Alfred Hitchcock is known as primarily a director of thrillers, and after he came to the U.S. in 1939 it was a genre he worked in almost exclusively. But before then he had had a robust career in England, directing 23 films of a wide variety of genres. It wasn’t until 1934 with the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, his 16th film, that Hitch dedicated himself to the genre. This was for a number of reasons, but the most important one is that he was damn good at it. He had a skill for depicting suspense on screen. His particular talent for planting set ups and paying them off pays the most dividends in a thriller context.
But Rich and Strange (1931) was not a thriller, though this release’s cover art seems to try to pass it off as one. It’s a comedy about a married couple who longs for adventure and find they’re not quite suited to it.
Fred is an office drone whose life is a drudgery. The film’s opening sequence (one of the many exemplars of Hitchcock’s superb visual storytelling) depicts his lock-step world. Office workers crowd into the exits, emerge in twos and open their umbrellas against the constant rain. Fred’s won’t open. He crowds into a subway, he crowds off. Everywhere he goes it’s crowds and dull routine. What he wants is adventure – he tells his wife as much when they get home.
So, it arrives, in the form of a telegram from an uncle. It tells Fred he’s going to get his inheritance while the uncle’s still alive, so Fred can live his best life. Immediately, he and his wife Emily take off to travel, so they can have “real” experiences. But it turns out Fred gets seasick and spends all his travel time in bed. Emily, left to her own devices, makes the acquaintance of a distinguished older gentleman, Commander Gordon, who is happy to fill her empty time with conversation.
When Fred finally gets his sea legs, he runs into a woman he knows only as the Princess. Suddenly, he has no more interest in spending any of his time on his wife. The married couple began this adventure together, but the real adventure seems to be discovering if they should stay together.
Both are completely naive. Emily’s naivete is transparent. When the couple goes to a Paris revue, and some dancers are bare-breasted, she’s sure the curtain raised too early and they simple hadn’t had time to get dressed. Fred affects a more worldly, manly demeanor but he constantly has to be led. Em is as much mother to him as wife. She explicitly says so, and then later it’s demonstrated in a clever scene where they are ship-wrecked. She climbs out of the porthole first, “to make sure it’s safe.” Her husband then comes out of the hole feet first, like he’s being reborn.
The film is about a rebirth, with two people cut from the restraints of everyday life and finding out who they are. Fred is fed up with his boring life, but eventually confronts that maybe the boring part of it is him. Em has illusions about Fred that get exploded as he turns his attentions to the Princess but learns those illusions might be as important to her as reality.
Rich and Strange is not a tightly plotted film. Hitchcock was always stronger in sequences and scenes than in overall stories, and this is more pronounced in his earlier work. He also became more sophisticated in developing characters as his career moved on. Fred and Em are not particularly complicated, and the lack of nuance makes some of the film hard going. Fred in particular seems a little loathsome. While his boredom with the drudgery of his everyday life is relatable, his constant brattiness with long-suffering Em is less so. There’s not much to redeem his character.
Rich and Strange is mostly a comedy, and partly a romance. There are several running gags: Fred’s seasickness, a meddling spinster who follows them from ship to ship. How well the jokes translate to a modern audience is anyone’s guess. The pace of the film is rather stilted without a deep narrative thrust. Hitchcock delivers interesting sequences, gags, and the visuals he’s known for.
But the best part of Rich and Strange is the last 20 minutes, when the couple are returning home from their contrived adventure and find themselves on a real one. There’s a shipwreck and a rescue by a Chinese junk. It’s full of people they cannot communicate with, and who do not want to communicate with them. The sequence’s dream-like quality is full of a strangeness that makes childish the couple’s earlier ship-cruise adventures.
It elevates the film, which before this finale was more of a kind with Hitchcock’s earlier comedies: slow-paced, humorous in a very old-fashioned way, but not distinguished. Of course, describing a 90-year-old film as “old-fashioned” is pointless. It’s old. It was fashioned a long time ago. Rich and Strange as a comedy is amusing, for the very patient. As a Hitchcock fan, it’s fascinating to see the development of his style early on. The editing isn’t as precise, the timing of the scenes not as slick. But you could see building blocks of craft the master thriller director he would perfect.
But Rich and Strange is not a thriller, it’s a comedy. And I laughed, a few times. This new Kino Lorber disc from a BFI restoration of the film is a massive step up from earlier releases. A film of this vintage cannot help but show its age, but the clarity of this new transfer is remarkable. It doesn’t elevate the film into a lost classic. For those who aren’t big Hitchcock enthusiasts, the highpoints of the film might not be worth the time. Rich and Strange is from the exploratory phase of the master’s career. Many of the fascinating places it goes he explores more deeply later in his filmography.
Rich and Strange has been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras include an audio commentary by film historian Tony Howarth. There’s also a short video introduction by critic Moel Simsolo (4 min), and an audio excerpt of the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews about the film (6 min).