The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
James: Hmmm, The Ring. I’m still debating whether or not I liked this one. I enjoyed it, but there was something very disappointing about the ending. It didn’t feel right to me. I mean, I liked Nellie (Lillian Hall-Davis) at the beginning of the film, then started disliking her as she cheated on her husband, One-Round Jack (Carl Brisson), then I liked her even less when she went back to him before his victory.
Jason: I agree totally. Another duplicitous woman, and this one is so casual and careless about her infidelity that you can’t empathize with her at all. She goes back and forth between them with no regard for the feelings of either man! The only sense of guilt we see is symbolized in the ring-like “bauble” that Bob (Ian Hunter) gives Nellie. If you look at it closely, you see that it’s actually a coiled snake, bringing in the whole original-sin idea, and I do like the way she takes turns hiding it on her arm and kind of flaunting it, when the mood strikes her. But the whole reason for the film’s conflict is that she’s a two-timing bitch! She’s supposed to be “the prize” at the end of that climactic fight, and yet she deserves neither man.
James: And I didn’t like most of Bob’s friends simply because they’re friends of Jack too, and they don’t care about the cheating wife. Jack’s trainer (Gordon Harker), though, the guy who keeps picking his nose . . . he’s classic.
Jason: Harker is awesome. He has a total John Belushi scene at the wedding reception. And I laughed at the scene in the church, which is comical in many ways. One thing I just remembered is the way Bob casually hangs that coat hanger on Harker’s pants in that early fight, kind of a jab for the way Harker treated him before he won. Laughed at that, too. I enjoyed that whole fight scene, actually. The way Mabel peeks in and can barely see the action, but it’s obviously all wild, with men standing on their feet watching the upset. The way the first dude approaches Jack in the ring off camera, then comes staggering back to get helped into his coat.
James: Yeah, that first boxing scene is great. I chuckled during the same moments you mentioned. You know, I was hoping the gypsy woman would play a bigger role in the film. Not that it would’ve helped at all, but I remember that being a dramatic scene when she looks out the window and sees the lovers and looks out the other window to see the two men. I kept thinking that she knows the secret and thus can hold it over the girl’s head and get her in trouble.
Jason: The gypsy woman is an interesting character, yes. The only real mystical or supernatural element to this otherwise routine romantic-triangle story. I didn’t feel she’d become a larger character, at least in importance, but I did think we’d see her again, since Mabel runs up to her wagon at the end of that scene. But I just felt that she was really seeing the trouble brewing, and was a sort of signal for the drama to come.
James: I saw conflict there. But I don’t believe it was really developed.
Jason: Regarding the whole notion of silent films in general, I had trouble in the first 20 minutes deciphering what was going on. I understood the love triangle early enough, but only much later did I learn that Bob was some kind of Australian boxing champ, and I didn’t understand what that scribbled note meant (“Don’t take another job until I see you fight,” or something like that). Took me a while to see that Bob was taking Jack on as a sparring partner. So the boxing aspects of the story were a little blurry to me until I read the synopsis somewhere.
James: It took me awhile to figure out that Bob was a professional boxer, but I did grasp the fact that the two didn’t want Jack leaving until they talked to him about a proposition. I figured they wanted him to be the stooge in some plot they were working on or something. I thought this film was better at telling the story without cards than The Lodger was. I always knew what was going on, at least to the point of following the story. In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitch said that the point was to tell a story without those cards (or words), and I think he did it well here.
Jason: Good point. And I think that’s something that carries through into his entire career. In this way, this silent period was extremely influential for Hitch. His later films have long silent moments that are sheer cinema, where the moving pictures are the only aspect of the film telling the story. Film has always been a visual medium, and Hitch knows how to use imagery to full effect. As he says in Hitchcock/Truffaut, most talkies are just “pictures of people talking,” whereas his films truly are “motion pictures.”
James: I loved many of the innovations in this one. For example, showing the boxing matches on the wall while the seasons changed and Jack’s name got bigger and bigger as he climbed the charts. Very nicely done. And the champagne bubbles indicating the passage of time. Not sure what I thought about the camera being the punching bag or being the other boxer. I liked the idea of it, but it didn’t quite work for me.
Jason: I noticed Jack’s name climbing the charts, but I didn’t notice the changing of seasons. The champagne bubbles were great, although I saw them as more indicative of the mood of the room than the passage of time. I mean, Jack and his buddies come back to his place after the fight, and they want to tell Nellie the good news, but she’s out with Bob. So the party is a disaster and suddenly the bubbles go flat. I laughed at that. I agree about the punching bag. I wrote a little note almost word-for-word what you just wrote. Interesting idea, but it doesn’t quite work.
James: I think I like your idea of the champagne being the mood setter more than the time passage. I like that a lot, actually. And I can see how that visual imagery showed that mood swing. One thing I continued to notice was the soundtrack. It fit only sometimes. Usually, though, it was totally random. The scene might be somber or dramatic, but the music was upbeat. Added a weird feeling to the whole picture.
Jason: Interesting that you were paying attention to the soundtrack. I mean, it seemed so disconnected from the movie to me that I found myself wondering if it was original at all. How reliable are these silent-film soundtracks? It could be that someone, a couple years ago, just slapped some appropriate-sounding themes on the disc, or it could actually be the original soundtrack. I have no idea. I ended up tuning most of the music out.
James: There were a couple of times the soundtrack was spot on. Like at that party, the music was all hectic and happy. But in other scenes, the music just cut off and changed to something completely different, regardless of what was going on in the scene. Heck, I have no idea if it was original.
Jason: Now that I think of it, the music did seem appropriate for the fight sequence at the end. Hmmm. Curious.
James: I definitely enjoyed the dual meaning of the title.
Jason: That’s one of the most interesting aspects of the movie for me. At first, I acknowledged the dual meaning: the boxing ring and the wedding ring. But then we get the snake bracelet, another kind of ring. Then, I started looking closer and saw all kinds of rings in the film, things that were lingered on: the ring of tickets, the fortune-teller’s hoop earrings, a round desk table . . . they went on and on . . .
James: I hadn’t noticed all of those rings/circles. I’d love to read a more thorough look at all of those elements. There was also something weird that jumped out at me that ties with the love triangle (which could be a ring of sorts). When Jack confronts the girl and throws the picture of Bob, she picks it up. Right before she runs to her room, she holds the picture to her breast, but with the picture facing out. In a way, it’s as if Bob is there, taunting Jack. At the same time, the fact that she holds the picture tightly sort of symbolizes her choosing Bob over her husband. That might all be a little too deep, but the simple fact that she has the picture facing outward really made me take notice of that scene and all it could mean.
Jason: I also noticed the way she holds the picture of Bob, almost defiantly. And doesn’t that happen just after the ripping of the dress, making it more meaningful? This is an aspect of the movie that really makes it feel like Hitchcock for me, despite the light-heartedness of it. It’s a sexually charged, symbolic story of infidelity, and I think we’re going to see infidelity in many, many more Hitch films. I think you’re right on with your thoughts about Bob taunting Jack from the picture. I find it interesting that Jack is spineless and slow to action until he finally kicks into gear later in the film, and that seems to be why he gets the girl in the end. But she’s still a two-timer and doesn’t deserve Jack.
James: Is The Ring supposed to be a comedy? Because some scenes are downright hilarious. Perhaps that’s just my modern interpretation. I was surprised by how much drama is in this one, too, though.
Jason: I would say yes, definitely, it’s a comedy. You get the intention right away, at that carnival. The way all those open-mouthed buffoons in the crowd are laughing and chortling. I’d call it a comic drama.
James: I’m surprised at some of the scenes. For example, that party with the girls dancing around all crazy. Some guy all but pours a bottle of champagne down that girl’s throat. And the whole infidelity thing. I mean, wasn’t that frowned upon back then? Everyone seemed to be okay with the fact that this married woman is tramping around with the boxer.
Jason: Yeah, that party is surprising. It has the feel of a drunken frat party and feels very ahead of its time, with its sexual openness. Ah, Hitch. Never afraid, even from the beginning, to juice things up. I even remember seeing a shot of a ripped dress and bra. Are there bras in every single one of his movies?
James: Yeah, that ripping of her shirt was very risqué. You’re right, Hitch does that sort of thing all the time and I love him for it. I was actually hoping he would pop her a good one. Hahaha.
Jason: Did you notice the casual racism in the film? At the carnival, a stereotypical black man is getting dunked at one of the attractions, and the grotesque crowd is laughing like bumpkins. I wonder if it was an anti-racism comment, or if Hitch was just portraying the social climate of the time. I also noticed the use of the word “nigger.” And yet, there’s a black man among Jack’s friends, one of the crew members, and he’s totally treated as an equal.
James: I noticed the racism too, but I’m sure that was just a sign of the times. Especially the way everyone laughed at the guy on the dunking board.
Jason: You’re probably right about the racism, but I was struck by the buffoonish reactions of the crowd while all that was happening. Seemed like some sort of commentary.
James: I didn’t see Hitchcock in this one.
Jason: This was the first movie Hitchcock wrote himself, so it’s interesting that you say that. I definitely see his humor there, but I see where you’re coming from. After The Lodger, this film seems like a total departure. In fact, it seems like The Lodger is more representative of his reputation than this romantic trifle.
James: When I said I didn’t see Hitch, I meant I didn’t see him make a cameo appearance. I definitely saw his hand in the filming and in the story. He definitely left a dramatic impression on situations that could easily be less than dramatic.
Jason: Oops, no, I didn’t notice Hitch in a cameo either.