WEEK 5: The Ring (1928)

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Welcome back, if you are indeed back, to week five of Weekly Hitch – the blog in which I watch as many of Hitchcock’s films as possible, in chronological order, and then analyze them in far too much detail, while also being not quite insightful enough. Basically, it’s like a film nerd’s podcast, but written down.

This week, we journey with Hitch to a new film company – a new producer, new actors, new cameraman, and a new writer… Hitchcock himself! It’s an impressive, and expressionistic feast for the eyes – it’s 1928’s The Ring.

The Film:

The Ring is a very simple, yet thematically… not complex, but intricate anyway, story about two boxers who are in love with the same woman. It is also Alfred Hitchcock’s only self-written film, and his first for John Maxwell – head of the newly formed “British International Pictures” company, which had lured Hitchcock away from Gainsborough.

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The story begins with a circle – in this case a drumhead – and circles and rings and such will become the very centre of this film and its theme for the next little while. It opens at a fairground (with a pretty great montage sequence), where “One Round” Jack Sander is working as basically a sideshow freak.

Jack (played by relative new-comer Carl Brisson) boxes average joes, and if they win, they get money. But they never win – because he’s “One Round” Jack Sanders, get it? And Jack has his best girl, to whom he’s going to get married as soon as he wins enough money in the ring. The girl is played by Lillian Hall-Davis, who has her own tragic story we’ll get into later.

Then, one day at the fair, a strapping young fellow turns up and hits on Jack’s girl – and she tricks him into going into the ring against Jack, even though she kind of has the hots for him. But, unbeknownst to her, this tall drink of water isn’t just any ol’ rube – he’s Bob Corby (played by Ian Hunter) the boxing champion of Australia!

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Inside the boxing tent, Jack beats up several opponents and then faces the secret champion. Jack’s ring-crew don’t think much of the guy – but Bill soon stretches “One Round” into the second, and for the first time ever Jack Sanders gets knocked out! Lillian watches this all through a hole in the tent and is shocked to see her man go down… to an even stronger man!

So Bill Corby gets the prize money, which he spends on a gold arm bangle for Lillian – and his manager is so impressed with Jack that “One Round” gets hired on as Bill Corby’s sparring partner. So everything is great… for now.

Now that Jack has a job and some coin, he and Lillian get married in a very funny scene in which all the fair-ground freaks (including siamese twins) show up for the ceremony, and the happy couple go off to start their life – which for Lillian seems to involve almost immediately flirting with Bill Corby, her husband’s boss. And we’re supposed to feel torn.

As Jack works his way up the fighting circuit and gets ever angrier about his wife’s wandering eye, things eventually come to a head in a rather violent outburst after Lillian admits to loving the Aussie and Jack gets rough with her. (I’m skipping over some stuff – but well get back to it eventually) So Jack decides that he will fight Bill Corby in the ring and that will somehow win him back his wife, who I guess is having a hard time choosing between the two men.

But, before fighting Corby, Jack has to work his way up the ladder – a process shown cleverly by Hitchcock by a series of fight posters, all showing Jack progressing higher and higher up the undercard – and then the fateful day comes: It’s “One Round” Jack Sanders vs Bill Corby. The prize is a woman, because this is a horrible chauvinistic movie in which a woman has no actual choice, but is just a trophy… anywhoooo

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The climactic battle is really great, and amazingly shot to take place in the Royal Albert Hall. The stands are full of fancy men and women in tuxedoes and gowns, all dressed up to watch the brutality, and shock of shocks, Lillian shows up as well to watch her men go at it.

The fight plays out as boxing movies tend to do – hitting and so forth – at one point Jack is revived by having champagne poured over him (the drink figures in a few earlier scenes as well) and just when it seems like he’s about to lose, Lillian decides that she loves him – goes to his corner and tells him so. This gives Jack the strength to fight on, to defeat Bill Corby, and to win the day!

In the end, Jack forgives his wife for putting him through all this crap and the bangle that Corby bought her (the other ‘ring’ of the title) is left behind to be returned to Corby and then abandoned.

And that’s The Ring.

The Result:

So what did I think of the movie? That’s a complicated question, it turns out.

To try and judge The Ring as a film I’m going to look at it from a couple different angles – I know this is not how I’ve been doing things, but this is an important film in Hitchcock’s life. In Truffaut’s famous interview book, Hitch said “…after The LodgerThe Ring was the next Hitchcock picture.” And as we’ve learned so far – what Hitchcock decides to say about his films tells us what he thought about himself. And with that quote he is telling us that unlike Downhill or Easy Virtue – this movie was truly his own, and so should be looked at on every level as a significant piece in the formation of the artist.

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As for the actual reviews, The Ring was – undeniably – a critical hit. It was screened for the press in September of 1927, and was immediately hailed as pretty much the greatest British film in history. Hitchcock had done it again. It was the best thing ever. However, when the film went on to general release… audiences did not respond. At all. The box office was very poor.

The question we’re left with then is; Why the difference? And, how is the film actually? And the trouble is that in this case, both critics and the public were right. It’s a terrible masterpiece.

What’s great? Everything you see. Hitchcock once again steps his game way up, and moreover he brings to full bear everything he learned in Germany. This movie is by far his most expressionistic and his economy of story-telling is flawless. Hitchcock has so refined the art of silent film that the inter-titles are almost redundant. His use of camera tricks and staging, brilliant shot choices, exciting structure and thematic cohesiveness… everything that would make the Hitchcock of the 40’s and 50’s into a master is on display here.

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In one great shot he shows the hero boxer Jim pouring champagne after a victory, but he tells his friends that they can’t drink until his wife gets home to join them… and then slowly the champagne is shown becoming less and less fizzy – a metaphor for a marriage gone flat. That’s the kind of simple economy that makes the Hitchcock of the 20’s so remarkable, he manages to tell a story with every frame and shot – and The Ring is almost a masterclass in that ability.

But then there is the story. And it’s just too simple and boring to be interesting.

Hitchcock is the sole credited writer on The Ring, and to an extent that’s rightly so. While there is rumour that others (Eliot Stannard) helped him write it – this is very much his tale, and it’s not great. I don’t like the girl played by Lillian Hall Davis, who cheats on her fiancé with another guy, and then gets married, and then cheats again and yet I’m supposed to root for him to win her back? Ugh. Plus, Bill Corby, the other man (played by Ian Hunter) is not at all villainous enough. He doesn’t steal Lillian away, because he doesn’t have to – she’s totally willing. And as for Jack Sanders (Carl Brisson), he comes off looking like a chump who goes through hell to win back a woman who doesn’t deserve him.

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And throughout the rest of the story, not much happens. Scenes and sequences go on too long for my modern tastes – and while I can see that much of silent film was about watching people have feelings rather than watching a story happen, I get that film was a different art form back then – but unlike Downhill or The Lodger, the story here just doesn’t have enough plot to help things move along.

In the end, it’s a well crafted script about a terrible story with unbelievable characters – filmed by an undeniable genius.

The Production:

The Ring marks a new chapter in the career and life of Alfred Hitchcock, and it won’t be the last new chapter of the 1920’s either – but it is possibly the most important one.

Hitchcock directing 'The Ring'

Hitchcock (right) directing ‘The Ring’

When Hitchcock decided to leave Gainsborough pictures for the newly created British International, he was leaving behind a supportive and collaborative producer in Michael Balcon, and heading toward the unfamiliar oversight of John Maxwell.

Hitchcock had signed on with Maxwell in the hopes of expanding his vision with more money and more creativity – but Maxwell was not the man to help Hitchcock see that through. Maxwell had formed BIP with the unspoken goal of making more movies, faster and cheaper, and targeting them directly at the English audience. He had no patience for artistic integrity or coddling egos, and had seen his signing of Hitch to a 12 picture deal as a means of ensuring that he had the very best talent at hand for whatever he wanted done.

And for The Ring, at least, Hitch had his way. He had become slightly obsessed with boxing over the preceding years – specifically the contrast of well-dressed folk watching barbaric fights, and he decided that for his first picture at BIP he would showcase every nuance of the sport in the most perfect detail. And to that degree he succeeded.

The Ring benefited from Hitch’s keen eye for detail and the elements of style that he picked up in Germany. He got to cast his own leads, and so made a star out of relative new-comer Carl Brisson (who had been a prize-fighter back in his native Denmark) and Lillian Hall Davis, who Hitchcock would later remember as being one of his favourite actresses.

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Lillian Hall Davis would appear in Hitchcock’s next picture as well, but eventually wound up having a rather tragic life. She never quite managed to make the transition to sound-films, and committed suicide just 6 years after filming The Ring, by turning on her gas oven and then slitting her own throat.

Production on the film began in a rush in the summer of 1927 at Maxwell’s new Elstreet studios and seems to have gone smoothly. By this time, Hitch was a professional and capable director. People write memories of him as being almost bursting with ideas and energy – and even while operating under a contract that demanded four feature films of him every year (!), Hitch still seemed like a big chubby lightning bolt of creativity.

One interesting aspect of The Ring‘s production is the addition of cinematographer Jack E. Cox to Hitchcock’s world. Cox began as a camera assistant in 1913 and already had 6 films under his belt as director of photography before being assigned by Maxwell to Hitchcock’s new project. (Hitch would tell people later on that he had to train Cox on how to film, but that has been shown to be ridiculous)

Cox would go on to work with Hitchcock on 10 films in total, almost more than any other cinematographer, and while Hitch would of course claim that Cox had no bearing on the quality of his pictures, there is some evidence that Cox’s strength with what they called ‘trick photography’ and his willingness to be pushed and challenged by Hitch allowed the director much more latitude when it came to shot design. And regardless, at the end of the day – these were formative years for Hitchcock, and Jack Cox was among that formation.

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After production on The Ring ended, Hitchcock hurried on to his next production – yet still found time to get Mrs. Hitchcock in ‘the family way’, since Alma would become pregnant that fall, right around the time that The Ring was screening for critics.

It was a good year for Britain’s greatest director.

The Legacy:

Now mostly and sadly forgotten, The Ring is both a lesser film and a seminal work in the career of Alfred Hitchcock. It is certainly not a “Hitchcockian” pictures, as we would come to know them; no murders or intrigue – no suspense at all almost. And yet, we have to remember that in 1928 Hitchcock had only filmed a handful of movie-murders (one in The Pleasure Garden and the plot of The Lodger centres around murder) and his “non-Hitchcockian” films far outnumbered anything else. He had done mostly dramas, romance and play-adaptations. There was no classical Hitchcock film from which to deviate. But there can be no doubt that The Ring is none-the-less, very much a film made in the style for which Hitchcock would one day become famous.

In fact, it would be two more years before Hitchcock would again deal in murder, and even more years still before he would again find the stride and wild success promised by The Lodger, but The Ring still holds within a number of elements and clues to the greatness yet to come.

Hitch’s play with thematic devices, in this case rings and circles – the script itself is a giant circle – beginning at a fairground boxing match and ending amidst the spectacle of a boxing match at the Albert Hall. He also focusses very strongly on reflection and secrecy. And while Ivor Montagu helped Hitch see that The Lodger required strong symbolic elements (in that case it was the triangle), here, Hitchcock require no such advice – he had learned his lesson well.

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In later years, Hitch would return to the circus, in both Strangers On A Train and in the 40’s thriller Saboteur  and with both he clearly showed an affinity for sideshow freaks and for the excitement of the fair. Hitchcock had a knack for taking things that seemed fun and innocent – the fair, the movies, a concert, Mount Rushmore, a bird – and making them sinister, and while The Ring lacks anything sinister, it certainly shows his ability to dig into a setting and suck the marrow out for his art.

Also The Ring shows a keen interest in contrast – especially in the tuxedoed fans at the boxing match come the end of the picture. Hitch would film another climax at Albert Hall for 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, but then he would be contrasting murder with high-society, instead of just brutality. And, once again, I think that’s the key theme to Hitch’s early years and works.

Hitchcock would come back to these early works time and time again over the course of his career – he would never for get a trick or a shot – he was filling his palette in these early years, and would draw from it for the rest of his days. But, he didn’t always have it exactly right. He knew that a love triangle was good, but he was missing something. He liked the setting, but didn’t have the right story. There are bits and pieces that come so close to wonderful, but just fail to reach – and that’s where the work ethic and brilliance of Hitchcock came to play, because he never forgot, and he never lost a chance to get something right later on. Even if it was in a completely different picture.

And so, that’s it for now. Next week I’ll look at one of Hitchcock’s few comedies, with the seemingly well regarded The Farmer’s Wife.

Until then.

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