Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
I’ve talked in previous posts about how dealing with race is not Hitchcock’s strong suit. Although when judged against his contemporaries, he’s nowhere near the worst offender. Most of his films range from semi-enlightened (by historic standards) to indifference, which is honestly better than offensive blackface, lazy stereotypes, or jungle caricatures. The Ring even seems like it’s going to be better than most of his films; there’s a black character at a circus, but he’s played by a black actor. Even better, one of a group of the lead character’s friends is a black man, and his race is never remarked upon or discussed. He shakes hands, laughs, and spends time with his friends as an equal.
Which is all part of what made this so jarring:
Yikes. It’s still bracing to see that word jump out at you, whether it’s in Huckleberry Finn or a 1927 silent Hitchcock movie. It’s even pretty rare in Hollywood, especially once you get into the sound era. And what makes this even worse is that this is the only film that Hitchcock has solo writer’s credit on. Yes, other people helped write it who are uncredited but up on the screen it’s “Written & Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.” With the n-word jumping right off the screen.
There’s nothing to do and nothing to say about it. The word would never show up in a Hitchcock film again. It’s an unfortunate bit of history, a black mark against Hitchcock, from a man and a time when as an artist, he should have known better.
The rest of the film doesn’t have anywhere near this kind of racism. In what is turning into a a recurring motif for Hitchcock’s silent films, The Ring is a competent melodrama enlivened by his brilliant, expressionistic filmmaking.
The film opens at a fairground where “One-Round” Jack (former boxer Carl Brisson) fights any and all takers and is hoping to make enough to marry his ticket-taker girlfriend, known only as “The Girl” (Lillian Hall-Davis). Meanwhile professional boxer Bob Corby (Ian Hunter) fights Jack and wins, also winning the affection of The Girl (we’ll come back to this). Jack spends the rest of the film working his way up the fighting ladder to eventually challenge Corby for her love, and his honor.
If this sounds like predictable pish-posh, it is. Alma Reville’s name is missing from the screenwriting credit, and that’s notable because she often fleshed out Hitch’s female characters. Here The Girl falls in love with Corby but still marries Jack, for reasons that are unexplained. She starts going out with Corby almost immediately after her wedding. Meanwhile Jack does nothing, literally nothing, doesn’t even talk to her about it, presuming only that he must fight Corby for her love. I honestly can’t tell if The Girl is supposed to be a capricious woman blinded by money & power (which is bad) or just a lousy, “no-good woman,” who cheats because it’s in her nature (which is worse). This type of woman also pops up in Hitchcock’s Blackmail, where the leading lady is shown cheating on her boyfriend (an act that leads to her accidentally killing the man who tries to rape her). Or maybe The Girl is just a prize to be won (also bad). When Jack is pining for her, another character tells him “She’s all right. The trouble is that he’s a champion, and you’re not.” So…it’s his fault that she’s cheating on him?
And I’m not trying to imply that cheating is the worst thing that can ever happen in a movie; after all, many of Hitchcock’s films involve theft, murder, and worse. Yet this kind of amorality is unusual for Hitchcock, especially when, at the end of the film, it matters so little. In The Ring, The Girl puts Jack through a living hell, staying out with Corby on the night of her big fight, flaunting her love of him by keeping a photo of Corby in the house, and marrying Jack with one eye towards Corby the whole time. During the film I was furious at her character yet in the closing moments, Hitchcock and Hall-Davis pull off a moment so cheesy, so melodramatic, that I’m mad it worked so well.
When the showdown between Corby and Jack arrives, it’s clear what is at stake. It’s also the only time we see a full fight from start to finish, in all its clumsy brutality. The Girl is there, watching Jack take a vicious beating but keep coming back for more. His insistence on winning, his inability to stay down, slowly wins her over as she moves from Corby’s side to his. By the end of the fight, she’s metaphorically and literally in his corner, rousing Jack to win the fight. In the last moments, he forgives her and she throws away a bracelet that Corby gave her, which has been an ongoing symbol of her attraction to him.
It’s silly. It’s super-cheesy and makes no sense. I was ready to be mad at the film’s horribly-drawn female character and the way she’s made to act, yet her realization and his open-hearted forgiveness and embrace floored me. It reminded me of the ending of Rich and Strange (1931), where both couples have affairs and then summarily forget about them and move on. For such a classically British filmmaker, Hitch is demonstrating a very French sensibility in his early work. It’s also a very Catholic motif, one that we see in I Confess (1953), as Father Logan ministers to the dying man who tried to run his entire life.
Forgiveness is something I struggle with. I wish I was better at it. I don’t like the idea of holding grudges grudges and I’ve been working on it. It’s still hard. We all have those moments and those people that we can’t let go of.
Full disclosure: right here I was planning on writing about some of the grudges and anger issues I’ve had with people. People who’ve wronged me, made huge mistakes that hurt me, stuff like that. I’ve written draft after draft of the next few paragraphs, trying to find the right tone, trying not to hurt people that I still know, but also wanting to hurt them, wanting to feel right, wanting to share those grudges with the world.
And then I deleted everything and started over. I’m only telling these stories to make myself feel better, to be the hero of the story. I’m not including the mistakes I made, the times I was shitty, or the history that leads up to these incidents. Maybe I want sympathy, or maybe I just want to be right. I want you, the reader, to agree with ME, and validate ME.
That isn’t productive. It’s not useful. And It’s the kind of shit that I try to purge myself of.
I’m not always successful. I do gossip about people, enjoy a good schadenfreude, and talk shit more than I should. But that’s not what I want for myself. I want to get to the point where I can let go of those perceived slights and betrayals. I want to understand that it’s not always about me; hell, it’s almost never about me. People are almost never consciously malicious, they just don’t see things the way I do. I’m turning 40 this year, and my hope for the next decade is that I can be less judgmental, more open, and more forgiving. It’s hard. But it’s something to strive for.
So maybe the plot of The Ring is all puff. The way Hitchcock directs, it barely matters. He was gaining confidence by leaps and bounds, as this was only his fourth feature coming after The Lodger (1927). Hitchcock takes more chances, employs a more flamboyant style, and in general swings for the fences more than he had on any of this previous films.
And damn him if it doesn’t work. Working with Jack Cox, a cameraman experienced in dissolves and trick photography, Hitchcock employs endless visual gags and gimmicks to keep this lightweight story afloat. The opening scenes at the fairground are a miracle of quick cutting and atmosphere, moving swiftly from one attraction to another, leading us to the boxing tent and inside. Then it’s back outside to the crowd literally dissolving away as night falls.
Hitch makes great use of dissolves in The Ring. Corby’s face appears on Jack’s punching bag. The Girl’s visage floats in mid-air, taunting Jack while he talks about his career. And in a brilliant sequence that would be repurposed or stolen by countless others, Hitchcock charts Jack’s rapid ascent through a shot of a boxing billboard. In the first shot, we see his name at the very bottom of the poster, next to some spring blossoms. Then as the tree turns to summer leaves, his name moves up. As it dissolves to winter, his name moves higher and higher, until finally it’s spring and Jack is at the very top of the poster. It’s a swift, elegant, and brilliant idea.
Elsewhere Hitchcock’s German Expressionism background is evident. During a drunken party sequence, the shots elongate and stretch to film the frame, covered in overlapping images of dancing, record players, and piano keys. In the final boxing scene, Hitchcock uses a moving camera and point of view to put the camera right in the ring, predating Rocky and Raging Bull by decades. He even uses an early version of a gag he’d perfect in Strangers on a Train; while the entire audience is intently watching an early fight, Corby’s attention is all on The Girl (a version of Robert Walker ignoring the tennis match and staring straight ahead at Farley Granger).
While Hitchcock would later complain that he was pigeonholed as a director of thrillers, it’s clear that this is where his strengths lie. The Ring shows that he could make a simple melodrama, but in doing so, he’s falling back on the kinds of tricks and visual ingeunity that most melodramas don’t need. Maybe Hitchcock isn’t the Master of Suspense because he chose to be, but because that’s the best use of his precise, exacting visual sense and mathematical timing. With those gifts I don’t know that he would have flourished in romance or comedy films. I do wonder what would have happened if he’d made a Western, with their razor-sharp visual sense and spectacle. The mind reels…
The Ring is streaming on Youtube without a score. It’s available to rent on iTunes or Amazon with a great, inventive score.