Young and Innocent is not one of the best-known or best-loved of the many innocent-man-on-the run thrillers made by Alfred Hitchcock. Personally I must admit to having a bit of a soft spot for this early movie which the director made while he was still working in Britain.
It is during his British years that we see the director beginning to assemble the components that would later be used to such great effect when he moved to America, and he was able to make productions on a bigger budget. However Hitchcock’s British period is not just of note for being the workshop where he learnt his trade. A few of the movies (notably The Lodger, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes) are great films in themselves.
I would not regard Young and Innocent as one of his great films, but it has enough good qualities to be enjoyed as a film on its own merits, and is not merely of interest as a milestone in the development of Hitchcock’s directing style. As in Hitchcock’s other man-on-the run adventure movies, it contains gripping suspense, exciting set-pieces, mischievous humour and a storyline that offers a good variety of different setpieces.
The basic premise of the story is quickly established in the first two dramatic scenes. A man argues with his ex-wife. He is jealous of her relationship with a young man, and refuses to accept a divorce that she got in Reno. Her home is by the coast, and the crashing waves and thunder storm reflect the tempestuous nature of their relationship. Also of note at this point is a close-up of the angry husband’s eyes, showing us that he has a nervous twitch.
The next scene takes place on a beach where the body of the wife is seen by Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney), the young man whom the couple were arguing about the night before. Tisdall rushes to the body. When he sees who it is, he runs off, but he is seen by two curious girls.
They approach the body. As they realise what it is, they turn away in horror, and the camera cuts to a shot of a seagull, the screech of the bird replacing the screams of the ladies. (A similar trick was used in The 39 Steps, where a woman’s scream is covered by the sound of a train whistling).
Unfortunately for Tisdall, his behaviour in running away makes it look like he was running away after strangling the woman. He tries to tell the police officer that he went to get help, but the hostile girls insist that his actions were suspicious.
Worse follows. The woman was murdered with a belt similar to one on a coat that he owned, but which he has lost. The police discover that the penniless Tisdall has received money from the dead woman before, and that she has left him £1,200 in her will. Tisdall’s lawyer is incompetent and assumes that he is guilty, so Tisdall takes advantage of the crowds in the courtroom to make his escape so that he can hunt down the coat.
With the help of Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam), the local Chief Constable’s daughter, he visits the café where Tisdall lost his coat, and traces it to a tramp called Old Will (Edward Rigby). Will received the coat from a strange man with a nervous twitch, and the two young people enlist Will’s help to try to find this man and clear Tisdall’s name.
The movie is a joy to watch. It has a number of amusing moments – two police officers who have to contend with squealing pigs and a barking dog, an absurd fight at the café when Erica asks for help, and an attempt to pass Old Will off as a respectable man so that he can enter a hotel and look for the murderer. This involves dressing Will in posh but ill-fitting clothing. The vagrant is willing to help, even when this involves dancing very badly or bemusedly ordering tea at the hotel:
Old Will: Two cups of tea, please.
Waiter: Indian or Chinese, sir?
Old Will (confused): No, TEA!
There are good reasons why Young and Innocent is not one of the more popular Hitchcock thrillers. One lies in the casting. None of the actors in Young and Innocent became big stars in America. Nova Pilbeam was considered for the role of Mrs de Winter in Rebecca, but this role went to Joan Fontaine instead. In the case of Derrick de Marney, perhaps he was a little too odd to be sold as a regular romantic hero – his peculiar accent and mannerisms worked against him.
A more serious limitation affecting the film was its budgetary constraints. At times the movie looks a little cheap, with obvious back projections and toy models. Of course films can survive these charming weaknesses if they are able to offer something more. Young and Innocent does offer this, but it offers less in the way of serious themes or technical innovations than the best Hitchcock films. It is essentially a fun movie, and little more.
Nonetheless, Young and Innocent is not wholly devoid of substance. There are two notable themes in the film. The first of these is that of disguise. Throughout the movie characters adapt new identities or outfits to help them to elude notice.
I have already spoken about Old Will dressing up for the hotel. The hotel also contains the murderer, whose face has been blacked up as part of his stage act, and this helps to conceal him from Will’s searching eyes for a while. Earlier in the movie, Tisdall steals the glasses from his appropriately short-sighted lawyer and uses these to help him escape. Like Will, he struggles with his new identity, and we watch him crossing a street in a sideways crab-like movement.
However the most notable scene in this respect is one where Erica and Tisdall pay a brief visit to her aunt’s house. They stumble in on the birthday party of one of the children. The guests have dressed up for the party, but their disguises are nothing compared to the pretences that the young couple are obliged to practise on Erica’s suspicious aunt.
The perceptive busybody aunt soon realises that Erica and Tisdall are lying about his name and job. She also picks up on the fact that they have arrived without a present, and that they leave her house in the opposite direction to Erica’s home. The key moment here is a game of Blind Man’s Buff where they try to desperately sneak out while the blindfolded aunt is searching for them.
This image neatly symbolises the world of deceit that the naïve hero and heroine are obliged to practise, but it also illustrates the movie’s other main theme that is summarised in the film’s title. They are young and innocent, caught in a world where they are at the mercy of adults who may be either a threat or a help to them.
The casting of the two lead actors is significant here. Nova Pilbeam was a fresh-faced 18-year-old who had precisely the right air of guileless charm for the role. Derrick de Marney was a less obvious choice. He was 30 years old at the time, hardly that young, so perhaps the American title for the film, The Girl Was Young, was more appropriate after all. However his gauche and uncertain manner nicely conveys the idea of youthfulness.
Robert Tisdall (I may from now on call him Robert as he has earned that intimacy) has some of the self-assured cockiness of youth, complete with the lack of recognition of the dangers that his careless attitude may cause. He responds flippantly to accusations against him from the police and witnesses, and he betrays his hiding place to the police by insouciantly throwing a sandwich wrapper out of the window.
He is by no means unbearable however. When he could be making his escape, he instead helps Erica to push her car up the hill and even pays for her petrol, though he needs every penny to stay on the run. Later on he will show concern for her getting involved in the case, and a willingness to turn himself in for her sake.
Erica is the more responsible one, though with some of the precociousness of youth. She looks after her younger siblings and acts as mother, the real mother’s whereabouts being unknown. Indeed she is almost a prototype of Charlie, the heroine of Shadow of a Doubt. She is effectively head of the family, and tries to keep the balance between the inappropriate family members and the nerdy child.
She is upright and always ready to intervene with information gleaned from the Girl Guides, boxing matches etc, as happens when she treats Robert after he faints. As a chief constable’s daughter, she is known to all the police officers so she is under pressure to be a respectable member of the community.
As a result the young girl is conflicted by her feelings for the escaped prisoner. She initially does not believe Robert’s protestations of innocence, but she likes him enough to drop him off at an abandoned house where he can hide from the police.
However her youthful sense of compassion and ethics will not allow her to drop the matter there. We see her anxious face as she listens to her family discuss Robert’s likely capture due to his lack of money. She knows that he used some of what little cash he had to pay for her petrol. She decides to return Robert’s money and bring him some food, but this soon escalates into assisting him to keep away from the police while he investigates his missing coat.
This connection soon compromises the well-meaning girl, and I suspect that an older woman would have had the sense to avoid getting into this situation. Her suspicious aunt phones her father who asks a police officer to watch out for Erica. When the officer recognises Robert, Erica is reluctantly forced to join him on the run.
Eventually she is captured by the police after her car is caught in a collapsing mine, and she has to take the consequences of her impetuous behaviour. Her father decides to resign his job, and she is distraught. It is only at the end of the movie when Robert is cleared that her actions are finally seen to be justified.
Such are the themes of Young and Innocent, but it also contains a few of the enjoyable setpieces that Hitchcock handled so well. Two stand out in particular. One is the scene that I briefly mentioned. While they are being chased by the police, Erica drives into an old mine. However the ground gives way under the car, and it begins to sink. This is a dramatic scene as the camera cuts between ariel shots of Erica’s anxious face, Robert’s proffered hand that seems like it will never be able to pull Erica out in time, and the car sinking further into the ground.
The other notable setpiece is the movie’s closing scene. Hitchcock’s later thriller Notorious is famous for containing a long tracking camera shot that shows a wide shot of a crowded room, only for the camera to slowly and gently zoom in on a small object, a key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand. Well this trick had already been used by Hitchcock to similar great effect years earlier in Young and Innocent.
To set the scene, Erica has brought Old Will to the Grand Hotel, hoping that he will recognise the mysterious man with twitching eyes who gave him Robert’s coat, and who she and Robert rightly suspect is the murderer. However the ballroom area of the hotel is crowded with dancers and diners, and the two investigators are feeling helpless.
At this point, the camera cuts to a long shot of the ballroom showing a large number of people in it. The camera pans to the right. Our vision of the room begins to shrink as the camera starts to focus in, moving past the dancers to show us the band that are playing. Then the camera homes in on the drummer…his face…and finally all that we can see is his eyes which begin to nervously twitch. We have found our murderer.
As an added touch, the song that the band is playing is ‘No One Can Like the Drummer Man’, another clue that gives away the identity of the man we are looking for. It will take some time for the old tramp to recognise the disguised killer, but he recognises the tramp. Realising the purpose of Old Will’s visit, the killer becomes more nervous, twitching furiously, popping pills and playing out of synch with the rest of the band.
Finally he breaks down on stage and collapses. Once more Erica’s skills for helping fainting men are employed. She steps in to help, and she sees the distressed man’s twitching eyes. The killer’s make-up is removed, and Old Will confirms that this is the man they are looking for. In front of the police the killer laughs insanely and confesses his crime.
As is appropriate for a movie about young lovers, the film ends with Erica introducing Robert to her father and making plans to invite him round for dinner. In doing so it highlights what makes Young and Innocent such an appealing film.
There may be better Hitchcock thrillers to come, but this film has the freshness of youth about it. It is about young people, and it was made in the youthful stage of Hitchcock’s development as a director. There may be some infelicities of style, but there is still the excitement of a talented director finding new ways to make suspenseful movies.
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