The Skin Game (1931)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by John Maxwell (6-12)
Written by Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville (11, 12)
Adapted from the play by John Galsworthy
Cinematography by Jack E. Cox (12)
Edited by A. R. Gobbett, Rene Marrison (12)
British International Pictures
Distributed by Wardour Films Ltd.
(1:22) Hitchcock: British International Pictures Collection Blu-ray set, Kino Lorber
You can find my journey (so far) through Hitchcock’s filmography here.
The Skin Game finds Hitchcock in an interesting place. As with Blackmail (1929) and Juno and the Paycock (1930), the director continues a strong interest in adapting stage plays, yet still struggles with how to deliver satisfying cinematic versions of these works. The spirit of experimentation remains strong, especially in the visual techniques of storytelling. Sometimes these experiments work, and sometimes they don’t, but Hitchcock is pushing not only his own boundaries, but also those of cinema.
Based on a play by John Galsworthy, The Skin Game opens with a shot of men cutting down trees, apparently to clear land for some type of building project. But this particular project is not in the best interests of the humble Jackman family, forced to relocate after 30 years of secure living in a house owned by their landlord Jack Hillcrist (C. V. France). The wealthy Hillcrist recently sold the land to a Mr. Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn) with the understanding that he would not interfere with the current tenants.
Hornblower has other ideas. He wants to buy up this and other properties in order to clear the way for factories, informing Hillcrist, “You’ve had things your way for too long. I’m going to make this a prosperous place.” Enraged that Hornblower has broken his promise not to put anyone out, Hillcrist cries, “If this isn’t a skin game, Mr. Hornblower, I don’t know what is!” (A skin game, a term not often heard these days, here refers to the purchasing of land under false pretenses.)
Simply from his manner and speech (delivered expertly by Gwenn) we know that Hornblower is no blue blood, but rather a working class “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” type of guy, considering the Hillcrists snobs of the highest order. It soon becomes clear that Hornblower is not above using taunts, threats, and tricks to get what he wants.
Ah, but Hillcrist engages in some underhandedness of his own, discovering that Hornblower’s daughter-in-law Chloe (Phyllis Konstam), wife of Hornblower’s son Charles (John Longden), is pregnant and hiding a torrid secret. Hillcrest threatens to use that information unless Hornblower hands over the deed to the recently purchased property. Normally the rich tend to think the rules don’t apply to them, but in this case, the lower-classed Hornblower wants to change the rules (or perhaps do away with them) altogether.
The majority of the film covers this intense rivalry between Hillcrist and Hornblower, and as such, it does create various levels of tension and suspense. Yet the subject of Hitchcock’s previous film Murder! (1930) is far more interesting than a dialogue-heavy squabble over property rights, family scandals not withstanding. With so many of Hitchcock’s subsequent films involving suspense, thrilling crimes, and the pursuit of criminals or spies, The Skin Game seems rather tame. The picture appears to have less to do with crime than with morality. Although his intentions are far from praiseworthy, Hornblower appears to have broken no laws in acquiring his properties. His manner, however, is totally underhanded and unethical. The more important elements of the plot converge on how this rivalry will affect each of the men (and families) involved, which include some surprises I will leave for you to discover on your own.
Although it would not be considered an actual MacGuffin, the property rights plot point is essentially a device to examine these two men and the lengths they will go to in order to get what they want. It’s a battle between respectability and power that plays out in many areas, the most memorable of which is the auction scene.
I wonder how many auctions Hitchcock had witnessed as up to this point. Here he captures the suspense, anticipation, and comedic elements of auctions, which he would revisit years later in the auction from North by Northwest (1959). While the scene in The Skin Game is not as polished, it is effective, yet Hitchcock tries a little too hard to force suspense on the viewer by whipping the camera back and forth between bidders seated some distance apart. The result creates more queasiness than suspense. (Although this would make for quite a drinking game… Take a shot each time Hitchcock makes a rapid pan.) Yet the scene is undeniably effective. I find it fascinating that auctions, which involve many rules of etiquette often requiring little or no speaking, can be so nerve-racking.
Hillcrist and Hornblower can’t carry the film by fighting with each other, so something else must be added, the family dynamics, the details of which I won’t spoil. Perhaps these aspects were part of what presented Hitchcock with some of the frustrations of translating the play to the screen, elements which involve pacing, timing, and knowing just how much talk an audience can stomach. Much of The Skin Game leans on melodrama, but the underlying feud is always present. As we will see as his career progresses, Hitchcock will learn how to make scenes do more than one thing.
I wish I could see what was going on in Hitchcock’s mind during the production of The Skin Game. As far as I could tell from my research, he didn’t talk about the movie very much. It receives a scant mention in Hitchcock/Truffaut and very limited coverage in the Hitchcock interview books edited by Sidney Gottlieb. Alma Reville was also learning how to revise various source material, and I wish I could’ve been present during those conversations as well.
Hitchcock still seems to be very much in his experimental phase during this time. I haven’t yet seen his next three films (Rich and Strange, Number Seventeen, Waltzes from Vienna), but it would appear from the synopses I’ve read that Hitchcock is trying on several different styles and genres to see what fits. I look forward to peeking behind the curtain for those and other films. I hope you’ll continue to join me.