The Skinny

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Yes, I am watching all Hitchcock’s theatrical features one a week, all year. No, I am not crazy. Yet.

How do we feel about Hitchcock’s filmed plays? So far, only BLACKMAIL and THE LODGER, of his theatrically derived works, strike me as successes, but they do strike me as his GREATEST successes thus far too. But those are adaptations where Hitchcock adapted most freely. His usual approach to plays, except in the case of EASY VIRTUE, was to stick faithfully to the text, whereas in filming novels he felt compelled to restructure and rewrite almost everything.

The reason for this probably lies in the greater structural rigor of theatre as a medium. Since a play is typically absorbed at one sitting, the structure has to feel right as the piece is experienced, and has to flow. A novel is consumed over several sessions, and so may have more freedom to explore byways and even cul-de-sacs. Tampering with the structure of a novel is pretty much essential in adapting it, since there’s often too much incident to present in a film or normal duration. Tampering with the structure or even the stagecraft of a play may destroy the very artistic unity that makes it worthwhile.

Of THE SKIN GAME, Hitch said that he was compelled to make it, which doesn’t stop Noel Simsolo on the DVD wondering why Hitchcock was “attracted to the project”. He wasn’t, Noel. Opening the play out a bit, Hitchcock nevertheless is defeated, not by its theatrical qualities, but by its lack of Hitchcockian ones — there is no strong character to identify with.

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Phyllis Konstam can heave bosom with the best of them.

The film does tackle a theme of considerable interest to Hitchcock, the class battles of England. Rich pottery magnate Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn, whom Hitch would cast repeatedly over the years) wants to build on a piece of idyllic land next door to the aristocratic Hillcrists’ property, and they don’t want to have their view spoiled. Mrs Hillcrist is quite prepared to stoop to blackmail against those she considers her social inferiors, threatening to ruin Hornblower’s daughter-on-law by exposing her shady past.

It’s a filmed play, and it’s mostly talk, and Hitchcock at this stage in his career has not found a brilliant solution to the filming of talk. BLACKMAIL is still his best talkie, because most of the scenes are conceived as images, visual relationships between characters which can be augmented with dialogue but which pre-exist it in the film-maker’s mind. JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK used mostly master-shots, in which the positioning of the actors could sometimes be expressive, but the movement and posing was rooted in the stage. MURDER! and THE SKIN GAME suffer from the idea of photographing talk, as if all a dialogue scene consisted of was the speech. “Photographs of people talking,” as Hitchcock put it.

Here, the technical side seems to way heavy. Gone are the sweeping locations of THE MANXMANor the pastoral views of THE FARMER’S WIFE — sound demands that Hitch confine himself to a studio, so the beauty of the landscape upon which the plot depends is presented by still photographs and effects shots. The difficulty of editing sound and impossibility of mixing it require Hitch to use as few cuts as possible, so he tries to dolly from wide to close and back again, and pan from one character to another, as much as he humanly can. The strain on his operators is clearly visible.

Despite being based on a “well-made play,” THE SKIN GAME suffers from a lack of clear point-of-view. The Hornblowers and Hillcrists are all pretty unsympathetic, with only Hornblower’s daughter-in-law as an appealing innocent, despite her dubious past (to provide evidence of adultery in divorce cases, she “went with men to hotels” for money). But she enters the plot far too late. Phyllis Konstam, a stage actress recruited to films by the theatre-going Hitch, she’s glamorous and pretty good, although touches of artificiality keep creeping in. Edmund Gwenn is of course excellent, although incapable of the abrasiveness that would make Hornblower a strong motivating force for the snobbish Hillcrists. Regular leading man John Longden turns up too, but gets little screen time. Jill Esmond, first wife of Laurence Olivier, is sexless and uninvolved as the Hillcrist’s horsey daughter.

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As with any early Hitchcock that’s a bit lacking, compensation comes in the subjective effects. When Konstam recognises a face from her past in the crowd, it zooms out at her like a Floating Head of Death. When Gwenn looks out his window at the threatened meadowland, he sees it replaced by factories, an imaginary transition that anticipates the splendid melting London shot in SABOTAGE.

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And the auction scene is a tour-de-force, with a long take from the auctioneer’s POV, darting around the room to spot the various bids, followed by a dramatic montage of close-ups as things get really fraught.

As far as John Galsworthy adaptations go, I’m not sure I think they’re a good idea, but James Whale’s ONE MORE RIVER, which benefits from being made later, with more advanced technical facilities, is greatly superior to THE SKIN GAME. Hitchcock’s film does not have Colin Clive as a sexual sadist, nor any line as good as this: “I don’t know if it’s flatulence or the hand of God.”

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17 Responses to “The Skinny”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    Galsworthy + Hitchcock seems to be the definitive “What were they thinking?” collaboration.

    Does the auction scene resemble the famous one in NORTH BY NORTHWEST in any way, in terms of mise-en-scene?

  2. No, it’s a very different kind of thing — we’re actually supposed to care about who wins the bidding. The North By Northwest scene ties in with various Hitchcocks where public speakers are made to look ridiculous (The 39 Steps, the political rally), or public events are disrupted (Family Plot, the church kidnapping).

    Hitchcock once dined with Galsworthy, who actually dictated what everyone should talk about at dinner. He respected the writer’s mastery of words, but had no desire to adapt him.

  3. Christopher Says:

    ..can’t beleieve after all these years and all these Hitchcocks,I’ve never seen his Dial M for Murder!…altho I’ve seen and even worked on stage productions…Theres a production of Hitch’s 39 Steps I think still currently running on Broadway in NY ,thats supposed to be huge hit..and I’m not surprised..I’d love to see it..I can imagine it adapted well for stage..

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    DIAL M FOR MURDER was shot in 3D because Hitchcock felt that 3D’s real purpose is to give the audience a theatrical experience. That is see the images as if the actors were right before them physically on stage in real space as opposed to the created space of cinema. Sadly I have never seen it in 3D. In 2D it’s aside from some brilliant moments and a great Grace Kelly role, not a very good film.

    ROPE is for me his most interesting and successful theatrical adaptation, in that he’s creating a single space and plays the action inside that, but even then the film isn’t a total success but not because of form but really the censorship.

    Hitchcock said that the auction in NORTH BY NORTHWEST was part of his philosophy in integrating the setting into the story. In that scene, Cary Grant can only get out of the place alive if he gets evicted by those guys so he makes this terrific ruckus and gets thrown out. In THE 39 STEPS Robert Donat is chased by the police and gets mistaken for a public speaker so he plays at public speech and gets out.

  5. when I saw the title for this entry, I was hoping we were in for another encounter with Miles Mander!

  6. Christopher Says:

    not miles mander old fellow…but… Giles Conover!

  7. Ah, I tried to watch The Pearl of Death again recently, but the disc was knackered. I’m looking forward to it after many years.

    Blackmail was a play, and is a very successful silent and talkie. It also shows the correct approach to dialogue for Hitch, something he only gradually rediscovered after sound came in. I’m looking forward to next week’s Hitch, Rich and Strange, which is an important step along that path. And it features the return of the intertitle (Yay! Intertitles!) too.

    I quite like Dial M, but it seems like a minor film. But again, have only seen it “flat”. Would be great if I could do something about that this year.

  8. The main Galsworthy-connected film I’d be interested in seeing is the ’48 “Escape,” with Joseph Mankiewicz directing Rex Harrison and Prggy Cummins plus script by Philip Dunne.

    Jonathan Rosenbaum has good things to say about “Loyalties,” a story dealing with anti-semitism with Basil Dean as director and Basil Rathbone as star. “21 Days,” which Dean also directed and has a script co-written by Grahm Greene sounds like it has possibilities. That’s a Korda production, with young Olivier and Leigh as stars plus a supporting line-up that includes Leslie Banks, Francis L. Sullivan, and Robert Newton.

  9. Escape sounds terrific, but I can’t find a copy anywhere. One to watch out for. Anything with Peggy is a must. Although only Gun Crazy shows her at her unfettered best.

    21 Days seems more obtainable, and I’ve bookmarked it for future grabbing.

  10. Just did a little searching around for Escape 1948. Twentieth Century Fox, Mankiewicz, Harrison, Cummins, you’d think this would be more accessible than it is. Someone says NYC’s MOMA has a copy, belonged to the director… with this sort of pedigree (and Freddie Young as DP, three-time Oscar-winner) seems someone might take their head(s) out of their ass(es) and make it happen. I’m game to see it.

  11. By the way I just saw Coraline in 3-D, I was most impressed with its second half in particular. Visually very striking, especially its second half, as things get darker (as I’ve said before, I love dark, dark is good). Forty years ago I imagine those in attendance to this film would’ve been dosed up solidly on either pot or hallucinogens (or both), I know, I was there. In 1969 at the age of fifteen I saw White Zombie with a friend who’d just entered college, at Michigan State University. The fragrance of ganja was thick in the air. I too was under the influence, I remember the utter strangeness of those zombies as they staggered forth working that gristmill in hypnotic slow-motion…

  12. White Zombie is a real feverdream. Am guardedly optimistic about Coraline, it seems very interesting, and maybe Neil Gaiman’s script will work better with animation. Although Beowulf was an atrocity.

    Dial M seems like an altogether different use of 3D, and B Kite’s description of the effect was most enticing. Apparently those lampshades positioned all through the film really loom large.

  13. Christopher Says:

    I’ve often heard that the best 3D films are the ones that don’t hype up the gimic…like Dial M..Hondo..It Came From Outer Space-which I did see in 3D at a ’74 revival of the film.
    ..I wonder if a restored digitally remasterd version of White Zombie would actually ruin the hypnotic effect those scratches and pops seem to lend to the effect..

  14. …probably not, but it would be a whole different experience.

    House of Wax gets talked up as an understated use of 3D, but it’s far from it! Although it’s positively Bressonian compared to Beowulf.

  15. Christopher Says:

    beowulf..leave it to the mentality of 21st century filmmakers to turn one of the classics of literature into novelty puppet show for gooberheaded moviegoers..
    btw..I saw House of Wax with It Came from Outer Space at that same film revival..It was my first experiance with 3D in a Theatre with a movie audience..I spent half the time with the glasses off since they made me queezy..Watch with glasses on and feel sick or watch a blurry screen with them off..You’re fecked either way!..not my idea of a night out at the movies

  16. Coraline’s use of 3-D is much like what you’d find looking at the imagery contained in some of the more colorful and imaginative View-Master product of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, the difference being movement as opposed to a static, fixed image, of course. A very different use of the effect as compared to Dial M For Murder, yes.

  17. There’s a nice piece at David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s blog On Film Art, where KT examines the distorted perspectives used in the movie. That got me pretty interested.

    3D never made me queasy, but it did give me a headache — glasses on or off.

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