Though trying to move over to the more viable-seeming company British International Pictures, Hitchcock still had ties to Gainsborough and his next film, Easy Virtue, from 1927, was yet another picture for his old associates. An adaptation of a Noel Coward play, Easy Virtue is another Hitchcock film that cries out for sound and which illustrates the deficiencies of the average silent film, an increasingly strange seeming stage in the history of cinema. Hitchcock formed a short-lived professional alliance with Coward, but the influence of the collaboration can be felt in subtle ways well into the end of Hitchcock's career.
The script is credited once again to Eliot Stannard, Hitchcock's standard screenwriter of the time, and begins as a courtroom drama with flashbacks, evolves into a romance in an exotic climate, and concludes as a country estate drama. Each of these three passages or acts follows the career of Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans), a woman involved in a widely publicized divorced case whose "corespondent" is a dead painter who was doing her portrait under the watchful and suspicious eye of her alcoholic husband. Once a verdict is lodged against her, Mrs. Filton flees the local media to the south of France, where she meets a frivolous and naive young quasi-aristocrat, John Whittaker (Robin Irvine ), with whom she elopes. Back at John's estate, his new wife is greeted with suspicion by his mother (Violet Farebrother ), and conspired against to a certain degree by his sister (Dacia Deane), who thinks that John should have married family hanger on Sarah (Enid Stamp Taylor), someone of his own class. Throughout this time, Larita has kept her identity a secret, and when the attorney (Ian Hunter) for her ex-husband arrives, she fears that he will reveal her past, but the family makes the discovery on its own, through magazine articles. She is disgraced. At a grand party, from which she has been unofficially banned, Larita emerges at the top of the stairs as the flapper that she really is. After a consultation with the lawyer, who is now sympathetic to her plight, she seeks yet another divorce. As she leaves the courtroom for a second time, she poses somberly for the rabid press photographers, ordering them to "shoot … There is nothing left to kill."
On the surface Coward's play appears to be about a simple clash between attitudes within social classes and how they are affected by an intrusive media. Hitchcock seems not to be particularly interested in any of this, even though the film pre-echoes later films such as Rebecca, The Paradine Case, and Marnie. Rather, Hitchcock, as he had in earlier films, amuses his arty side with dramatic visuals that essentially detract from the clean, middlebrow narrative while also making moral, if obvious points, and social criticism. For example at the film's opening, the judge presiding over the divorce case is nearsighted, and Hitchcock makes visual use of his need for glasses, specifically a monocle to see, linking parodically with the concept of blind justice. The opening close-up, of the judge's hard-woven wig as he looks down at his bench, before he looks up to reveal his hard cold and lined face, like something out of silent era Dreyer, establishes a tone of general criticism of all those who judge Larita, and of Hitchcock's visual approach to the talky material.
That this is a play adapted to the silent screen is, as always, absurd, and the opening movement is tough going, requiring lip reading skills that leave much of what happens to broad strokes of facial expressions and postures, and little legal or any other kind of detail. The film is reduced to its emotional essentials, which, except for Hitchcock's editorializing through his visual puns, gives credence to the notion that movies dumb down complex ideas. On the other hand hand, throughout the trial sequence, the film bounces back and forth between the present, the actual trial, and the events that led to it, the painting of the portrait, the alky husband's manner, the painter's ardor, and the fight between artist and husband that leads to the painter's death, all of which is fairly sophisticated, and perhaps derived from Griffith. In a less complex form, the trial sequence anticipates The Paradine Case and its view of judges, barristers, and the legal system's attitude to women, and contrasts with the minimalist, almost surrealistic trial summaries show in Dial 'M' for Murder and Frenzy. It also bears a slight resemblance to Billy Wilder's later Witness for the Prosecution, Wilder being a director strangely in competition with Hitchcock from time to time. The continual flashbacks to the murder that led to the divorce trial (the legalities here are not rendered clearly in the film), though relatively sophisticated with closeups as transitions to the past, ultimately are useless in that the material defies human interest.
Hitchcock's career was slightly derailing. On the one hand he was about to move to a new studio where after a highly personal film he was going to embark on a series of projects that failed to express his personality. On the other, he was gaining a reputation as an "arty" director because of his visual flourishes and his association with an influential cinema club with prestigious members within the closed community of London filmmaking, an organization that imported otherwise difficult to see foreign films with little commercial viability but artistic ambitions. Hitchcock's "arty" moments in Easy Virtue are minor, however, and the bulk of the film is given to mediocre, middlebrow nonsense platitudes ("Pity is akin to love"), and highly theatrical staging and editing, such as in the scene in which the "betrayed" husband catches wife and artist embracing. There is slow paced editing for this sequence staged as a tableau, showing the husband, what he sees and misperceives, and then a pan back and forth between "lovers." The sequence features a badly staged cane beating, as well as representatives of the the worst of silent screen acting.
The film is able to eek out some interest in that perennial Hitchcock favorite, the process and rituals of society that rise to condemn, and a brief jury deliberation sequence anticipates the forthcoming Murder. Larita's flight to the French coast harks back to the exotic locales of earlier films and anticipates Rich and Strange, To Catch a Thief, and other locale oriented films made by a director who in real life was a constant traveler, and the "lavish" hotel where Larita stays is a cut-rate version of the hotels in Thief. Larita seems to have a personal attendant with gay signifiers, another Hitchcock thread, who is little seen, first in France, and who seems to follow her back to John's estate. John's status as an amateur tennis player is both a shorthand for his louche aristocratic lifestyle and an anticipation of Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock's then interest in broad lower class humor is shown in the hijinks with the sleepy coachman when John proposes to Larita, and in the innovative way that Hitchcock conveys her answer to him later, via telephone, but through the agency of an operator who listens in voyeuristically. Larita's descending the staircase at the grand ball anticipates Rebecca, and the conniving sister who seeks to undermine Larita foreshadows Lil in Marnie, as does the "horsey" world of the Whitakers.
Each break in the film's three parts is motivated by a decision. The jury's divorce decree (if that is what happens), drives Larita out of the country, and her decision to marry John takes her back and to the start of the third part. Her decision to leave him leads to the film's coda, but she does not change or grow as a result of these decisions, her identity is not refined or redefined nor does it flourish. Instead, she winds up back more or less where she started, though a little bit wiser, but in worse status, though with a bitter acceptance of the media's control over her identity. The theme of cameras, of photographers shooting her, and of cameras haunting her at moments of crisis (like the red flashes of Marnie), of photographs (and a oil portrait) that organize her downfall, is the thematic thread that links the various sections.
One of the oddest visuals in the film occurs at John's estate, when Larita first dines with the family. Looming over the dining table are long, narrow portraits of saints and religious figures, almost Russian in their iconography. There is no explanation for this imagery except perhaps to hint at the clash between the values and "virtues" of the gentry versus the flapper, making the gentry a sub-Brideshead clan, and perhaps to provide fodder for future critics such as Rohmer and Chabrol who delighted in finding the religious angle in Hitchcock's oeuvre.