Week 5: ‘The Ring’ – 1928

‘The Ring’ is a love triangle (or circle?) tale set against the backdrop of the boxing ring. As with ‘Easy Virtue’ it’s a bit off the track of what we nowadays associate Hitchcock with, but the 1920’s seemed to be a time when he explored different types of stories prior to settling on his personal favourite. ‘The Ring’ is a fairly interesting tale that is directed with a verve and inventiveness that outweighs the slightly slim story. It is pregnant with symbolism, but who could resist that with such a title?

The opening scene setting shots of the circus have a genuine verve about them – the camera on the lap of a woman swinging, then cutting to her p.o.v.; big c/u of announcer’s shouting mouth dissolving to a fairground game with match-framed big mouth; gunshots to camera as coconuts tumble. Fantastic.

The circular and ‘ring’ motifs abound aplenty, but it never feels too much (see the overcooked visual metaphors of ‘Downhill’). The opening image of a beating drum, the spinning merry-go-rounds, the ticket reel that Mabel (Lilian Hall Davis) sells from, the snake bracelet Bob Corby (Ian Hunter) gives her as he woos away from ‘One Round’ Jack (Carl Brisson) – all contribute to the visual imagery of life’s fickle wheel of fortune. (The snake bracelet an obvious Eden metaphor).

I liked the way that when Jack and Corby first box (Corby keeping secret that he is the champ of Australia) we experience some of the fight from outside of the circus tent – the score cards appearing to chart their progress (see miscellaneous notes below). The Round 1 card is tattered and overused, but Round 2 is pristine and new, clearly the nickname ‘One Round’ has been well earned.

After Corby steals Mabel, Jack starts his relentless quest to win her back by beating him in the ring. I couldn’t help feeling that all this effort on Jack’s part was slightly misguided. His girl seems to leave him with some alacrity in the early stages and you feel like saying to him ‘she’s not worth it, mate’ – but I guess that doesn’t make for great drama. He also seems to wander off without much of a fight and leave her with Corby in the first place –far too trusting. It makes the film feel a little hollow, as the main narrative thrust seems, to me, slightly unworthy.  Mabel also leaves Jack for Corby virtually at the wedding breakfast, further emphasising her flightiness.

At the same time, you have to feel an admiration for Jack. In the climactic fight with Corby (in the circular Royal Albert Hall), he gets repeatedly pummelled and knocked down and gets up over and over again, to the point that the girl rushes to his side and says she is in his corner now, this statement giving him the inspiration to finally beat his nemesis. I still wouldn’t trust her though.

Jack is clearly the character you feel the most sympathy with and his belligerent and grimly determined rise to challenge the champ is something to be admired. Hitchcock’s use of the boxing posters to illustrate his slow rise up the rankings is inspired, simple, direct and silent.

In fact, ‘The Ring’ is very sparing in its use of title cards and is all the better for it. Jack doesn’t seem at first to be the boxing sort, but Brisson plays the role well and by the end you’re convinced he has the moves and the muscularity to be a champion pugilist (in fact, Brisson actually worked as a prizefighter between 1912 and 1915).

The overall tone of the fairground where Jack and Mabel work illustrates the camaraderie that exists amongst the outsiders and circus freaks whose home it is, as well as a feeling that is vaguely sinister and suspicious of outsiders. It’s a good setting and allows for interesting symbolic scenes: the fortune teller with her circle of cards represents Jack as the Jack of Diamonds, Corby as the King of Hearts; all the circus freaks turning up at the wedding – good scenes and interesting to watch.

I found the comedy mugging of Gordon Harker as Jack’s trainer too much and really not in the least bit funny, but again this is probably just from a modern standpoint. The high standard of photography continues – the scene by the river with Jack and Mabel is absolutely beautiful, their faces reflecting in the water and then interrupted by the snake bracelet slipping off her arm and sploshing in.

Overall, ‘The Ring’ is a pretty fresh look at a pretty plain story, enlivened by enthusiastic performances and imaginative direction.

Miscellaneous notes

The title card that appears as Jack rises up the rankings is pretty amazing from today’s perspective: ‘if you win this next with the nigger, you’ll be in the running for the championship’. Wow. Bear in mind also that this is the sole Hitchcock movie where he writes completely on his own, but I guess it’s just a different era.

It has been said that ‘The Ring’ has influenced Martin Scorsese in the making of ‘Raging Bull’, particularly in the way Hitchcock cuts away to other visuals as the actual fights take place (particularly in the first Jack/Corby match, Corby eyeing Mabel as he lays into his opponent). This may be so, and Scorsese will doubtless have seen the film, but in most of the writing on ‘Raging Bull’ and  many interviews with Scorsese, he cites Powell and Pressburger’s ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ (1943) as a prime influence in this area – particularly the famous crane shot out of the skylight as Clive Candy and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff begin to duel. Regardless, it is interesting to note these three filmmakers all choosing similar ways of presenting their tales.

One last thing on ‘Raging Bull’: as Corby steps into the ring to face Jack for the first time (@11’15”) he is surrounded by a swirling ring of smoke – it reminded me of the pause prior to Sugar Ray Robinson’s massive punch to an already demolished (and self destructive) Jake La Motta in their final fight from the 1981 classic. The scenes from both films preface a moment of great significance in each protagonists’s lives.

As with some of the other early Hitchcock’s, there are varying release dates by territory. In all cases, I am using the Hitchcock/Truffaut book as a guide to the chronology.

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