Though he’d worked on abandoned projects, this 1925 film – shot in Germany and Italy, with American leads and British supporting players – was the 25-year-old Alfred Hitchcock’s first film. Its opening sequence includes voyeurism, sexy teasing, slouching pickpockets and dancing girls (the title refers to a music hall), showing that Hitch’s lifelong interests were already stirring – though he wouldn’t hit on the crime-suspense mode that was his metier until The Lodger.
If this were a talkie, it would probably have been a musical – it lays down plot-licks that would be taken up by everything from The Broadway Melody to Showgirls as experiences chorine Patsy (Virginia Valli) takes naif Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty) under her wing, only to suffer as the ungrateful minx becomes too full of herself. Moving out of their shared lodgings into a luxury flat where she’ll be a kept woman, Jill writes that ‘since I am nearly a star’ it wouldn’t be fitting that she stay in ‘cheap lodgings’. Things get away from the music hall and into globe-trotting and romantic complications – Jill neglects her stalwart fiance Hugh (John Stuart), who has gone overseas to be a planter, to run around with phony counts and older ‘stagedoor tomcats’ while Patsy marries Hugh’s moustached wrong ‘un colleague Levett (Miles Mander) even though gets bored on their Italian honeymoon and spends his time at the plantation (wives not allowed, according to the company) grappling with a bare-midriff native girl (maybe Nita Naldi). When he writes home claiming to be down with a fever, Patsy sets out to nurse him and discovers him in a dissipated, wild-haired, drunken state (‘you filthy animal!’) – and vows to leave.
Before she gets a boat home, she finds herself nursing Hugh, who really does have a fever (we can see where this is going), while Levett becomes the first of Hitchcock’s many thrill-killers, drowning his mistress and going mad as he has a guilt-induced vision of her in the mosquito netting which drives him to try to murder his wife with a sword (‘she won’t rest until I’ve killed you too’). Of course, Patsy (‘I’m sorry Jill’s turned out to be no good’) and Hugh end up together. Based on a book by Oliver Sandys (a woman, who also wrote as ‘Countess Barcynska’), it’s a novelettish popular romance, with a saintly heroine who suffers emotional distress for much of the film only to be subjected to physical peril in a climax which is a sketch for several subsequent husband-tries-to-kill wife finales in the Hitch canon. Mander, who evidently shared a certain sexual sadism with his character (Michael Powell writes about it in his autobiography), is obviously the most complex, interesting character here – and the actor brings more conflicted depths to a role written as a simple cad.
Early Hitchcock touches abound – in lieu of a personal appearance, he gets his to-be-wife Alma Reville into the front row at an audition; a stage dresser is a Wilde-haired floppy gay caricature who also evokes Cesare of The Cabinet of Caligari; there’s a lot of theatre detail, mostly stressing the disreputable aspects (top-hatted wolves lurking in the foyer); chubby, down-to-Earth landlord-and-landlady who do comic relief but also pry into the lives of the principles, along with their funny dog (‘Cuddles’); Levett stabbing through a grille door with his long-bladed weapon of choice and his shadow growing huge over his cowering victim to be before he notices in disbelief that good old Hugh has shot him.