THE RING (1927) – British International Pictures – Rating: ★★★
B&W (silent) – 90 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Principal cast: Carl Brisson (“One Round Jack” Sander), Lillian Hall- Davis (Mabel), Ian Hunter (Bob Corby), Forrester Harvery (James Ware), Harry Terry (Showman), Gordon Harker (Jack’s Trainer), Clare Greet (Fortune Teller).
Written by Alfred Hitchcock
Photographed by John Cox
Produced by John Maxwell
In 1927 Alfred Hitchcock signed with the newly-formed British International Pictures, becoming the highest paid director in England in the process. Over the course of the next six years, Hitchcock would be involved with 11 different movies at British International, a period that bridged the end of the silent film era and the first years of sound films. His output was uneven, and his relationship with studio head John Maxwell was occasionally rocky. There are only two films from this period that are considered “classics” in the Hitchcock canon: Blackmail (Britain’s first movie with sound) and Murder! The Ring, Hitchcock’s first movie for British International (the first movie ever released by the studio, for that matter) is also quite good, with an engaging story line, groundbreaking visuals and flashes of humor.
Trivia buffs might be interested to know that this is the only film in Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work as a director for which he also received a writing credit; “WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK” reads a title card at the beginning. The story is a classic love triangle, certainly not the kind of story that is generally associated with Hitchcock. The film’s title, The Ring, refers to the boxing ring, as both male leads are boxers. But it can also refers to a wedding ring, as well as a serpentine bracelet which features heavily in the plot.
The movie opens with Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis) working as a ticket girl at a carnival attraction, where her boyfriend is an amateur boxer. The boxer (played by Danish actor Carl Brisson), is known as “One Round Jack” because nobody makes it to the second round with him. Until a man named Bob Corby (Ian Hunter) shows up and soundly beats him. It turns out that Corby is the heavyweight champion of Australia. Corby invites Jack to be his sparring partner, ostensibly to help him, but in reality to be closer to his girlfriend. Corby gives Mabel a bracelet, in the shape of a serpent, which becomes the symbol of infidelity. Mabel marries Jack anyway, even though she clearly has feelings for Corby.
The wedding sequence shows all of the carnival performers entering the church; we see the Siamese twins, the dwarf and giant, in a comic scene which clearly prefigures a similar sequence in Hitchcock’s later film Saboteur. Hitchcock loved images of the incongruous, which he indulged in frequently in his British period. After the wedding, the movie shows Jack becoming a better boxer, getting bigger matches, while all the while his new wife Mabel gets closer to Bob Corby. Eventually Jack confronts Mabel about her infidelity and she leaves. Of course the movie will end with the two men settling their differences in the boxing ring, and of course Mabel will realize that Corby is a cad and return to her husband’s side.
The silent film aspect: Most modern-day film goers have never seen a silent film; even many fans of Hitchcock have probably not delved into his early silent period. It certainly is a different experience, but in the case of Hitchcock the adjustment is not too difficult. Throughout his career, Hitchcock was always a believer in telling a story through visual means; he never forgot the things he learned in the silent era. If you watch this movie, you will notice there are not a lot of title cards. This is because the visuals clearly tell us what is happening on screen.
John Cox, cameraman: In the late 1920’s, there were not a lot of “special effects” techniques available to filmmakers, particularly in post filming. So Hitchcock wanted to find a cameraman who was adept at filming effects “in camera”, as it was often done then. He found just the man he was looking for in John Cox (or Jack Cox, or J.J. Cox, as he was also credited on some films). Cox would end up acting as Hitchcock’s cameraman/cinematographer on a dozen movies, including every film he directed at British International. They would also reunite one last time on Hitchcock’s 1938 masterpiece The Lady Vanishes. From a technical standpoint, this is the most important collaborative partnership in Hitchcock’s entire British period. (And also mirrors Hitchcock’s later partnership with American cinematographer Bob Burks, who would also work with Hitchcock on 12 movies.)
In the image above, you can see how Cox was able to superimpose the image of Ian Hunter’s head onto the punching bag. Even a seemingly simple shot like this took some doing in the 1920’s. But Cox’s (and Hitchcock’s) innovations went far beyond this. Later in the film there is a party sequence, in which the party goers become out of control. Hitchcock wanted to recreate the feel of the drunken revelry for his movie goers. So into a montage of people singing and dancing are intercut images like this one to the right: an eerily elongated piano, with a spinning turntable superimposed upon it. Nothing quite like this had ever been seen in British cinema.
But perhaps the most important effect technique that Hitchcock wished to employ in this movie, (and would use again in a few later films) is called the Schufftan process.
Schufftan process: This process is named after its inventor, Eugen Schufftan, who first used the process on Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. The process involves placing a mirror at an angle in front of the camera, with a painted or photographed image to the side, which will be reflected in the mirror, and captured on camera. Then, scraping away part of the reflective mirror, leaving only clear glass, and filming live action through the newly scraped area. The two images (the live portion filmed through the clear glass, and the reflected painted portion) will then appear to be one image. Hitchcock wished to use this technique in the movie’s final sequence: the boxing match in the Royal Albert Hall. (Hitchcock staged scenes from three of his movies in the Albert Hall: this one, and both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much.) The following diagram shows how the Schufftan process worked.
Performance: All of the performances in this movie are solid. There is perhaps no real “standout” performance but everyone holds their own. Gordon Harker plays his role as Jack’s trainer for great comedic effect. And Carl Brisson is very solid as the male lead. He has to generate sympathy from the audience for the story to succeed, and he does so, admirably.
Recurring players: Carl Brisson would later star in The Manxman. Lillian Hall-Davis also appeared in The Farmer’s Wife. Ian Hunter was in both Downhill and Easy Virtue. Forrester Harvey would later appear in Rebecca. Harry Terry was in The Manxman. Gordon Harker was in The Farmer’s Wife and Champagne. Clare Greet, one of Hitchcock’s favorite character actresses in his British period, also appeared in Number 13, The Manxman, Murder!, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage and Jamaica Inn. Tom Helmore would later appear in The Secret Agent, and would also play the role of Gavin Elster in Vertigo.
Where’s Hitch? There is no credible evidence to suggest that Hitchcock made a cameo appearance in this movie.
What Hitch said: When talking to Truffaut, Hitchcock said of this movie “…that was really an interesting movie. You might say that after The Lodger, The Ring was the next Hitchcock picture. There were all kinds of innovations in it, and I remember that at the premiere an elaborate montage got a round of applause. It was the first time that had ever happened to me.”
Definitive edition: There are numerous versions of this movie available on DVD in various box sets and “collections”, but the best print available is to be found on the three disc Alfred Hitchcock Box Set from Lions Gate Studios. This set contains 5 of Hitchcock’s films from the British International Pictures period. This print is far from pristine, but keeping in mind that the movie is almost 90 years old, it is definitely watchable, and relatively clean. There are no extra features on this disc at all.