Madness, cruelty, voyeurism and murder all play their part in Hitchcock’s debut film from 1928. The Pleasure Garden is a delight. The basic premise of two charming innocents in ill-fated relationships with the wrong person is less straightforward than it would appear, but what gives the film its appeal are subtle touches of narrative style; my favourite was the juxtaposition of Jill being wined and dined by the Prince while her fiancé is sat waiting patiently over a cup of tea with her flatmate Patsy- which tell so much more.
The characterisation of Jill is interesting in that she seems naïve but quickly reveals herself to be cold and manipulative, while the mirror image male character of Levet goes through an altogether darker and more gradual transformation. Conversely Patsy seems initially to be distant and self-assured to the point of self-possession but later is revealed as accomodating and approachable but insecure (losing her unattainable eroticism once she has removed her blonde wig, a fact which won’t be lost on any viewers coming to this film as a Hitchcock fan). In spite of the pace and dynamism of the film, bar the honeymoon sequence, it is the character twists which make the film memorable.
From an opening sequence where the camera shares the gaze of a rich Theatre-goer ogling the legs and torso of a clearly discomfited dancer, we are unequivocally in a Hitchcockian world of disrepute where the mendacious impose their will upon the weak. And so it goes throughout the film: Jill takes advantage of Patsy’s hospitality and is spiteful in return, she cuckolds Hugh but refuses to give up his engagement ring because of its value, Levet shames then beats then murders his foreign lover once the affair is revealed, he then coerces his wife Patsy into returning to him by threatening the feverish, debilitated Hugh- and so it goes.
The challenge in 2017 is to watch The Pleasure Garden as though it were 1928. To detach the film from the immense body of work it foreshadows. To set aside ones acute awareness of the silent era’s theatrical performance styles. In so doing, we free ourselves to be taken along for the ride- for Hollywood has told this story many times since. If you are able to do this, The Pleasure Garden is a joy- by turns romantic, surprising and suspenseful.