Archive for February 4, 2009

Hitch Year, Week Five: Ringu

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2009 by dcairns

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THE RING seems almost entirely structured around various interpretations of the title: the boxing ring, the wedding ring, the serpentine bangle that symbolises infidelity, this bit of gypsy cartomancy, and the cyclical nature of the story. The result is perhaps a little schematic, and Hitchcock avoided placing his motifs front-and-centre in future.

Hitchcock’s sixth film was only the second project he chose himself (after THE LODGER), an original screenplay written with Alma Reville, the recently-wed Mrs Hitchcock. Eliot Stannard is also named as co-writer in John Russell Taylor’s authorised biography, Hitch,and since Stannard seems to have worked on every Hitchcock silent from THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE on, this seems plausible.

The story itself is very much on the thin side, with a boxer’s wife deserting him for the champion, and him winning her back in the championship match. No reason is given for her to prefer the champ, other than his status (hero Carl Brisson is better-looking, has no obvious vices, and is on the rise professionally), with the result that she loses all sympathy, and we can’t root for him to win her back, since she appears unworthy of his dogged devotion.

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I said, “I like this room!”

Fiona said, “It’s ROPE.”

All this is resolved magnificently in the climax, a tour-de-force display of cinematic fisticuffs, where Mrs Boxer returns to her husband’s corner when he’s being beaten — this restores her sympathy and his confidence, allowing him to throw off his concussion and beat eight shades of shit out of his opponent and romantic rival (the eight shade is invisible to the human eye, but dogs can hear it).

THE RING uses more frequently and with more variety than any previous Hitchcock, an array of subjective techniques designed to put us psychologically in the gym shoes of the protagonists. When best man Gordon Harker gets drunk at Brisson’s wedding banquet, Hitch attaches beer goggles to his camera, resulting in a smeary blur of drunken anamorphosis. A similar effect comes into play at the climax, when Brisson is knocked silly by a vigorous sequence of face-punchings, showing that Hitchcock was still keen on the symmetry showcased in EASY VIRTUE, where many visual tropes are repeated with variations at different points of the narrative, like musical refrains. As a story progresses, it’s often very effective to evoke what has gone before, because it reminds the audience of how far things have moved on (always assuming things HAVE moved on — Jerry Lewis seems to be sending up the whole subject of narrative when, in THE LADIES’ MAN, he stages a flashback of a scene we just saw five minutes earlier).

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Earlier, a simple POV shot, as Mrs B (Lillian-Hall Davis) watches the first fight between her fiancé and her future lover, works as a powerful suspense-builder: as the fight goes into an unprecedentedsecond round (at this point, the hero is a fairground boxer who always floors his opponents in the first round), the crowd becomes too thick for her to see the action. In this way, too, Hitchcock is able to hold back on showing any boxing at all until the end of the picture, outside of the occasional montage.

(While Hitch wasn’t what you’d call sporty, he had a fascination for all aspects of show-business, particularly the seediest. His fairground scenes are particularly vivid, and the final match drew on his impressions from attending fights at the Albert Hall.)

When Brisson is seized by jealousy at a party (very RAGING BULL, at least in superficial terms), Hitchcock is able to use both POV and mirror reflections, two things of considerable interest to him throughout his career, and then use a double exposure to show the image of Lillian H-D and her lover in an embrace, superimposed wherever Brisson looks. At another point, the smug, lardy lover’s bloated kisser appears phantasmally projected upon a punchbag. It gets socked clean across the room.

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In fact, Lillian appears in numerous special effects and reflections throughout the film, suggesting that we’re being deceived by an image rather than following a real person. Our perception of her character changes along with her husband’s, and even when it turns out she does love him, his realisation of this comes when he sees her face reflected in his bucket of water.

It’s pretty interesting, and goes some way to complicating the film — not so much her character, but our perception of it. In terms of dramaturgy, THE RING is a lot stronger than EASY VIRTUE, and is devoid of the laughable moments that pop up in that film (mostly in the flashbacks from the courtroom scene). Hitchcock would work with Brisson, Hall-Davis and Harker again within the year. Ian Hunter, the pudgy heavyweight, preceded Hitch to Hollywood and carved out a long career playing kings, officers, and other authority figures who have to be impressive without being too exciting.

While not a box office success, THE RING brought Hitchcock critical praise. His next three films, be warned, were not so popular with reviewers or with Hitch himself. Calling THE RING “the second real Hitchcock film”, he declined to admit CHAMPAGNE, THE FARMER’S WIFE or THE MANXMAN into that inner oeuvre. I haven’t seen any of them, so I’m looking forward to seeing what went wrong…

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An early Hitchcock cameo? Of course not… but for a moment there…

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Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on February 4, 2009 by dcairns

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Cocktails for Six… the many heads of Carl Brisson. The Fritz Lang influence is much to the fore in early Hitch.

I only got twenty minutes into THE RING before fate intervened, and so I’m a bit behind viewing it — I’m just jotting some notes on the first twenty minutes so I can post something for Hitchcock Wednesday.

Lots of joy in this one already. Carl Brisson works well in a silent leading man role — it stops him singing, for one thing, and stops him talking like the Swedish Chef for another (see MURDER AT THE VANITIES for an unforgettable lesson in the camp value of a thick Danish accent). Plus he’s handsome, sensitive, and at the same time convincing as a boxer, no easy feat.

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And then there’s Gordon Harker (above), professional reanimated monkeycorpse and comic scene-stealer. Identical to his later INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH roles, except for the addition of a little hair on his head, he dominates the screen simply by walking like a constipated mantis, while his hands bobble up and down like toggles on the end of the loose strings of his arms. Apart from his physiognomic edge (lower lip seems to have been permanently distended by one of those plates affected by some African tribesmen), he snares our unwary eyes with nose-picking and other bits of business — nothing is too low for the man.

Generally rich and seedy fairground atmosphere, which Harker focusses like a magnifiying glass made of skin. Black extras used to literally “add colour”, but it doesn’t get offensively stereotyped*. It’s good to see them, actually: there are only a couple of significant black characters in later Hitch, and virtually all background artists are white.

*I’ve now watched the whole film. In one intertitle, a boxing promoter actually uses the “n” word. This struck me as startling, but defensible in the name of realism, and as part of the film’s slightly jaundiced view of the world of professional face-pummelling (the promoter’s not a very appealing character) in exactly the same way Joe Pesci’s racist language in RAGING BULL is part of the film’s milieu and his character. Brisson’s five boxing friends, an interchangeable array of plugs, include one black character — Hitch doesn’t caricature him any more than the others. I think we have to wait until LIFEBOAT for another black character in Hitchcock, and then until TOPAZ.