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.
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.
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.
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.”