Not one of Hitchcock’s most memorable affairs, except perhaps for its salacious title. Easy Virtue derives from Noel Coward’s play of the same name, adapted by Eliot Stannard (who worked on most of the director’s early silents). Hitchcock opined that “it contained the worst title I’ve ever written” in the form of heroine Larita Filton’s final address to the press outside the divorce court (her second bout): “Shoot! There’s nothing left to kill”. I don’t know about that, though. At least it ensures Easy Virtue can boast somethingnoteworthy.
Because this is all a bit of a slog, really. Larita (Isabel Jeans) is disgraced after her portrait artist (Eric Bransby Williams) takes a fancy to her; her “habitual drunkard” husband (Franklin Dyall) walks in on them as she is spurning his advances. This results in hubby being shot, then beating the painter (who has left Larita his fortune) to death and dragging Larita through the divorce court.
If all this sounds quite racy, it isn’t. Not especially. And anyway, it’s told in flashback during the hearing. Hitchcock, ever wary of the rule of law, emphasises how prurient and unsympathetic the jury is (“The evidence looks conclusive to me”). Larita escapes to “the tolerant shores of the Mediterranean” and meets nice fellow John (Robin Irvine), who doesn’t want to hear about her past. However, he changes his tune after they have married and he has introduced her to the family pile (“It’s funny, I thought you’d be dark and foreign looking” she is told). There, Ma Whittaker (Violet Farebrother, also of Downhill and packing a weightlifter’s shoulders) roots around for reasons to dislike her.
This section of Easy Virtue seems to go on and on, and I suppose there’s a certain sadistic cachet to Mrs Whittaker being so beastly. Mostly, however, it highlights how much difficulty the picture has in sustaining itself (rather than leaving, “Larita remained – and suffered” we are told). Mrs Whittaker can’t believe her luck when she discovers Larita’s background. It’s a small mercy, then, that Larita doesn’t act the complete doormat. Told “In our world we do not understand this code of easy virtue” she replies “In your world, you understand very little of anything, Mrs Whittaker”.
Larita duly puts on her party frock and makes a showing at Ma Whittaker’s dance, the one she has been sworn off. She also tells John’s secret admirer (Enid Stamp Taylor) that she should have married her hubby, before agreeing to an uncontested divorce.
Easy Virtue’s signature moment is actually a relatively innocuous one; Benita Hume’s switchboard operator puts through the call from Larita to John to give her answer. Hitch stays on the operator’s face as she listens in on the conversation, so we read the response through her. It’s a rare light-hearted moment in a doomy cautionary tale, where common Hitchcock themes of injustices of the law and the horror show of marriage are present in nascent form.