The Ring (1927)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by John Maxwell
Cinematography by Jack E. Cox
British International Pictures
Distributed by Wardour Films
(1:48) Alfred Hitchcock: A Legacy of Suspense box set DVD, Mill Creek
Alfred Hitchcock made a boxing picture? Yes, it happened. So is it a knockout, or should you throw in the towel after just a couple of rounds?
Before getting to any bouts, Hitchcock gives the viewer a taste of carnival life as we see superimposed shots and swing chair rides through the eyes of carnival goers, all of which seem like a substitute for the director’s staircase scenes (already a favorite even this early in his career). This fantasy element fits in well with the carnival atmosphere and leads us to a sideshow favorite: the contest of strength.
A carnival barker invites any gentlemen from the audience to step up and get in the ring with the undefeated “One Round” Jack Sander (Carl Brisson), who’s earned his nickname by finishing off all his opponents in one round. Hitchcock introduces a bit of social commentary by having several women in the audience encouraging their husbands to try to best “One Round” Jack, possibly suggesting that those husbands need to do something courageous, or at least exciting with their lives. (Or maybe it’s just marital discord? Interestingly, Hitchcock was a newlywed during this time, so make of that what you will.)
Regardless, Hitchcock knows exactly when to cut to a close-up when Jack notices Mabel the ticket taker (Lillian Hall-Davis) enticing a young man in the audience to challenge Jack. “One Round” clearly has his eye on Mabel (and perhaps for a different type of “round”), so this could lead to a competition inside and outside the ring. The young challenger Corby (Ian Hunter) accepts and climbs into the ring with “One Round.”
Hitchcock does several wonderful things here. He doesn’t allow the audience a clear view of how this challenge/acceptance develops, except in closeups of the main players, Jack, Corby, and Mabel. Once the fight starts, we are left to try to see over or through the crowd to witness the action, just as we would have done had we been there. We’re spectators of the film, but also of the fight, a concept that Hitchcock would use many times in his career, subtly making his audiences complicit in the film’s proceedings.
We also see some small but interesting visual touches. Appropriate to the film’s title, we notice several different rings or circles throughout the film. In one of the earliest, Hitchcock uses a spinning circle of tickets sold by Mabel, indicating the passage of time, followed by a bracelet Corby gives Mabel, a recurring motif.
We also see a weathered, stained “Round 1” card placed before the audience as the fight between Jack and Corby begins. To everyone’s astonishment (including Jack), Corby survives the first round, causing the carnival barker to replace the “Round 1” card with a pristine white “Round 2” card, it’s sparkling brightness suggesting that it’s being used (and Jack is really being challenged) for the very first time.
As even audiences of 1927 would suspect, we’re being set up for a love triangle (or “ring,” if you will) story between Jack, Mabel, and Corby, and it’s an engaging one. I won’t go into details, leaving you to see the film for yourself, which is available in a number of ways, which I’ll get to in a few moments.
I’m certainly no boxing expert and don’t know how many times boxing scenes had been portrayed onscreen by 1927, but the ones in The Ring are compelling and look reasonably good (other than the referee frequently getting in the way). There’s certainly a significant amount of suspense in the final fight and also in wondering who’s going to win the heart of Mabel.
In an interview with News Chronicle in 1937 (reprinted in Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, Volume 1, edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 1995), Hitchcock recounts the story of what Ian Hunter had for lunch just before shooting the film’s boxing finale: bread, cheese, and beer. Hitchcock instructed Brisson (a trained boxer) to treat the scene as he would a real bout. Says Hitchcock:
Every time he (Brisson) connected, Ian remembered the beer. It was a raging hot day. He was sweating like a bull. They fought on and on, Hunter swinging at Brisson’s handsome, elusive face; Brisson plugging blow after blow to the mark; Hunter puffing and blowing and grunting with every smack he took. Finally, I gave the signal for the last of it. Brisson… launched a blow at Hunter’s body. Hunter caught his breath with a gulp, that sort of gulp you give when a football catches you amidships. He swayed, tottered, sat down. He was congratulated on a brilliant piece of acting. I got some kudos for a good piece of direction. Actually, neither of us deserved any credit. I was not directing. Hunter was not acting.
After the disappointing Easy Virtue production for Gainsborough Pictures, Hitchcock moved to British International Pictures, which brought him more creative freedom (including casting decisions) and superior facilities to work with. The Ring also marks the first time Hitchcock worked with cinematographer Jack Cox, who was very comfortable with effects such as dissolves and double-exposures. With a larger budget, Hitchcock was able to construct more believable sets and, with the help of Cox, bring some visual elements of German Expressionism into The Ring. Hitchcock was pleased with The Ring, referring to it as the second “real” Hitchcock film after The Lodger.
Hitchcock completionists will want to see all of his films, but for those who may not wish to see everything, The Ring is certainly one that shouldn’t be missed.
You can find it online (although not of great quality) and in various low-budget early Hitchcock collections, but the best way to see it is by picking up the recent Kino Lorber Hitchcock: British International Pictures Collection Blu-ray, which also includes The Farmer’s Wife (1928), Champagne (1928), The Manxman (1929), and The Skin Game (1931).
Next time, I’ll look at another film in that collection, The Farmer’s Wife. Thanks for reading.
Photos: Talk Film Society, The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki, Kino Lorber