An introduction to silent Hitchcock: Easy Virtue

Easy Virtue (1927)
Easy Virtue (1927)

One of our very finest film directors tackles a drama by one of our very finest playwrights, and the result is … mixed. Easy Virtue is a very free adaptation of a Noel Coward play, with a script by Eliot Stannard. While it’s not an entirely successful movie, there is plenty of space here for the young Hitchcock to show us what he’s made of, with some rightly acclaimed sequences that are both smart and witty.

Indeed, at first glance Easy Virtue seems to be solid Hitchcock territory. Both the narrative setup and the moral message of the film both are concerned with the transferral of guilt, after all. The judge in our heroine Larita’s divorce case maligns her by convicting her of “misconduct” – and the world believes him. There’s some nice point-of-view business with the judge’s monocle (more circles!) to emphasise the flaw in his judicial vision, and a flashback to show us the truth of the matter, as opposed to the spectacle staged in the courtroom. Larita (Isabel Jeans) flees to the Mediterranean to escape the press attention and the slur on her virtue, but when she falls in love with a nice young Englishman and they return to stay with her new-in-laws, the divorce ruling becomes a classic Hitchcock bomb-under-the-table. Sooner or later, it’s going to blow up in her face …

Easy Virtue (1927)
Easy Virtue (1927)

Trouble is, this adaptation removes many of the shades of grey that Coward used to paint the stage Larita with. Hitchcock’s heroine is as sweet and innocent as the day is long, which makes her far less interesting and some of her more dramatic moments unconvincing. By and large the most successful section of the film is the first half, which deals with Larita’s trial and her romance with John (Robin Irvine), and all of which is new material for the film, not present in Coward’s play.

There’s wit, and a touch of glamour here, but little passion, and too much timidity. Had Hitchcock and his team not been held back by fear of the censor, or social acceptability, you feel they could have made much of the messy, complicated, terribly British problems that Larita faces. Her eventual gestures of defiance would have more power and this would be a far more exciting film. It’s all about sex, lies and suspicion, after all.

Easy Virtue (1927)
Easy Virtue (1927)

That said, Easy Virtue is more than worth a viewing. There’s a Hitchcock cameo here, lots of twists on his trademark business with voyeurism and an unexpectedly brutal meet-cute on the tennis court. My favourite thing here is how the length of the lovers’ journey back from France is measured by a dog. It’ll make sense when you see it, believe me.

Synopsis: Despite her totally innocent role in the events that led to it, divorce turns Larita Filton into a social outcast – and despite the love and support of her new husband she is constantly threatened by malicious gossip. (BFI Screenonline)

Hitchcock moment: John gets an answer from Larita, off-screen – but the telephone operator is listening in.

Watch out for: The final intertitle, which Hitchcock described as the worst he ever wrote.

Links worth clicking:

Easy Virtue screens in London this summer as part of the BFI’s Genius of Hitchcock season.

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