Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Skin Game

THE SKIN GAME      C+            
Great Britain  (77 mi)  1931  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

Who knows where things end when once they begin?...What is it that gets loose when you begin a fight, and makes you what you think you’re not?  What blinding evil!  Begin as you may, it ends in this — skin game!  Skin game! 
— Mr. Hillcrest (C.V. France)

Adapted from the John Galsworthy play, where Hitchcock used two actors from the original 1920 stage production in his 1931 film version, Edmund Gwenn and Helen Haye, while also using other actors too old to replay their original stage roles in his other sound films, adding an element of theatricality to his British period that doesn’t exist in his American films.  This film, however, hardly typifies Hitchcock’s talent, and by all accounts he was rather bored with the project, especially hampered by a clause in the playwright’s contract that not one word of his play could be changed without his permission.  This fairly straightjacketed the director, while both Hitchcock and wife Alma Reville did what they could with this British chamber drama, making the film bleaker than the play, but it’s still overly stagy, showing little stylistic innovation and could easily have been directed by someone else.  Nonetheless, it is a Hitchcock film, reflective of the early sound films where the sound is erratic, missing altogether in certain moments, despite seeing the lips moving of a minor character, or losing sound as characters move across a room while speaking, where the consistency of sound that audiences are used to today is simply missing.  However, it is considered one of the more accomplished sound films of its time due to the constant speaking throughout, using four cameras and a single sound track to capture the sound live as it was being spoken, as opposed to his next film Rich and Strange (1931), which was still shot mostly as a silent film.  This bears some similarity to an earlier Hitchcock film, Easy Virtue (1928), based upon a Noel Coward play.  In both, the director targets the real or imagined crimes of women, where the mere suggestion of immorality was considered scandalous, subject to gossip and slander, where people were literally driven out of “proper” society by the upper class’s insatiable desire to remain morally superior over the working class.  Society rewards wealth and status, and the appearance of virtue, where they’re pretty much free to live as they like, flaunting their wealth and aristocratic assumptions, but one must never allow salacious rumors to bring shame and dishonor upon a family, which, come to think of it, sounds more like mafia rules.  This film plays on the falsely accused theme, where the accusation lingers in the air for awhile, tempting the audience, before the merciless hand of truth is revealed to be more than one can bear.  The woman in question is Phyllis Konstam as Chloe, easily the most intriguing character in the film, where her shadowy past haunts her throughout the film.    

Set in a small country village of Lancashire in the postwar era of horses being replaced by automobiles, the story concerns itself with old wealth and new wealth, where the well-mannered aristocracy of the paternalistic Mr. Hillcrest (C.V. France), a landowner from generations of self-made wealth, has sold a parcel of his vast estate to Scotsman Mr. Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn), who goes back on his word and plans to evict an elderly couple that are longtime tenants on his new property.  This defiant act boldly challenges the imperious rule of the Hillcrests, living in the idyllic splendor of their unspoiled pastoral landscape, and then has the audacity to suggest removing all the tenant farmers to build factories on the grounds, bringing in heavy machinery and filthy smokestacks to take the place of trees and meadows, something that would surely be an eyesore, but Hornblower is more interested in profits and will not be dissuaded, as he’s a man that doesn’t take no for an answer.  While both men stubbornly refuse the usual social courtesies, both families are drawn into the center of the firestorm, with charges and countercharges about character issues, becoming an example of class warfare, as Hornblower vows to bring nothing but misery to the Hillcrest way of life.  The centerpiece of the film is a public auction of the land adjoining the Hillcrests, given several humorous asides, but also a build-up of uncanny suspense by continually stringing out that final bidder, where the two men go at it neck and neck, as if their way of life was in jeopardy, where Hillcrest grows so obsessed, Hitchcock portrays his agitated state of mind with a series of floating images of Hornblower’s superimposed head, anticipating some of the more experimental techniques of Vertigo (1958).  Hornblower seems even more determined at what he deems the disgraceful treatment of his daughter-in-law, Chloe, who is shunned from the usual social circles and treated as an outcast.  Chloe is a woman of mystery, often seen hidden behind a veil, who always plays her character over-the-top, seen swooning with moments of hysteria throughout the film, always claiming a headache, supposedly weak at the knees from constant fatigue, using exaggerated silent era melodrama as she literally slinks from room to room, where one suspects she is hiding something or plotting some nefarious revenge to get back at her adversaries.  In contrast, Hillcrest’s daughter Jill (Jill Esmond, Laurence Olivier’s first wife), is the preppy, free-spirited sort who seems to have an open mind about the future, which includes helping and befriending Chloe, even when no one else will. 

While Gwenn plays the more flamboyant character, filled with bluster and Scottish charm, he’s completely unsympathetic due to his black aims, where he may as well represent the British view towards the Northern Irish, that he’s some vermin relying upon lies and dirty tricks, a scourge that needs to be eradicated from the community at all costs, offering what is, according to British author and academic Charles Barr, “the most savage representation of class hostility in all of Hitchcock’s films.”  By contrast, Hillcrest is the doting father filled with a benevolent spirit, who’s interested in everyone’s welfare, irregardless of class, and as such is the moral pillar of the community.  It’s Mrs. Hillcrest (Helen Haye), however, that plays the offended party, barely holding her tongue when expressing her outrage at Hornblower’s underhanded methods.  She employs Dawker (Edward Chapman) as a kind of private detective to snoop around the Hornblower family history and see what turns up.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, they uncover the mystery surrounding Chloe, who becomes the target of character assassination and the talk of the town, with her secret spread by vicious behind-the-scenes rumors even before the viewers discover it for themselves.  The mantle of moral authority is passed to Mrs. Hillcrest in all matters concerning women, where it is her duty to inform Hornblower of his daughter-in-law’s shockingly disreputable past where due to dire economic circumstances growing up she was forced to support herself as a prostitute, earning a living by playing the professional “other woman” in prearranged divorce cases.  While Hornblower and Chloe initially cry foul, claiming it’s all lies and slander until the Hillcrest’s trot out the men she was involved with, turning the tables on her, where she’s forced to admit the truth, “When I deceived him, I’d have deceived God Himself—I was so desperate.  You’ve never been right down in the mud.  You can’t understand what I’ve been through.”  All of this plays out like a dirty, dark secret that is utterly scandalous to the upper class elite, who are themselves quite familiar with the practice of maintaining “kept women” in addition to their wives, all part of the hedonism of the wealthy, who provide the appearance of moral rectitude while violating every known rule behind the scenes.  While the main characters are deliberate postwar caricatures, this allows one to suppose that the playwright Galsworthy was not taking sides in the dispute, preferring to put a pox on both their houses.  Konstam rarely utters a word, playing one scene from behind a curtain, but can be seen in all manner of distress, even as she is dressed in revealing evening gowns and adorned from head to toe in the latest fashion, a stunning beauty that becomes one in a long line of Hitchcock fallen women, where her tragedy sets off a chain of events, becoming a sacrificial pawn in a dangerous game.  Hitchcock met with the playwright Galsworthy a few times, claiming he lived in baronial splendor, describing one visit to his estate as “the most cultured dinner table I ever attended.”  While the class analysis by Galsworthy may have been scathing in its time, his name is not held in the same esteem as Hitchcock’s, and unfortunately it was the playwright’s insistence to remain faithful to his play that prevented Hitchcock from exploring this subject more deeply.  

Note – no Hitchcock cameos. 

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