Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
If I could ask one question of the young Hitchcock it would be: why adapt a play, of all things? Why take a medium entirely dependent on the spoken word, and then film it with no sound? I understand why so many plays were adapted to films as sound came in; producers felt it was easy to make a filmed version of a play, and as tedious as these could be, it was a cost-effective way to showcase the new technology.
But who in their right mind thought that an adaptation of one of Noel Coward’s plays would be a good fit for silent film? Taking a writer who lives and dies by wit and turns of phrase, and removing the very ability to hear those words seems nothing short of madness. Easy Virtue seems to have been an assignment for Hitchcock, and I understand then as now it’s good business to present the movie-going public with something they’re familiar with (in this case, a blockbuster play). Hitch would have much better luck with his next theatrical adaptation, the comedic The Farmer’s Wife. But Easy Virtue, a drawing-room melodrama, defeats him.
Right away I should say that the version of Easy Virtue I watched was a badly beat-up transfer on Youtube. After years of being in the public domain, copies have deteriorated into blurry, high contrast black and white prints where it’s hard to tell characters apart, or know if shots or scenes are missing.
That said, much of Easy Virtue is simply incomprehensible. Hitchcock has not yet developed his ironclad command of storytelling. Multiple times I stopped the film and rewound, and even read a summary of Coward’s play online trying to figure out what was going on. For example, early on there’s a flashback to a racy scene where our heroine Larita (Isabel Jeans) is caught in a compromising situation with an artist by her husband. The artist & husband fight and the husband is shot (in perhaps the most unconvincing moment in any Hitchcock film, the husband passes out, then reawakens moments later, as though being shot in the abdomen is akin to being hit over the head). As I was watching I noticed that seconds after the artist looks despondent over his crime, he disappears from the scene. Then later in the courtroom, there’s a reference to the artist being dead, but nothing in the film to indicate his fate.
I was finally able to ascertain that the artist killed himself. Other than Larita briefly recoiling in horror, there’s no indication of his suicide in the film. Much of the movie is made like this, with characters behaving in ways that don’t make sense. As near as I can figure, Hitchcock and co-writer Eliot Stannard knew that due to the popularity of the play, much of the public would be familiar with the basic plot. They knew they didn’t have to hit all those story beats. And the end result, removed from 1928, is maddening.
It reminded me of the way I felt when I saw, bear with me, the first Hunger Games movie. I hadn’t read any of the books, so I went into the movie blind. What I saw was not a fully realized, complete film, but a fan’s showcase of scenes from the book with no explanation. There’s no description of what Jennifer Lawrence’s two finger gesture means and why people riot when she makes it (yes, I figured it out, but the movie itself offers no answers). There are long shots that show her apartment and training room where the camera lingers far, far longer than necessary, as if to say “hey, here it is! Just like you read in the book!” The final result was less of a film than a visual companion piece to a bestselling book.
This is just bad filmmaking, which is nothing new. What I find frustrating in modern pop culture is a fan’s willingness to dismiss this concept, the basic building blocks of story and structure. Here’s another example that infuriated me, and it involves me admitting that I saw Batman V. Superman. I don’t know what happened. I didn’t plan on it, but suddenly I was in my car going to the theater. Look, I’m not proud of it, okay?
Among the many, many problems with that film is a gigantic one that no one else seems to care about. At the end of the film, Lex Luthor gives Superman an ultimatum: go confront Batman, or I’ll kill your mother, revealing that he knows Superman’s secret identity. There’s one problem with this: we don’t know how or why Lex knows this secret. We never see him discover that information or even search for it. Within the storied history of Superman, we know what this means, but within this film, in the story they’re telling onscreen, there’s no way for Luthor to know that information. It’s a gigantic reveal of a fundamental piece of Superman mythology, and it’s tossed aside as though it doesn’t matter. It’s lazy, it’s stupid, and it’s disrespectful.
Yet when I mentioned this to friends, their answers enraged me, because no one seemed to care. “Well, he could have found out.” Yes, sure. He could have. All it takes is a scene of Luthor engaging some facial-recognition software or whatever. But we don’t get that scene. This isn’t clumsy plotting in the film, like the US government somehow thinking Superman is responsible for killing a village of people who were all shot, this is a fundamental disregard for filmmaking itself. We only know what the film tells us; expecting an audience to make huge assumptions and fill in holes that you’ve left blank is poor, cheap filmmaking, whether it’s Zack Snyder or Alfred Hitchcock.
Yes, I found the only way possible to compare Zack Snyder and Alfred Hitchcock. If it’s not clear, I think Snyder is a talentless hack with no empathy, no skill, and not even a great eye. Say what you will about Michael Bay, and he is awful, he can compose a shot, something that seems to be beyond Snyder and his grungy, elaborately CGI’d universe.
Despite this rare clumsiness, Hitchcock makes a valiant effort to enliven the film, adding a long prologue that dramatizes scenes that Coward left offstage. Easy Virtue focuses on a young woman whose scandalous past reveals itself as she summers with her new husband’s family. Hitchcock brings that past to the foreground, building on the idea of how sensational a divorce trial could be in 1928. The trial scene is a brilliant use of all of Hitch’s best ideas: clever flashbacks that cut back and forth through matching objects, musically-timed sequences of dissolves during a cross-examination, and most memorably a shot where a judge brings a monocle up to his eye to show the courtroom coming into focus (early Hitchcock films often used this kind of distorted point of view shots to simulate eyeglasses, drunkenness, or gunshots. Later films would rely less on point of view and even less on these kind of showy trick shots).
Hitchcock also dramatizes Larita’s escape to the French riviera after the trial and her subsequent romance with young John. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if these scenes were added to justify a vacation for the director and his wife/script supervisor They’re charming and beautifully photographed but it’s unclear what purpose they serve. It’s almost 30 minutes into the film before we arrive at the English manor where the play takes place.
Once there, the film quickly falls apart. By removing almost all of Coward’s dialogue, the Easy Virtue is compressed into a series of short scenes where character motivations make little to no sense. Larita is haunted and cowering one moment, haughty & composed the next. The sisters of the family are virtually interchangeable and men and women stare at each other with expressions ranging from bemused to angry, all devoid of context.
Hitchcock and Stannard also made the film into a bitter critique of the press in a way that Coward never envisioned. The movie begins with tabloid reporters following the scandalous divorce case, and Larita’s identity is revealed at the manor when a photo in a magazine jogs Mrs. Whittaker’s memory. Larita even sees a camera in their home and is haunted by it until she finally throws a book at it, knocking it off the shelf in maybe the worst scene in the film. The climax, added by Hitchcock & Stannard, is at odds with the bittersweet tone of the play as Larita is spotted by the press and hounded as the leaves the courtroom after her second divorce. Standing in front of a battery of news photographers Larita accepts her fate, saying “Shoot! There’s nothing left to kill.” THE END.
It feels like Hitchcock, tasked with adapting Coward’s play, felt bored by that idea. So he added something that interested him: the scandalous divorce and persecution by the press. But in adding to the story, he removes Larita’s agency and makes her a less interesting character. Rather than a defiant modern woman trapped by society’s mores, as she is in the play, here she’ a victim of persecution by the press. She never becomes more than a bundle of random impulses; sometimes haughty, sometimes downcast and never consistent or believable.
The film is packed with Hitchcock favorites, including Isabel Jeans from Downhill as Larita, and a cast of supporting characters from many other films. Jeans does her best (she’s great in Downhill) but she can’t keep up with the changing demands of the film; in the French Riviera scenes, it’s hard to see why she’s so beguiling and different to young John, when she seems mainly indifferent.
Maybe I’m being too hard on Easy Virtue; after all, filmmakers are free to make whatever movie they want and in 1928 in Britain, the tools weren’t available to make a talking picture. Hitchcock did his best, expanding the play and adding cinematic moments where he could.
Yet there’s The Farmer’s Wife just a few months later, a delightful comedic adaptation that manages to convey humor, sadness, and longing through sharply observed character moments and visual cues. Easy Virture has little of this skill, instead using the cudgel of persecution by the press to stand in for the lack of drama. Hitchcock could, and would, do much better.
Easy Virtue is streaming on Youtube in a not-great copy, and can be purchased or maybe rented from your library.