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Film

100 years of mystery: The strange case of Alfred Hitchcock's missing film 'Number 13'

Alfred Hitchcock changed the shape and trajectory of cinema with titles such as The 39 Steps, North by Northwest, Rear Window, and Psycho. His fascinating, semi-voyeuristic account of the human condition set the form on a completely different course that was to open it up to future auteurs such as Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky, helping to create the incredibly complex medium it is today.

It was now more cerebral and delved into the complex, Jungian recesses of the psyche, exploring death, murder, and sex in a forensic way that had never been done before. It’s indicative of the pioneering quality of Hitchcock’s work that he remains so pertinent today over 40 long years after his passing. 

For much of his career, Hitchcock was celebrated as the very best in the game, but it wasn’t always like this. As with anyone striving to become the finest in their chosen occupation, the director worked tirelessly in his rise to prominence, cutting numerous flicks before he finally gained his ultimate goal, global success as a master of cinema.

The first of these was 1922’s Number 13. It came as Hitchcock was awarded his first shot at directing for Gainsborough Pictures, but although it is considered the auteur’s first feature film, it has an odd story. It was never released and, subsequently, became a missing movie.

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Not one person, that we know of, has ever seen the film, and even the most enlightened Hitchcock historians are perplexed by it. Information surrounding the project is beyond scarce. For years, the film has fascinated film historians and fans, as a handful of production stills have survived, including one that shows a youthful Hitchcock in action outside the Angel pub in Rotherhithe, London. These pictures suggest that Hitchcock did make the film, or at least part of it, but apart from these, every trace of it has disappeared.

What we do know about the film is that the narrative followed the story of a set of poor residents who lived in a house funded by The Peabody Trust, which was founded by the famous American banker-philanthropist George Foster Peabody. Added to the intrigue is that stars of the silver screen, Clare Greet and Ernest Thesiger, were cast as unnamed husband and wife. 

We also know that Number 13 was written by Anita Ross, a staff member at Islington Studios. In the lengthy interview Hitchcock gave to François Truffaut, which became the 1967 book Hitchcock/Truffaut, the director revealed that Ross claimed to have some form of professional association with the biggest star of the day, Charlie Chaplin, but he never elucidated on this. 

Given that 2022 is the centenary of Number 13, the search for more information about the abandoned project has new impetus. The main aim is to find the film, meaning that we’ll be able to understand how Hitchcock developed as a director.

At the time of Number 13‘s production, Hitchcock, who was in his early 20s, was desperate to make his mark on the world. Prior to the film, Hitchcock had been working for the American company Famous Players-Lasky, the precursor to Paramount, at its London base in Islington. Hitchcock’s job involved designing title cards and managing the artistic direction of films. Learning the trade quickly, he became the most in-the-know at the company, eclipsing the veterans who had been in the business years. 

So, at the time of Number 13, Hitchcock was really coming into his own, and this is what has surprised historians and fans most, puzzling them about why production was stopped on the film. He rarely discussed it in interviews, but once, when he described it as a “somewhat chastening experience”, inferring that things didn’t go to plan. 

I’d suggest that it was something to do with financing. The last piece of information we know is that Clare Greet financed the production with her own funds, and that before her, Hitchcock’s uncle, John, also provided money to get it off the ground, which indicates that the studio wasn’t backing the production financially, or that Hitchcock was having trouble bringing Ross’s story to life. 

Interestingly, Hitchcock felt so indebted to Greet for her charity, that she then appeared in six of his films, The Ring (1927), The Manxman (1929), Murder! (1930), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Sabotage(1936), and Jamaica Inn (1939).

One day, I hope the footage of Number 13 is discovered, as this short tale is utterly intriguing.

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