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Easy Virtue (1927)

Main image of Easy Virtue (1927)
35mm, black and white, silent, 7,390 feet
DirectorAlfred Hitchcock
Production CompanyGainsborough Pictures
ScenarioEliot Stannard
Original playNoel Coward
PhotographyClaude McDonnell

Cast: Isabel Jeans (Larita Filton); Franklin Dyall (Aubrey Filton); Eric Bransby Williams (Claude Robson, the co-respondent); Ian Hunter (the plaintiff's counsel); Robin Irvine (John Whittaker)

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Even though she is completely innocent of the charge of adultery, divorce turns Larita Filton into a social outcast - and despite the love and support of her new husband she is constantly threatened by malicious gossip.

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"Screening a Noël Coward play sounds rather difficult - Mr Hitchcock has just done it!", exclaimed The Picturegoer of the director's fifth film. Other reviews praised the clever adaptation by Eliot Stannard, Hitchcock's regular scriptwriter in the silent period. It was a difficult challenge. Coward's play begins after the heroine's name has already been blackened, and explains how later. This structure, natural in dialogue-driven theatre, was cumbersome in silent cinema. Stannard came up with a solution he had used before: the film rearranges its events chronologically, and so begins with the dramatic court case that ended the play. This reveals that the unhappy heroine, Larita, is being sued for divorce on grounds of adultery, and shows a shallow, unsympathetic judiciary (a judge is seen yawning) and a carelessly slanderous press (a female reporter misrepresents complex details of the case, so convincing the court and the press that Larita must be guilty).

Isabel Jeans was an established lead of the Gainsborough studio - best known for her glamorous vamp roles in the three The Rat films, directed by Hitchcock's former mentor Graham Cutts. She had appeared in Hitchcock's previous film Downhill (1927), as the mercenary wife of Ivor Novello's naive protagonist (she would play one more role for Hitchcock, in 1941's Suspicion). Film historian Charles Barr points out that in many ways Novello's Roddy in Downhill and Jeans' Larita in Easy Virtue are on similar downward trajectories: both pursued by scandal from London high society to the south of France. 'Society' - represented here by Larita's new husband's narrow-minded family, the Whittakers, in their remote, moated house - is unforgiving and hostile to the outsider.

Hitchcock excels himself In Easy Virtue. As in The Pleasure Garden (1926) and Champagne (1927), he opens the film with an innovative trick shot, a sequence of the judge looking through his monocle - filmed using a giant mock-up and mirrors. Impressive too is the scene where John proposes to Larita: the crucial action that is shown only in the facial expressions of the telephone operator as she listens in to their conversation. Finally, he creates a memorable climax, with a defiant Larita appearing at the top of a staircase, dressed in a provocatively slinky gown and ostrich feathers - just like the woman of 'easy virtue' they always thought her . This delicious movie moment apparently elicited a spontaneous round of applause at the premiere.

Bryony Dixon

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Video Clips
Coward, Noël (1899-1973)
Hitchcock, Alfred (1899-1980)
Montagu, Ivor (1904-1984)
Stannard, Eliot (1888-1944)
Silent Hitchcock