Hitch Year, Week Five: Ringu

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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…

10 Responses to “Hitch Year, Week Five: Ringu”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    I think THE RING is next to THE LODGER and BLACKMAIL his most impressive silent film. It continues the love-triangle aspect from his earlier films and which he’d take into all his later films. And visually it’s ver top-heavy.

    That room is astonishingly similar to that apartment in ROPE, lacing of course the side window through which that neon sign pulses red and green in the final confrontation.

  2. I couldn’t decide if it was the room or the view that made it so reminiscent. Kept looking for a neon sign version of the Hitchcock profile. The Ring, like Downhill, has a very strong last act, but what ties it to The Lodger is its strongly structured plot, something that can’t be said for either the Novello or Coward adaptations.

    Hadn’t thought of the romantic triangle as being so central to Hitch — I can certainly think of films which don’t use it, but it’s obviously central to Notorious, Sabotage, and even Vertigo, where what appears to be a sort of square is really a sort of triangle, but only sort of.

  3. Arthur S. Says:

    VERTIGO is actually triangles within triangles. The first is Scottie-Madeleine-Elster(since he falls in love knowing fully well she’s his friend’s wife), but it’s also Midge-Scottie-Madeleine and then it becomes Scottie-Madeleine-Judy. No wonder Chris Marker is raving bonkers in love with this film.

    The triangle aspect is important in that it touches upon sexual tension that Hitchcock knows is the key to any and all human conflict. Like NOTORIOUS is about Cary Grant being assigned to seduce Ingrid Bergman only to find out that she’s been assigned to sleep with another guy and he then unleashes emotional violence on her, nearly killing her only to confess his love when she almost dies while poor Claude Rains who’s now in love has to die. It’s immensely perverse. So you have that in BLACKMAIL and THE RING as well. UNDER CAPRICORN is a very raw and direct treatment of that.

    What makes it similar is the way it looks, the deisgn and the space and of course that window backdrop. But then Hitchcock tended to be realistic in his set designs, like Ernie’s in VERTIGO is a set that exactly replicates the real restaurant and Hitchcock went as far as to cast the head waiter to replay his daily routine on the soundstage so maybe New York interior designs in the 40s was in the same school as the British one of the 20s and 30s.

  4. Haven’t seen nearly enough 20s Britflicks to know what the patterns of design were. Certainly there was a generic art-deco look that prevailed in the early 30s, completely unrealistic (I asked my friend Lawrie who was alive at the time) and kind of unimaginative too. Certainly in the 20s there was a kind of realism in things like A Cottage on Dartmoor, but I get the impression that was an exception.

    Hitch also researched Psycho heavily, photographing the homes of young professional women in Marion Crane’s class, and duplicating the results.

  5. That room most definitely IS Rope . And the shot at the very top is Dr. Mabuse the Gambler

  6. Arthur S. Says:

    Yeah. Don’t forget the Greenwich village details in REAR WINDOW. Krohn goes into detail about Hitchcock’s peculiar brand of realism. Like for THE BIRDS, just for that brief scene where Tippi Hedren walks into Rod Taylor’s house in San Francisco, Hitchcock insisted they replicate an actual San Franciscan teacher’s apartment to the letter, i.e. even the portion of the set which wasn’t going to be filmed.

    Needless to say, such splunking often sent many of his films overbudget and overschedule totally the opposite of the image of Hitchcock as a cool, mathematical director who came, saw and called action and cut. A real liar and con-artist. But since he’s a genius, he’s absolved. Needless to say an artist of Hitchcock’s work ethics would not be able to or allowed to function in Modern Hollywood with it’s obsession for three-act structures and blowing up money for no reason at all. And yet Hitchcock’s films were bigger box-office on the whole and he brought glory to all the studios he worked at.

    A more humourous example of Hitchcock’s realism. When visiting Santa Rosa, scouting locations for SHADOW OF A DOUBT, they picked an house for shooting and paid the owner handsomely but then when they returned a week later they found out that the guy had his entire house repainted when they reason they chose the place was that it looked cheap, ugly and stale. Hitchcock was considering doubling the cash to fuck the place up the way it was before.

  7. Arthur S. Says:

    You are right. The guy who did the English Intertitles for the London Film Society’s(Hitchcock’s Cinematheque or MoMA hangout) print of Dr. Mabuse was Angus MacPhail. So Hitchcock was more than familiar with it.

  8. I’ll publish some frame grabs to show some Langian connections soon.

    Big movies act on the assumption that money MUST be wasted in order to make sure no corner of the frame looks underdeveloped. And you can’t use a word with negative connotations like “cheaper” when talking to Hollywood, you have to say “more cost effective”. So Hitchcock’s form of waste is embraced by the system.

  9. Dogs can hear the eighth shade of shit!? Come on now, David!

  10. “Can YOU prove it couldn’t happen?” ~ Criswell.

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