December 6, 2018
The Skin Game – UK, 1931
There’s more than a tinge of Shakespeare running through Alfred Hitchcock’s 1931 drama The Skin Game. The film’s central character has shades of Shylock, albeit without the religious element that has made that character so controversial as of late, and the conflict at the center of the film involves two warring families with obvious effects on at least two of the younger generation, a la Romeo and Juliet. There’s even a Lady Macbeth character in the form of Mrs. Hillcrest (Helen Haye), who, while clinging to altruistic notions such as loyalty and keeping one’s word, has a vengeful streak that sucks every ounce of mercy right out of her. And there’s one of those classic Shakespearean switcharoos - the kind that makes you question just who you should be rooting for.
The film’s central character is Mr. Hornblower (John Longden), a man who’s moved up in the world recently and, like Shylock, has not forgotten the people who shunned him and rooted against him when he was struggling. Also like Shylock, his actions can be seen as a kind of road rage, for once it is within his power to exact revenge, the thought consumes him, driving him away from reason and into the arms of the kind of irrationality that often results in catastrophe for all involved. The object of Mr. Hornblower’s animosity is the Hillcrest family, and it is not so much what they did but rather what they didn’t do that makes revenge sound so sweet to him – the Hillcrests refused to acknowledge Mr. Hornblower daughter-in-law, Chloe (Phyllis Konstam), a young lady new to the family and the town, and seemingly without a friend in the world.
Mr. Hornblower’s plan is simple: His newfound wealth has enabled him to spend fairly freely, and he aims to buy up as much land as possible and turn it into factories that spew pollutants into the atmosphere through thoroughly awful-looking chimneys. He has a dual purpose here: 1) make himself a ton of money and 2) ruin the Hillcrest’s magnificent view of the countryside.
Given this description, and the situation presented toward the beginning of the film – a family that has lived in their home for thirty years is told they have a week to clear out by Mr. Hornblower – it makes sense to get behind the Hillcrests, as they look for a way to block Mr. Hornblower’s development plans. And yet just as we’re ready to pick up a pitchfork and storm Mr. Hornblower’s mansion, Hitchcock throws us a Bard-like curve ball, and in doing so reminds us that the ends do not always justify the means and that it is often the innocent and unfortunate that pay the price in situations such as this one.
The film was made in 1931, and as such it understands the issues of the day. The Hillcrests represent the stoic upper class clinging to tradition because they have thrived under it and see no reason to change anything. The Hornblowers represent the progressive working class, people who were able to better their lives through hard work, determination, and the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties. One contrast in particular lays their differences out perfectly: The Hornblowers are always seen and heard driving noisy automobiles; the Hillcrests still enjoy the pleasures of an afternoon horseback ride.
Having said all of this in such as enthusiastic manner, I feel somewhat guilty about what is about to come, for as much as I like The Skin Game, I should have liked it much more. I blame two things for this, one that was in Hitchcock’s power to control and the other that he could not possibly have foreseen without the help of an extremely reliable psychic. First, Hitchcock’s cast is not always up to the task. Instead of playing moment with the emotion that they deserve, many members of the cast say their lines as if their characters are detached from all feelings. When some of them talk of love, they often don’t sound at if they themselves are experiencing it, at least not unless love means being calm and pragmatic. In fact, I’d say that, with the exception of Gwenn and Konstam, there’s an overall lack of energy in most of the actors, and the effect of this is to weaken the film’s more dramatic moments, for if the characters can’t be bothered to invest emotionally, just why should the audience?
The other problem is the condition of the film itself. Like many of Alfred Hitchcock’s early films, The Skin Game was apparently allowed to fall into disrepair. What remains of it, while seemingly entirely intact narratively, suffers from image and sound distortion, and in many scenes, it was difficult for me to make out what the actors were saying. The film is, therefore, in desperate need of restoration, yet like many of Hitchcock’s films from this stage of his career, such treatment does not appear likely. The copy of the film I viewed was released by LaserLight, a company known for releasing films in Public Domain without much in the way of restoration, despite the declaration that appears on the back cover of the jacket. I don’t blame them for this. Their calculation was likely the same as that of the studios that passed on the films in the first place – that there just wasn’t enough demand to justify the additional expenses that attempting to remove its blemishes would accrue. Still, it’s rather sad that a film with so much going for it will always be hampered and diminished by such shoddy preservation.
Having said that, The Skin Game remains one of my favorite of Hitchcock’s British films. Despite a few uneven performances, in particular that of Konstam, the film is consistently involving, and its ever shifting sympathies make for fascinating viewing. By the end of the film, we see carnage that equals that found in the closing moments of both Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice. There’s even a rueful monologue that sums up the tragedy that we has befallen before us, yet offers little hope of reconciliation. In fact, in the film’s closing moments, we see a tree falling after being chopped down. It appears change has taken place anyway and that all of characters’ conniving, sacrificing of values, and mounting losses have been for nothing. It’s a stunning way to end the film, and somewhere I sense Shakespeare looking down approvingly. (on DVD)