bourgeois complacency and cultural provincialism. The title comes from Shakespeare's The Tempest, which is quoted in a title card early in the film that promises that our middle class married couple will "suffer a sea change / Into something rich and strange."
The film opens on a survey of London working life as the day ends and the throngs of office workers flee the regimented rows of workplace desks and pour into the rainy streets and overcrowded subways with the mindless drive of lemmings. The anonymous parades of people and the careful regimentation of workplace routines recalls King Vidor's The Crowd (1928) but Hitchcock is more satirical in his portrait. Bored accountant Fred Hill (Henry Kendall), a married man who desperately wants to break free of the workaday monotony and droning predictability of his life, doesn't defy the mechanized routine so much as fall out of step. He fumbles with a stubborn umbrella that refuses to open and a newspaper that refuses to fold neatly during a subway ride, becoming increasingly frustrated with every little annoyance along the way home. Newspaper headlines and subways ads taunt Fred with the promise of affluence and adventure out of his reach. When he arrives home to his contented homemaker of a wife Emily (Joan Barry) in their cozy, conventional flat, the soundtrack carries on the catalogue of dreary disappointments when he turns on the radio and finds only a bland announcer droning out a dull lesson in accounting.
Their adventures begin not with a mystery or a threat but an innocent bequeath of a small fortune by a generous uncle, "money to experience all the life you want by traveling," he explains in the accompanying note. It is a wish come true, quite literally. Yet this is a Hitchcock film. One must be careful what one wishes for, because you just might get it. Fred and Emily rush off on a world tour, traveling to Paris (where the scandalous nightlife doesn't so much shock as confuse these middle-class Brits) and then around the world on a luxury liner. Yet while Emily both adapts to the life and finds it unfulfilling, little has changed for Fred, who bumbles through the glamorous and exotic ports of call like a rube trying to appear as a man of the world.
"Love makes everything difficult and dangerous," Emily confesses to Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont), the older admirer who becomes her constant companion as Fred falls under the siren call of an ersatz Princess (Betty Amann). It's a sentiment Hitchcock spent a lifetime exploring, except that in his thrillers, he plunged everyday people into extraordinary situations and drew out their reserves of courage and commitment and self-sacrifice as their lives were on the line and their love was put to the test. Here he reveals confusion and selfishness and misplaced values through a series of comic vignettes with a sarcastic edge. The earlier reference to The Tempest comes back into play when a storm swoops in to finish the hard lesson, literally shipwrecking their lives like they have shipwrecked their marriage with shipboard affairs. But Rich and Strange is a comedy, not a thriller. Even the most dire of situations are played with a light touch that reassures us that, while humiliating or humbling, such crises will not be fatal. And so this couple begins the process of saving themselves and their marriage.
Hitchcock had experimented with the expressionistic possibilities of sound in Blackmail and Murder!. With Rich and Strange, he reverts back to a silent movie aesthetic, with droll title cards introducing and commenting upon sequences and numerous scenes played out with no dialogue or sound other than the film's score. He also has a rare writing credit on the film, which he scripted with his wife and longtime collaborator, Alma Reville. Hitchcock has claimed that the film was inspired by their honeymoon and he told Francois Truffaut that, "Before shooting it, Mrs. Hitchcock and I set out to do some preliminary research on the story." Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto called it "one of his most openly autobiographical films" (is the name Fred short for Alfred?) and Hitchcock himself expressed a personal fondness for the film. "I liked the picture," he admitted to Truffaut, "it should have been more successful."
He did not particularly like his romantic leads, however, whose performances are fine but lack the chemistry and personality that enliven Hitchcock's best films. Henry Kendall, a comic actor from the music halls, apparently had a tendency to slip into fey affectation which Hitchcock had to drill out of him, and Joan Barry (who had dubbed the voice of Anny Ondra in the sound version of Blackmail) was, ironically, uncomfortable with sound filmmaking and tended to freeze before delivering her lines, causing numerous retakes. That made things more expensive in the early days of sound filmmaking. "We shot with four cameras and with a single soundtrack because we couldn't cut sound in those days," he explained to Truffaut.
Rich and Strange was a financial failure for Hitchcock, which may have hastened his return to the mysteries and thrillers that would soon make his fame and fortune. Yet the sophisticated portrait of marriage troubles is pure Hitchcock, a mature exploration of personal disappointment and longing for a fantasy that doesn't exist and an adult confrontation of wandering affections and romantic betrayal, all under the guise of a romantic comedy delivered with his distinctively dry touch.
Producer: John Maxwell
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Alma Reville, Val Valentine; Alfred Hitchcock (adaptation); Dale Collins (novel)
Cinematography: John Cox, Charles Martin
Art Direction: C. Wilfred Arnold
Music: Hal Dolphe
Film Editing: Winifred Cooper, Rene Marrison
Cast: Henry Kendall (Fred Hill), Joan Barry (Emily Hill), Percy Marmont (Commander Gordon), Betty Amann (The Princess), Elsie Randolph (The Old Maid).
BW-83m. Closed captioning.
by Sean Axmaker