I can't remember how I first came across Young and Innocent, but it was probably sometime during high school when I used to stay up late to watch old movies on the ABC. Yes, while other kids were sneaking out to go to parties, I was watching obscure British films from the 1930s (well, as obscure as any film directed by Alfred Hitchcock could ever be). I associate this film with my teenage years as much as anything I saw at the cinema then, or the '80s classics I was still watching in the early '90s, like Dirty Dancing or The Breakfast Club.
My fascination with Nova Pilbeam surely owes something to her name (not even a stage name, incidentally) but it's her sense of self that sets her apart. Only 18 when she starred in this film, she has an elfish, almost ethereal quality physically, and yet is marvellously down-to-earth. Her character has no silly notions about waiting to 'grow up' to play a role in the world. Nor does she need a man to come along and rescue her: she's off rescuing men herself.
The setting is a coastal town in England, and Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney) is a nice young chap who's been arrested for the murder of an actress he's been hanging around with. Clearly Christine Clay's husband did it — we see them arguing before she shows up dead and his guilty facial tic is a dead giveaway — but she's been strangled with a raincoat belt that looks like Robert's and he's a nobody while the husband is powerful and sophisticated. Suffering at the hands of an incompetent barrister and an inept police force, Robert faints in the middle of a crowded courthouse.
Enter Erica Burgoyne (Pilbeam), the good-natured daughter of the Chief Constable, who takes charge and performs rather rough first aid on poor Robert. She then inadvertently helps him escape, giving him a chance to stow away in the backseat of her old Morris 'jalopy'. Upon being discovered he explains that he needs to find his raincoat, which he'd previously given to a tramp and which will prove that he couldn't have murdered Christine. Erica thinks this sounds pretty reasonable, and begins helping him. Erica and Robert are 'young and innocent', alright, but the film, rather radically I think, equates these qualities with above average common sense.
The film is an entertaining blend of unsentimental English humour and tense set pieces, and is required viewing for anyone stuck on the idea that Hitchcock was a technical director who didn't care about actors. Standout scenes include Erica dragging her on-the-run boyfriend to her cousin's birthday party (Blindman's Bluff takes on a whole new urgency), and the moment when Erica's father (played by the excellent Percy Marmont) finds out that she's been helping a murder suspect to escape. He's been established as a three-dimensional character, so the hurt look in his eyes is all we need to appreciate Erica's dilemma, torn between her family and what she knows to be right. Similarly, Old Will (Edward Rigby), the tramp who's made off with Robert's raincoat, is no mere pawn of the plot but a lovable eccentric. He ends up helping Erica and Robert, the trio established as an odd family unit.
Then there's the brilliant climactic scene, as our heroes are closing in on the real murderer. He's hidden himself in plain sight, as the drummer in a blackface jazz band (yes, really), so we're treated to long crane shot, as we get closer and closer to his face and the facial tic – his violently blinking eyes – which is his only remarkable feature. Will Erica, Robert and Old Will see what we see? Such is the genius of Hitchcock. He just points out the obvious and waits.
Based on the novel A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey, Young and Innocent uses the familiar Hitchcock formula of a likeable couple against a backdrop of adventure and intrigue, but is anything but formulaic, not least for its unfashionably optimistic outlook. Here we are in 1937, being told that to be young is to be idealistic but intelligent. It's not a message that comes through often in movies, even today. Hitchcock went on to make many wonderful films (another favourite of mine, Notorious, has many similarities to Young and Innocent), but was never again so complimentary of human nature. Perhaps it was a moment of innocence for him too.
Still, I have to admit to a romantic sense of melancholy when I think of this film. Nova Pilbeam was almost cast in The Lady Vanishes but missed out to Margaret Lockwood. She was also in the running for the big Hollywood production of Rebecca but was pipped at the post by Joan Fontaine. Her career never really took off, and I can't help but wonder why. Such is the egocentricity of the film fan, somehow imagining that a life not lived on screen is a life unlived. In fact, Nova Pilbeam probably went on to have an utterly fabulous life and never looked back. I know that's what Erica Burgoyne would have done.
Want to write for SBS Film? We want you share your story about your favourite film from world, indie or arthouse cinema. Simply write to us at email@example.com (with 'My Favourite Film' in the subject line), and tell us what your all-time favourite film is, and why you'd like to write about in an upcoming SBS Film newsletter.