Wednesday, June 29, 2011
In a sense, this is a horror story.
It began innocently enough. Watch every movie Alfred Hitchcock ever directed, in order, in concert with reading a biography of the man. Then write about it.
It's the last one that seems to have tripped me up. The last entry in The Hitchcock Project went live in January 2010. Yeesh.
Believe me, I've got excuses. Had a kid. Lost a job. Occasional family tragedies. A lot of things will throw you off your game. (Case in point: Do NOT ask me how my novel's coming.)
But here's the thing, the key element that wrecks all my protests about how hard it's been.
I kept watching the movies.
As I write this, I've just completed the 40th film from Sir Alfred's list of 52. My blog list goes up to #7. (And that's with three films skipped over.) I'm watching. I'm reading. I'm just not writing.
No, really. When my wife discovered that I hadn't blogged for so long about the Hitchcock experience, I thought she was going to brain me with the DVD player. Which would be just desserts for making her sit through Under Capricorn.
The catching up begins now. This will not be easy, as I've honestly forgotten a lot about some of the earlier films. (Particularly the ones I didn't like so much.) But I'll do my best. Because I started this. And by god, I am going to finish it. I just hope I can catch up to myself with the writing before I actually finish all the movies.
We're resuming our catalog in a strange place. Wasn't the last one I posted #7? Yes. Yes, I did. And a funny thing about that. I went on at length in that piece about how I had to skip the sixth entry, Downhill, because I couldn't find it. Which is weird, because that's the exact same thing I said when explaining why I skipped #4. The hell?
Let's clarify: Downhill was #4. The real #6? This flick right here, a movie which can be summarized with the extremely unusual tagline, "Alfred Hitchcock's boxing picture."
Let's embellish that a little though. The Ring is the tale of a boxer known as "One-Round" Jack. Jack (portrayed by the lady-lipped Carl Brisson) works in a circus, where he can knock out any yahoo who challenges him within three minutes. This has earned him the respect of his fellow carnies. You know, like the Negro in the dunking booth. Seriously. (Also, the n-word shows up about halfway through the film. For the love of god, ancestors. Isn't it enough to be racist? Must you be STUPIDLY racist?) It's also won Jack the love of the Mabel, the ticket-taker. The credits identify Lillian Hall-Davis as "Mabel, the Girl." Yes, THE Girl. Because there can only be one.
Complications ensue when Bob Corby, the Australian champ, shows up at the fair incognito, takes the challenge, and survives the round. It's a sad day for Jack, but fate twists early on, when Bob -- so impressed by Jack's stamina and power -- hires him on as a sparring partner. What luck! Jack and Mabel have been saving up to get married, so this is a wonderful turn of events.
Or is it. Turns out the Thunder from Down Under has a yen for Mabel (she is THE Girl, after all), and once she and Jack move into Bob's circle of champagne riches and caviar dreams, it's only a matter of time before Jack's jealousy pushes her into the arms of his rival, leaving Jack desolate. There's only one way to exact revenge and win his girl back. He'll have to go toe-to-toe, in...THE RING.
Does my tone seem overly dismissive? It should. Think about the last movie you saw where the plot seemed contrived, the characters were clichés, and you just weren't impressed. Well, look, they haven't even invented sound yet, and already they're making movies that are hopelessly predictable. Think you know the movie's going to turn out? You're right. The plot's turns are loudly telegraphed, and to make matters worse, this is a silent film, so nothing is played for subtlety. Every emotion is spelled out in capital letters on the actors' faces. Think Bob is a stand-up guy who just can't help himself around the pretty Mabel? Not if you've been watching the movie, you don't. Actor Ian Hunter (decades before fronting Mott the Hoople) broadcasts evil with every raised eyebrow.
A secret joy of the movie, then, is to watch the lead actors trumpet their thoughts like mimes. Hall-Davis is the very picture of dread from the moment Bob Corby begins to put the moves on her. It's kind of weird, because to look at her, you get the sense that Mabel doesn't want to cheat on Jack, doesn't feel especially turned on by Bob, but just feels completely helpless to do anything about it. Like being faithful is completely out of her hands. (It's in the script, after all.) Meanwhile, Brisson is more of an innocent than Oliver Twist. At every turn, he is shocked, SHOCKED by life's twists and turns. He stands proudly his philandering wife, not a clue in the world that she's straying. Then, when he learns the truth, oh, the deep, deep hurt. She could have kicked his dog and not made matters worse.
That leaves Hitchcock, and he's obviously still trying stuff out. He's particularly having fun with multiple exposures. A drunk challenger at the circus sees several Jacks at once. During a wild party, Jack is unable to pay attention to his manager because the image of Mabel and Bob is superimposed. Hitchcock learned a lot from German expressionist filmmakers, and their techniques are definitely being tested out here.
Of course, the real setpiece is the big fight, where Jack and Bob face off at the Albert Hall. In a way, this is Hitchcock's very first Climax at a Famous Location, and he does play it to the hilt. According to my buddy Patrick McGilligan, Hitchcock deliberately shot from above, often at a distance, with only a single light hanging above the boxing ring. He got a relatively big budget, and he decided to make sure the money was all on the screen. No closeups of fight fans to make you think it's a crowded arena. It's a crowded arena.
And it looks like a real fight, too. We get straight-on shots of Jack punching madly at the camera. When he's knocked down, Hitchcock provides an interesting quick montage of lights and ropes. Even if the outcome seems assured, there's real craftsmanship at work trying to convince you otherwise. The path to Rocky and Raging Bull starts here.
I don't know if The Ring is all that good. It's not very surprising. But it is an assured piece of moviemaking, particularly for the time. Clichés aside, it holds up, especially that last reel. Hitchcock's a real director at this point, that's for sure. Now he just needs the right material.
Side note: there's a long and sporadically-funny wedding scene. But may favorite moment comes when the priest recites the vows, and the font on the titles goes from a standard serif to an elaborate calligraphy. Like Garamond just wasn't good enough for anything that important. We don't have that kind of reverence anymore.