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Week 5: The Ring (1927)

thering.jpg“A friend of yours?”
“. . . a tall, rich man!”
“I think the prize at the booth should have been this charming bride.”
“It seems as though I shall have to fight for my wife, after all.”
“I’d be training for a divorce if I left her here!”
“The fight – did you lose, then?”
“Jack . . . I’m with you . . . in your corner.”
“Look what I found at the ring-side, Guv’nor.”

The Ring

By the time Hitchcock had completed Downhill and Easy Virtue in 1927, Gainsborough was becoming the “B” movie factory while sister studio Gaumont-British (which started as a subsidiary of the prestigious French Gaumont Film Company) produced more quality fare. Meanwhile, a man named John Maxwell had just started a brand-new film company, British Internation Pictures, and one of his first moves was to bag Britain’s most famous up-and-coming director. After being assigned to two notably inferior stage-to-screen adaptations with Gainsborough in a row, Hitchcock jumped at a promise of higher budgets and greater artistic control. His first film for BIP was The Ring, which he not only directed but wrote himself (his only silent without Eliot Stannard). It is the only film of which he is the sole and original screenwriter (Alma, of course, contributed, but is uncredited). His last two movies for Gainsborough were held for release until after The Ring came out (hence Easy Virtue is a 1928 film, even though Hitch completed it before he began work on 1927’s The Ring).

jackbob.jpgThe Ring is a melodrama in which the jealousy and petty rivalry of a love triangle plays out amidst the world of heavyweight boxing. “One-Round” Jack Sander (Carl Brisson, a genuine boxing champion) is a carnival boxer who earns his living by sparring (and winning) against all comers while his girlfriend Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis) sells tickets at the door. One day, Australian heavyweight champion Bob Corby (Ian Hunter) shows up looking for a sparring partner. Without revealing his identity, he goes into the ring with Jack and beats him, but is impressed enough by the other boxer’s skillmabel.jpg (and by the beauty of his girl) to hire him. Jack, who now feels like he’s really going places, marries Mabel. What he doesn’t know is that Bob has already planted the seed of infidelity in Mabel’s heart, and the two become increasingly chummier under Jack’s broken-hearted gaze. To win back the love of his wife, Jack must enter the league himself and box his way to a climactic championship showdown with Bob.

Humor plays such a large role in the movie that, during the first half, it is much more comedy than drama. A large portion of the film’s broad humor is concentrated in a single character: Jack’s trainer (played by Gordon Harker). This dour fellow (whose face is vaguely reminiscent of Buster Keaton) is hilarious whenever he is on-screen, though he also takes good care of Jack and frequently shows more common sense than his boss. The guy just looks funny, much like the great silent comedy stars of the day. I could discuss the humor of his scenes and the way they are filmed at great length (although a great deal of it rests in his priceless facial expressions), but I’ll settle for describing only two.

comicmatch1.jpgIn the opening fight sequence, Jack is shown beating everyone who steps into the ring with him quickly and easily. His first opponent, a tough-looking sailor, hands his coat to the Harker character and steps out of the frame. A few seconds later, he stumbles backward, almost too woozy to accept his coat and return to his seat. When Bob enters the ring, we watch from the same camera angle as Harker confidently places the coat on a hanger and Bob steps out of the frame. Without looking up, Harker immediately detaches the coat and holds it up with immense satisfaction to give back . . . only to see Bob giving Jack the business. His mouth drops comically open and he nearly drops the coat.

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comicmatch5.jpgAs the fight continues into the second round, Harker never bothers to rehang the coat, finally throwing it carelessly over a post and leaving the hanger dangling from the ropes nearby. When Bob returns, victorious, Harker removes his gloves sullenly, and hops the ropes to go see Jack. Bob, noticing the treatment his coat received, grabs up the hanger and slips the hook into the back of Harker’s pants, leaving it for him to discover a few moments later.

comicwedding1.jpgThe wedding sequence, too, is played heavily for laughs (perhaps a subtle reference to the fact that the marriage is a joke, but probably not). The reverend is humorously shocked by the odd assortment of people filing into his church (including a giant, who plops down directly in front of a much shorter fellow, and a pair of Siamese twins). Once the ceremony is underway, Harker becomes bored by the proceedings, staring slack-jawed off into space and picking at his nose. Unfortunately, he’s the best man and needs to provide the ring. As his friends from the carnival crack up behind him, he searches for it for several seconds, only to drop it on the floor (comically, but also portentously). At the reception, he proceeds to gorge himself on chicken and then literally drinks himself under the table.

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The most fascinating aspect of The Ring, however, is not its extensive use of humor, but its recurring visual and narrative references to various types of “rings.” In this respect it displays the most sophisticated degree of thematic unity that Hitchcock had yet achieved. The title most obviously refers to the boxing ring (which is, of course, square) where both Bob and Jack make their living and where they will finally face off over Mabel. However, it is also connected with two objects: the wedding ring which seals Mabel’s marriage to Jack and a fancy golden arm bracelet which Mabel wears as a sign of her commitment to Bob.

ring1.jpgring2.jpgring3.jpg

ring4.jpgFurthermore, rings and circular shapes of all kinds are key in nearly every scene. The film opens with a shot of a large circular drum, followed by one of a ride where people dangling from harnesses are swung round in a circle. In fact, the carnival is full of circular rides and tents. Mabel sells a large roll of tickets to the first boutring5.jpg between Jack and Bob. An old gypsy lays out a ring of playing cards to tell Mabel her fortune (that she can expect the attentions of a tall, wealthy man . . . of course, the crafty woman has already spied Bob presenting the bracelet just outside the window of her wagon). A gong (the bell that signals the beginning and end of the rounds) and a stopwatch are featured prominently in the suspenseful final match.

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originalsin.jpgBob’s bracelet has the most ubiquitous screen presence of the various rings. Bob presents it to Mabel several hours after he beats her intended at the carnival, having bought it out of the money he won in the fight. The bracelet, shown in a close-up when Bob first pulls it out, is shaped like a coiled snake. As he slides this “bangle” nearly up to her shoulder (a nakedly sexual act), it is impossible not to think of original sin and the temptation of Eve by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. It is perhaps among the most subtle indicators of adultery to ever slip past the censors. There is a fantastic transitional shot in this scene as well; the camera films a close-up of Jack sealing the job agreement with Bob’s manager and the scene suddenly becomes a close-up of Bob slipping the bracelet onto Mabel’s wrist.

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At first Mabel is ashamed of the present (but unwilling to take it off) and covers it with her hand when her fiance is around. When he eventually discovers it she tries to twist the truth, saying it is as though he gave it to her, since his loss provided the winnings from the carnival boss to pay for it. She never takes it off, and it is a constant visual reminder of her divided loyalties right up to the final scene.

bigboard1.jpgThe boxing match between Bob and Jack at the end is (as it should be) the most impressively-filmed and exciting scene in the movie. It lasts about eight minutes, not counting the introductory build-up to the beginning of round one as the boxers prepare in their respective rooms and then emerge to the roar of the crowd. Hitchcock wisely avoids spending much time on any other fights until this point so that, by the time it arrives, we haven’t wearied of boxing already and he can concentratebigboard2.jpg his significant reserve of technical skill on bringing this one to life. After the initial match at the carnival (most of which is spent focused on the reactions of the onlookers) and some practice sparring, Jack advances to the championship off-screen. His rise in the ranks is displayed via a brief montage as his name climbs steadily higher in the fight listings.

punchingbag.jpgThe closer Jack gets to the championship round, the closer his wife gets to Bob. Things come to a head between them on the night he wins the semi-final fight. Jack brings several old friends from the carnival home to celebrate, but finds that Mabel is not at home. Assuring the others she’ll be back soon, he pours the champagne but won’t let them drink until she arrives. Of course, he is mortified when she never shows and his friends finally leave. She finally comes home late from a night on the town with Bob, and she and Jack quarrel violently. He grabs at her and tears her dress, revealing once more the accursed arm bracelet, and she runs off to lock herself in the bedroom. Jack, infuriated and no longer content to vent by picturing Bob while he works out, goes out looking for his rival and decks him in a nightclub. When he returns home he finds that Mabel has moved out.

alberthall.jpgOn the night of the big fight, Mabel shows up to watch (unbeknownst to Jack) and sits ring-side in Bob’s corner. As the fight gets underway, Hitch uses a quick-cutting mix of shots to lend the scene a frenzied kinetic energy, jumping to a variety of distances and angles as the men swing at each other. A few times he employs a midst-of-the-action POV shot, replacing one boxer with the camera as the other swings and jabs at the screen. There are also several shots of the crowd, from the enthusiastic groundlings to the wealthier, better-dressed spectators in private boxes. There are even a few shots of cameramen, filming the fight from the rafters.

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The two opponents seem much more evenly matched than at their first meeting. Then, in the midst of a grapple, Jack locks eyes with Mabel over Bob’s shoulder (the camera zooming in dramatically on her face). Distracted and open, he takes a solid punch to the face and drops to the mat. We experience the fall from his perspective, with a slightly fuzzed shot of the bright overhead lights as he struggles to his feet. The second round goes much worse for Jack, who is obviously none too steady by this point. Before long he is down again, barely getting up in time. After narrowly staying in the fight, he collapses in the corner so his team can try to revive him. Mabel has been agitated since they first exchanged looks in the first round, and throughout round two she is involuntarily on her feet circling for a better view.

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As Jack swoons in the corner, she rushes to his side, kissing him and declaring that now she’s in his corner. He’s too out of it to notice until, sagging to the side, he spots her reflection in a pail of water. Her support completely revives him, and he returns to the fight with renewed strength and vigor. Now it’s Bob’s turn to be distracted. Spotting Mabel cheering from Jack’s corner, he leaves himself open to a knock-out punch. Jack is the victor! Knowing when he’s beaten, Bob smiles benignly as Jack reclaims his wife. Mabel finally gets rid of her bracelet before embracing Jack whole-heartedly. Cut backstage where Bob is getting dressed after the fight. An assistant walks in carrying the bracelet and hands it to him. He wryly tosses it back and finishes buttoning up his collar . . . the end.

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There is a great deal both to like and dislike about The Ring. The story is very uneven, and frequently allows itself to be distracted from the central narrative to take advantage of opportunities for irrelevant (if rather funny) comedy. Furthermore, the central premise (that anyone would feel the need to fight for a woman as shallow and unfaithful as Mabel) is crucially flawed. Her character, as the sole substantial representative of the gender, is portrayed so unfavorably and unrealistically as to border on misogynistic.

On the positive side, it is immediately obvious that Hitch is working with more resources than he had previously enjoyed. The images are crisp and clear, large crowds are employed in various scenes, and he is able to make use of a variety of locations, including the famed Albert Hall for the final boxing match. What this film lacks in its storytelling technique, it makes up in bravura technical skill.

The Ring was quite well-received, both by the public and the critical community, in contrast to Hitchcock’s previous two films. The British film business was just starting to boom, and he went on to make several more films for British International Pictures, continuing to hone his craft and trying out new ideas on a few more silent films before making the transition to sound.

Next Week: Hitchcock tries a new genre

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~ by Jared on January 30, 2008.

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