In one of the more striking opening sequences in Alfred Hitchcock’s entire filmography, a man and woman argue violently in a cliff-top mansion above the sea as a storm is brewing. A quick fade to the following morning reveals the lifeless body of a woman in the surf and the murder weapon nearby – a raincoat belt. A man walking along the dunes is the first person to find the victim and runs to get help. Two women on the beach also discover the body and see the man fleeing the crime scene, assuming the worst. When he returns with the police, he is fingered as the murderer and taken into custody, followed by a montage of newspaper headlines. All of this is accomplished in a brilliantly edited sequence of less than five minutes that not only sets the narrative of Young and Innocent (1937, U.S. release title: The Girl Was Young) in motion but could also serve as a textbook example of Hitchcock’s storyboard approach to moviemaking.
Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney), the unlucky suspect in this film, is a typical Hitchcock protagonist. An ordinary man thrown into extraordinary circumstances, not unlike the Robert Donat character in The 39 Steps (1935) or Robert Cummings in Saboteur (1942), Robert goes on the lam, implicating a young woman, the daughter of a police inspector, in his escape. Yet the film is less about the capture of the real murderer than it is about the slowly evolving relationship of the young couple as they move from mutual suspicion to romantic infatuation.
The tone is light, droll and upbeat; suspense is often sacrificed for scenes of comic slapstick (a barroom brawl) or eccentric charm (a family dinner with the distressed heroine). It was a complete departure from Hitchcock’s dark, brooding previous film, Sabotage (aka A Woman Alone, 1936), but it is also one of his most overlooked and enjoyable thrillers. While it is true that Young and Innocent lacks the perfect mixture of romance, black comedy and suspense that Hitchcock would later perfect in North by Northwest (1959), it is a treat for any Hitchcock fan and full of evocative moments that look ahead to such future Hitchcock films as The Birds (1963) with its startling close-up of seagulls in flight to a morbid description of rooks pecking at a man’s eyes.
Based on the mystery novel A Shilling for Candles by Scottish author Elizabeth Mackintosh (using the pseudonym Josephine Tey), Young and Innocent was worked on by several screenwriters including Charles Bennett, Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife), Anthony Armstrong, Edwin Greenwood and Gerald Savory; Joan Harrison, one of his future collaborators, worked as script consultant. Many details from the original novel were altered – the hero’s profession was changed from unemployed waiter to unproduced screenwriter, the Scotland Yard detective became a minor character – and new scenes were added including a children’s party and the climactic capture of the real killer in a hotel ballroom.
In the final script, the solving of the crime was of secondary importance to the romance between Robert and Erica, played by eighteen-year-old Nova Pilbeam. This was Ms. Pilbeam’s first major adult role although she had previously worked with Hitchcock as the young kidnapping victim in his first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).
Hitchcock believed Pilbeam had a great future as an actress and had considered using her as the female lead in The Lady Vanishes (a role Margaret Lockwood eventually played) but the actress wasn’t that interested in becoming a star, preferring the stage to movies, and soon married assistant director Penrose Tennyson (great grandson of the famous poet). They had met while making The Man Who Knew Too Much. When he died in a plane crash in 1941, she returned to filmmaking but only made a handful of movies before retiring in 1948.
The making of Young and Innocent was a happy experience for Hitchcock even though he was plagued with poor health at times. Leading man Derrick De Marney recalled, “Hitchcock’s eyes on the set are generally closed. He’s been known to take cat-naps even during shooting. Nova Pilbeam was acting with me in her first romantic role. Hitchcock rushed us through one scene at express train tempo. When we had finished, Hitchcock, who had appeared to be snoozing contentedly, opened his eyes with difficulty and consulted his watch. ‘Too slow,” he murmured. ‘I had that scene marked for thirty seconds and it took you fifty seconds. We’ll have to retake.’ Hitch was using a stop-watch!” (from The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto).
In one of the film’s most striking scenes, a car carrying Robert, Erica and a tramp who can identify the killer, crashes through the floor of an abandoned mine. Robert attempts to rescue Erica who is frantically reaching for his hand as the car is balanced on the edge of a precipice. “I was terrified,” recalled Pilbeam. “But Hitch had this quirky sense of humor and made that scene go on and on, so that I thought my arm would come out of its socket.” (from Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan). Hitchcock would later work variations on this rescue attempt in Saboteur and North by Northwest.
The recurring theme of characters fumbling blindly with their predicament is reinforced throughout Young and Innocent. “The party,” Hitchcock said years later, “was designed as a deliberate symbol – in fact it was the clue to the whole film, but no one got it at the time, and in the American-release prints the sequence was omitted because they thought it slowed down the pace of the picture!”
Of all the technically challenging shots in the film, the final unmasking of the killer on the bandstand is probably the most impressive. In an interview with Francois Truffaut, the director recalled, “I place the camera in the highest position, above the hotel lounge, next to the ceiling, and we dolly it down, right through the lobby, into the big ballroom, and past the dancers, the bandstand, and the musicians, right up to a close-up of the drummer. The musicians are all in blackface, and we stay on the drummer’s face until his eyes fill the screen. And then, the eyes twitch [a clue to the killer’s identity]. The whole thing was done in one shot.”
When Young and Innocent went into release, the reviews were predominantly positive. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times wrote, “Alfred Hitchcock, England’s jovial and rotund master of melodrama, has turned out another crisply paced, excellently performed film…Nova Pilbeam plays the constable’s daughter with a wholesome and natural charm and a delightful ease of manner. Derrick De Marney, as the suspect, is agreeably light-hearted in the shadow of the noose, and there are a panel of delightful characters around them. We particularly admired the annoyingly optimistic solicitor, J. H. Roberts, the frowsy old china mender, Edward Rigby, and the several muddling-through constables and Yard men. But chiefly, of course, we admire Mr. Hitchcock.”
Young and Innocent was a modest box-office success for the director and is now regarded by most Hitchcock scholars as merely a warm-up for his next picture, The Lady Vanishes (1938). For those counting every Hitchcock cameo, you can spot him in this film as a photographer standing outside a courthouse, fussing with his camera. And there are other amusing bits to discover if you watch closely. In the railyard scene where Robert and Erica have hidden their car, the approaching locomotive is clearly a toy train, the sets are miniature and a brief overhead shot of the couple clearly reveals them to be lifeless dolls.
Young and Innocent fell into public domain years ago when the copyright holder neglected to renew the rights so the film has been available on VHS and DVD from numerous distributors in poor to mediocre quality prints which were ridden with artifacts, scratches and specks. In January 2015 the U.K. distributor Network released a vastly improved copy of the film on Blu-ray (you need an all-region player to view the PAL transfer). Young and Innocent could still use a complete 4k restoration and the fact that it is a Hitchcock picture makes that a likely possibility.
*This is an updated and revised version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website
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