A delightful thriller, enhanced by humor and the most tender romance, and ending with an ambiguous shot that deflates complacency as a girl in her late teens naïvely contemplates sublime friendship between her boyfriend—he is in his late twenties or early thirties—and her (likely) widowed father, Young and Innocent is a tantalizing film by Alfred Hitchcock based on what he considered a weak novel (Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles). In this “young and innocent” variation on Hitchcock’s masterful The 39 Steps (1935), the boy, struggling screenwriter Robert Tisdall, is “the wrong man,” Hitchcock’s not-guilty-of-being-a-criminal on the lam from the police, following the strangulation of a screen star, Christine Clay, with Robert’s raincoat belt. Given the dullness of the police, Robert is determined to solve the murder and bring in the culprit himself. He tells Erica Burgoyne, the chief constable’s daughter (Nova Pilbeam, the kidnapped girl in The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934, intelligent, commanding and sensitive) that he and the victim were platonic associates, but (along with Christine’s spouse) we question this. Derrick de Marney’s breezy, charming performance may win us over; but Hitchcock is showing us Robert as Erica sees him, as she wants him to be. We can also see why critics Eric Rohmer & Claude Chabrol flat-out pronounce him a “gigolo.” Robert seems so certain that his stolen raincoat, once located, will exonerate him that we tend to believe whatever he says; but he may be both innocent of murder and guilty of a more sordid impoverished life than he lets on with the girl who, after all, is seduced precisely by his “innocence.” It certainly does seem odd that Christine Clay should have left a tidy sum in her will to a younger man with whom she was not intimately involved; and if he and Christine were in fact illicit lovers, Robert is not the lucky catch that Erica thinks he is.
The violent quarrel between Christine and her accusative estranged husband with which the film opens may be slyly predicting the marriage between Erica and Robert that presumably awaits them beyond “The End”—that is, if Erica’s father doesn’t intervene to abort his daughter’s relationship with this possibly unsavory young man.
Indeed, this is a film chock full of false and deceptive appearances. With the camera at the low level of their flight above the shore where Christine’s corpse and the belt move around like driftwood, the terrifying flock of seagulls might pass for a host of implacable, bloodthirsty gods. The collapsing abandoned mine that had seemed solid epitomizes the motif of deceptive appearances; and In the film’s greatest passage, in the “Grand Hotel,” the actual murderer is exposed and trapped, the camera closing in on him: the white orchestra drummer in blackface, whose twitching eyes give him away.
Hitchcock, himself, loved this film. He was right to, but be forewarned: it holds a string of cheap jolts of fright that even succeed in making the heart jump despite a blatant use of miniatures and process photography.
Edward Rigby is scene-stealing as Will, the old tramp who assists Erica and Robert in solving the crime.
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