Disclaimer: This essay discusses spoilers for Rich and Strange. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
After the vibrant Technicolor travelogue of To Catch a Thief, I decided I’d pick another travel picture for this week’s entry, finally settling on 1931’s Rich and Strange. The film was made after Hitchcock’s enormous success with Blackmail and Murder!, and based on his high profile, he had initially thought that he would get to shoot much of the picture on location.
Yet a budget-conscious studio and internal politics meant that Hitchcock would have to shoot the film on the studio lot, with only second-unit photography for some brief location shots. Right away, Hitchcock’s grand idea of showing the travails of a wayward British couple lost on vacation is crippled by the use of studio backlots. Hitchcock would use rear projection in many of his later films, which heightened the artifice of his world in a perhaps conscious attempt to control the visual cues, yet here it’s clear he simply doesn’t have the money to create the spectacle he had in mind.
Other than that, Rich and Strange is a charming little film even if sags a bit in the middle. Hitchcock opens the film with a brilliant scene nodding toward German expressionism as we see an office packed with people and clock shadows like a Kafka nightmare. The days ends and workers robotically shuttle through the hallways, down a staircase, out into the pouring rain and on to the subway. This visually thrilling sequence uses forced perspective and cartoonish timing to create a satirical view of 20th century office culture with workers as mindless, joyless automatons. And throughout the opening as everyone else hits their marks our protagonist Fred (played by Henry Kendall) is always out of step. As umbrellas pop open on cue, his gets stuck. He barely makes it onto the subway car. His newspaper pokes people in the face and an article taunts him with the headline “Are you satisfied with your present circumstances?” He’s out of sync before he’s even spoken a word of dialogue.
This is Hitchcock relying on his silent film training, giving us a sense of the character and his dissatisfaction without anyone speaking a word. When he does finally arrive home and argue with his wife Emily (played by the lovely Joan Barry, who stood off camera and provided the voice for Czech actress Anny Ondra in Blackmail), it’s a bit of a letdown. Filmmakers were still struggling with how to shoot dialogue in a concise, snappy manner, and Hitchcock even resorts to numerous intertitles during the film. It’s a strange choice, as we hear a character introduced as a princess, then see an intertitle literally reading “Fred had met a Princess!” For a director who would become famous for the crackling wit in his films, you can see his ambivalence about dialogue in his early films.
Back to the plot: just as Fred is complaining about his lot in life, he gets a letter informing him of an inheritance. Immediately Fred and Emily are off on a whirlwind tour of the globe. Their early mishaps in crossing the channel and bumbling about Paris are some of the more breezy moments in the film as Hitchcock references his own naivete at the sinful indulgences of the Folies Bergère (which seem preposterous tame by 21st century standards). There’s some nice optical effects to show the couple’s drunken state and the whole thing seems like a genteel fish-out-of-water story. Yet as the couple boards a ship for the Far East, the movie foreshadows a shift into something more dramatic with this quote from The Tempest, “But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”
Here Rich and Strange shifts into serio-comic mode, as Fred is immediately struck down with seasickness. His wife Emily, with no one to entertain her, falls in love with the dashing (yet much older) Commodore on board the ship. Their romance begins as a delicate flirtation yet soon blossoms into something more serious (at least for him). Meanwhile Fred finally gets his sea legs and also falls in love, with the “Princess.” There’s a lot of endless comic relief aboard the ship and in the studio backlot sets that double as exotic locales; these are some of the weaker moments of the film, as we’re waiting for the affairs to play out and get to the point.
The couple’s parallel affairs are the most interesting part of the film, as neither is subjected to scrutiny or judgement by Hitchcock. Their dalliances are somehow seen as something almost inevitable, “If you love someone, set them free.” And for a movie of this era to withhold judgement of a woman for having an affair (even if he husband is doing the exact same thing) is astonishingly liberal. Yet the acts are depicted as mistakes by two people who love each other yet have grown tired of routine. Once again, Hitchcock’s theme of danger & excitement bringing a couple closer together is at play; in fact I believe this is the first time he uses this idea in one of his films although I’ll have to complete my rewatch of all the films to be certain.
With almost no discussion between the two of them, they both go their separate ways in Shanghai with their new lovers, until the Commodore reveals that the “Princess” is actually a penniless gold-digger after Fred’s money. Wracked with guilt, Emily leaves to go back to Fred, who finds that the Princess has absconded with all of his money. Frightened and equally angry at each other, the couple can only afford a cheap steamer home.
At this point, Rich and Strange takes a “strange” turn, as the ship capsizes and the couple barely survive before being picked up by a Chinese junk. Aboard the junk there are some uncomfortably xenophobic scenes; the whole Chinese crew and Fred & Emily watch as a man with his ankle caught on a rope slips underwater and drowns. All I can assume is that it’s meant to show the inhumanity and foreign nature of the Chinese, which is just plain shitty, because Fred & Emily are standing right there, and while they’re horrified at the behavior of the sailors, it’s not like they’re doing anything to save the guy either.
There’s also a terrible gag where the couple escapes from the sinking ship with a cat, only to have the Chinese cook and eat the cat. Yet there’s also a tender scene on board the junk with a newborn baby, which hints at a new kind of domestic bliss for Fred and Emily. The whole Chinese junk ending is thematically and tonally confused, a bizarre addendum.
It’s also unnecessary, because the sinking of the ship is one of the best scenes in the film. We see the ship hit some obstacle in the water, a few seconds of crew rushing around, water pouring in…and that’s it. The rest of the sinking is entirely from the point of view of Fred and Emily as they’re trapped in their cabin and water is rushing up over the porthole. It’s grim, claustrophobic, and entirely effective. Hitchcock would later claim this was by design, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a budget constraint which turned out to be a happy accident. Keeping the action from their point of view means you lose those big elaborate shots of everyone jumping overboard, but it ratchets up the tension and focuses the film entirely on Fred & Emily, which is a better choice for the entire theme of the movie.
Finally they make it home and while the movie ends on them bickering about moving to a bigger house, the message is clear. The steak-and-kidney pie Fred was once sick of now sounds delicious, and he’s eager to get back to his job. So is this a conservative film, celebrating the joys of staying in your own lane and not being adventurous?
Well, yes and no. The film is remarkably liberal in its treatment of their infidelities; it’s clear they both slept with other people, and the film doesn’t really judge either one of them. Rather it’s presented as something they needed to go through to grow stronger and more appreciative of their love for each other. That’s a remarkably provocative point of view for 1931.
There is a certain British kind of conservatism at work here, the longing for a simple existence that we see in Tolkien (as the Hobbits always end up back home in front of their fireplace). Yet Hitchcock’s mischievous side doesn’t totally believe all of this either. I think he’s preaching the value of domestic life in the face of liberation and abandon; let’s not forget that Hitchcock was newly married with a young daughter (Patricia, born in 1928) at the time of this film. Even after moving to Hollywood, Hitchcock abstained from glamorous parties and nightlife, preferring the quiet company of friends to gala events.
And really, what’s wrong with that? For most of us, travel is a luxury, a special thing we get to do once or twice a year. Because we have lives and jobs and families and friends and pets that we can’t pick up and abandon. The hedonism advertised so often in travel stories about (rich white) people who quit their jobs to travel is lovely but unrealistic. Travel opens your mind and broadens your horizons because you get to see how other people live; then you go home and bring that knowledge, experience, and hopefully that empathy with you.
I’m writing this essay early this week, because I’m traveling myself. I’m heading to New York City for a few days, part work and part vacation. I got asked to attend a conference for two days which includes staying in an over-the-top fancy “boutique” hotel in downtown Brooklyn, so who could resist?
I talked about September 11 last week, but not a lot about New York itself. I moved there in 1994 (wow, just typing that makes me feel old) to attend New York University. After graduating in 1998 I moved to Brooklyn where I lived until 2008 when I moved to Pittsburgh. Almost 14 years (not counting a few summers during college when I went home). New York City was my home and my identity for over a decade, something I was proud of and defined by. It helped shape me into the person that I am, and gave me memories to last a lifetime.
And yet now, I couldn’t ever contemplate moving back.
Sure, there are things I miss. Public transportation, live events, film screenings of any movie ever, every band you ever want to see playing there, terrific restaurants and bars on every corner.
But there are plenty of things I don’t miss. Anxiety from not being able to chose which event to go to, not being able to get tickets to events because they sell out immediately, small homes for gigantic prices, the crushing weight of being surrounded by millions of people all the time, and the constant feeling that it’s never good enough. This bar isn’t cool enough, the good DJ doesn’t start until 1am, the new fried chicken place is better than the old empanada place, and on and on until you have a nervous breakdown.
The longer I stayed in New York, the more anxious I got. Or maybe I became more aware of my anxiety because I had started therapy and was able to give it a name. It got so bad that in the summer months before I moved, I remember lying on the couch in my small apartment, paralyzed with anxiety, overwhelmed by choices and unable to move. I was adrift in a lifeboat on a sea of possibilities and it suffocated me.
Even planning this trip back has been difficult. Sure, it’s easy to think of things I love to do, and I’m looking forward to a lot of it. But I can feel myself getting swamped by the same anxieties that kept me from doing anything. Will this event be too crowded? Will I remember how to get around? How will I manage all of the different groups of friends? Are the bars I used to like even cool anymore?
It’s not that I don’t have anxiety in Pittsburgh, I do. Oh lord I do. But sitting on my porch with my dog, listening to a gentle spring rain while I type, is a kind of peace I never found in Brooklyn. I’m sure part of it is priorities changing as I get older, but like the married couple in Rich and Strange, I’m starting to be okay with home life.
There’s something to be said for spending time with the people you know and love. Not always chasing after the newest thrill and the coolest place, but finding a favorite regular bar, a coffee shop where they know your name, or a routine that you enjoy. Find your own porch and dog, and listen to the radio or some records. Enjoy the rain. Maybe that’s what Hitchcock was trying to tell us all along.
Rich and Strange is not streaming on any services. It’s available to rent on iTunes or Amazon, or is available from your friendly local library.