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Well, I can’t ask ‘em all if they twitches, can I?

Young and Innocent
aka The Girl Was Young
(1937)

(SPOILERS) An enjoyable enough Hitchcock innocent-man-on-the-run escapade in the vein of his earlier The 39 Steps, but Young and Innocent isn't nearly as notable or consummately engaging. Part of that is down to the ho-hum leads. Partly, it’s down to a less spirited screenplay from Edwin Greenwood (The Man Who Knew Too Much), Charles Bennett (several Hitchs of the period, including The 39 Steps) and Anthony Armstrong, liberally adapting Josephine Brat Farrar Tey’s novel.

Of the leads, one could actually quite easily imagine innocent Derrick De Marney playing a psychopath. And it doesn’t help that his Robert Tisdall appears positively cheerful about being accused during the first half of the movie (even when this is addressed – told his situation isn’t funny, he replies “No, but I can laugh because I am innocent” – it doesn’t really pass muster).

Nova Pilbeam (great name) is better as Erica Burgoyne, at least during the first half, coming on so uber-confident, you might be mistaken into thinking she will be the protagonist. Erica, daughter of the Chief Constable, brings Tisdall round after he has passed out on being told he is to inherit £1,200 (from a strangled woman about whom he is being questioned – about £82,000 in today’s money, just before it all becomes officially meaningless). “You learn that slapping trick in the guides too?” she is asked by an officer of the law who just wants a confession; “No, I learned that from riding in cars with detectives” she replies smartly. Later, Erica shows zero intimidation went trying to track down the whereabouts of Tisdall’s raincoat in a café. A fight ensues, with Tisdall wading into rescue her, only for Erica to appear outside unscathed and beckon to the beaten fugitive.

When Tisdall escapes custody, she decides to aid him, and from there his can-do insouciance holds sway, such that she is repeatedly reduced to floods of tears when things go wrong. Particularly so when her father – Percy Marmont – feels impelled to resign over her involvement with aiding and abetting a fugitive from justice. De Marney gets quite a few decent lines and moments (‘It always pays to be frank with the police’ his solicitor JH Roberts tells him, after letting him know his prospects look bleak, to which he responds “Are you representing the police, by any chance?”). However, these mostly serve to underline that someone else might have really set the role alight.

Plotwise, it doesn’t help that much of the proceedings focus on Robert’s rather mundane raincoat as a MacGuffin (which has no belt on it, the belt having been used to strangle the victim). If the leads were doing some detective work to track down the perp, that might have been more engaging. Instead, they follow a somewhat slipshod trail, eventually locating Edward Rigby’s tramp Old Will (in possession of the garment). They then hit a brick wall until, helpfully, the coat provides a box of matches from a hotel that Rigby, being a tramp, has never visited. It’s only then, in the closing stages that they think they may have a chance of finding whodunnit.

Whom we saw in the opening scene. George Curzon – best known at that time for the starring role in a series of Sexton Blake films – is very good if entirely bookended as Guy the villain. Per Hitch’s way with suspense, the approach is both methodical and economical. We aren’t required to doubt Tisdall’s innocence, and although we haven’t seen the act, the director has pretty much established Guy did it in the first two scenes. We rejoin the murderer for the finale, having been apprised that he is suffering from a nervous twitch due to the stress of having just offed an unfaithful wife. Hitch shows early on that Guy is at the scene, in blackface as drummer for a dance band, but that our heroes don’t know.

Old Will: I better order, since I’m the man, eh? Two cups of tea.
Waiter: India or China?
Old Will: No, tea.

This is a masterfully executed sequence – that and one other sequence are all he and Truffaut talk about in respect of Young and Innocent – and it’s one revolving around when Guy will be recognised, rather than whether or not he is there. The best part of it, however, is that Tisdall has stepped out by this point and it’s Erica and Old Will, the heroine and the tramp, the latter now dressed up, who are doing the investigating (he knows the man who gave him the coat had a twitch). There’s much gentle class comedy here, and Rigby is very funny, offering Erica a dance so they can have a better look round; she asks if he can (dance), and Will replies “No, course I can’t ducky, but I don’t mind having a go. It’s only half walking anyway”.

Curzon also makes the most of the final confession, a very Hitchcock example of wrapping things up concisely. Not only is Guy strung out, he’s also taking too many pills, getting himself into a state whereby his drumming causes a scene, followed by his collapse. Roused by Nova, neatly repeating the same act as when we first met her, she asks what he did with the belt, to which he replies, laughing, “What did I do with the belt? I twisted it round her neck and choked the life out of her!

Hitchcock also draws attention to the earlier blindman’s bluff game as a suspense highlight, although I don’t think it’s in quite the same class. Instead, it’s mild and amusingly engaging, as Erica’s aunt Margaret (Mary Clare), increasingly suspicious of her relationship with Tisdall (he claims his surname is Beachtree-Manningcroft, and they offer differing versions of his job), is interrupted for a game of blindman’s bluff. Meanwhile, Margaret’s husband Basil (Basil “Charters” Radford) encourages them to escape what he sees as her over-intrusiveness. It’s fun though, and I can understand Hitch’s indignance that the scene was cut in the US, even if he rather overstates his case (“that was the essence of the film!”)

There are other amusing incidents, such as Erica’s family dinners, beset by siblings discussing Tisdall’s likely fate or bringing dead rats to the dinner table. She also has a star dog (Towser) whom she makes Tisdall slow down for so he can get in the car, and whose disappearance in a mine working (the big set piece, and rather clumsily integrated) leads to her being apprehended. In Towser’s considerable favour, he is able to spot that Old Will is wearing the raincoat they are after beneath many other layers.

If there are no real twists and turns to keep this moving, that isn’t why Young and Innocent is ultimately slightly disappointing. It’s that the leads fail to generate the level of energy and rapport needed from a lead couple you really want to spend time with. Hitch’s work is top notch, offering some textbook suspense, but the picture lacks the oomph that comes from picking the best cattle to prod.





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