September 6, 2018
The Ring – UK, 1927
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Ring can best be appreciated if you view it after setting aside any preconceived notions of what an Alfred Hitchcock film is, for there’s very little in the film that resembles the legendary director’s better known works. Its plot doesn’t revolve around a murder or crime, at least in the traditional sense of the world, and there’s no conspiracy or wrongfully-accused man on the run. In its place is a deceptively simpler story, one involving a love triangle and highlighting the unnerving effects of suspicion on a brittle mind. And here’s the good news: The film is quite entertaining.
The Ring begins with images of fun and joviality at a fair. This joyfulness masks a slightly darker side, for just as hundreds are enjoying themselves on swing carousels, at tests of strengths, and at a dunking booth, scores are standing outside a circus tent having their manhood questioned. Who’s brave enough, whose got the guts, who’s not too cowardly to go toe to toe in the ring with “One-Round” Jack? It’s hard to imagine such events being allowed today, and it’s possible that it was a cinematic exaggeration. An article entitled “A Few Punches More – The Fairground Boxing Shows” on The University of Sheffield’s website includes a brief mention of lay men being challenged by professional boxers, but no reference to promoters standing outside circus tents and bating ordinary people to put themselves in real physical danger. However, the way it is depicted in movies is an efficient means of introducing an unheralded fighter and giving him a chance at instant stardom.
And this is what happens to Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). In the film’s opening scene, we see him standing among the crowd of spectators being urged to either challenge “One-Round” Jack (Carl Brisson) or buy a ticket to see him fight. Corby, however, is more interested in Nelly (Lillian Hall-Davies), the young lady handing out tickets. As luck would have it, Nelly turns out to be Jack’s fiancée, and when Jack sees them conversing, he gets the kind of look in his eyes that usually signals that someone is getting so wound up that he ends up making mistakes. Eventually, Corby is coaxed into fighting Jack, and, predictably, Jack goes down in defeat. The victory elevates Corby and puts him on a path to both championships and boxing greatness; however, it is devastating for Jack, destroying his marquee value and sending his ranking tumbling. The loss also elevates Corby in Nelly’s eyes, and she becomes confused by the abrupt strength of her attraction to him.
In a more conventional film, there would be a clear distinction between Corby and Jack, and that difference would determine just who the audience backed in the love triangle. However, Hitchcock wisely avoids this. Both Jack and Corby appear to be decent people, and under different conditions, it’s easy to see them becoming close friends. Jack deeply loves Nelly and is dedicated to providing the best for her. Corby, for his part, is a typical member of what has been dubbed the “lost generation,” a term that denotes youth in the 1920’s who spent lavishly and acted as if they didn’t have a care in the world. It should be noted, however, that while Corby could be criticized for pursuing someone else’s girlfriend early in the film, there is no evidence that the two of them act on their attraction after she and Jack are married. There is, on the other hand, the framed picture of Corby that Nelly has in her living room and the way she passionately clutches it to her chest during key moments. Is it possible something is going on? Sure, but we never see any direct evidence of it. Nevertheless, what we do see is more than enough to justify Jack’s budding suspicions.
Hitchcock’s film, therefore, is about the power of jealousy and how even the best of us can fall prey to it. As Kubrick did later in his masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut, Hitchcock allows viewers inside his lead’s growing paranoia; we see the nightmare images that haunt his fragile mind: Jack’s and his wife’s eyes locking, their lips getting closer, their lips finally meeting in a long passionate kiss. Hitchcock is allowing viewers to understand Jack’s emotional state and to be aware of just what causes him to lash out in the way that he does. This enables the audience to never fully see the character as a villain; instead, he is the victim of circumstances beyond his control and, thus, a more sympathetic character. This makes his final confrontation with Corby a much more poignant affair, yet even here Hitchcock never makes Corby the villain. This is made clear in the film’s final moments, which focus not on Jack or Nelly, but on Corby’s resignation of all that has transpired.
The Ring may not give Hitchcock many opportunities to employ the camera techniques that so dazzled audiences later in his career, and some of his choices, such as shooting the back of the heads of boxing spectators, reveal a director who is still learning his craft. That said, Hitchcock still gets ample opportunity to show off his camera prowess. In addition to the scenes described earlier involving Jack’s mental state, Hitchcock uses a montage of boxing rankings to show one boxer’s rise in status. In another, he cuts from a handshake between Jack and his manager to the arms of Nelly and Corby, which are in a similar position. In a later scene, Hitchcock gives us a shot of one of Nelly’s hands and arms, and it is clearly demonstrates her inner conflict, for on one of her fingers is a wedding ring and on her arm a bracelet that Corby gave her earlier in the film. In a prior scene in a chapel, Hitchcock demonstrates his eye for the unusual by showing a procession of arrivals to Jack and Nelly’s wedding ceremony. The arrivals are, of course, circus performers, a sight that the priest has clearly never seen before. He even witnesses some conjoined twins arguing over which side to sit on. The scene is humorous, but never in a condescending way.
The same cannot be said of two other moments in the film, and each of them has the potential to unease contemporary viewers. In the first one, a black man is seen in the circus’s dunking booth with an enormous smile on his face. This would not be shocking were it not for the fact that every face in the crowd trying to put him in the water is white. Some kids even throw eggs at the poor man, an action that creates raucous roars of laughter, even from on-duty white police officers. Later, Jack’s manager uses the n-word to refer to Jack’s next boxing opponent, but it’s difficult to assess the intent. The manager is not a major character, so we do not have any evidence that he is racist, and there’s no discriminatory follow-up to the remark. The scene just moves on. Perhaps that’s just the way some people talked back in the day.
The Ring is a movie that grows in power, and it is one of Hitchcock’s better films. It is both a fascinating character study and a moving love story. Hitchcock gets great performances from his cast, especially from Carl Brisson, who, I must admit, I had not heard of prior to watching the film. Perhaps what I like most about the film is its unpredictability. I like movies that avoid the standard good-guy/bad-guy set-up. In The Ring, we have two men in love with the same woman, and neither man is the kind we actively root against. As the film inched its way to its finale, I was pleased to find that I didn’t know how it was going to end, and I was excited by the prospect of being surprised. In fact, I didn’t want either one to lose either the match or Nelly. This is a rare and precious thing in a movie, and I hope people take a chance on it. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars
*The Ring is a silent film.
*An interesting side note: There was a real boxer called "One Round" Gratton who boxed on his parents' fairground boxing show.