The Ring features the only Hitchcock screenplay he fully originated. It’s a down-and-dirty carnival boxer’s tale that’s one of his most cinematic and visually rich silents, full of intense chiaroscuro and atmospheric, teeming crowd scenes with dramatic highlighted figures and faces further heightened by being ringed by darkness. (The BFI restoration DVD also has an unusually vivid sound accompaniment, a small jazz group score that fits the whole mood and enhances the scenes.) He may have been more at home here than with the la-de-dah world of the French Riviera and posh English country home life of Noel Coward’s play he’d just dealt with in Easy Virtue. But the point is the way he demonstrates his quick adeptness at switching to another genre and milieu for each new film. The Ring is various and satisfying visually, and in contrast simple to the point of monotony in its theme. The better to be wordlessly cinematic, communicating with closeups and crosscutting so it often needs no dialogue boxes (which have been simplified, too, divested of their old fashioned frames). Further, as in his earlier films, Hitchcock makes use of “real” texts when he can to communicate — posters, legal documents, personal notes.
The Ring is about two men fighting for the love of the same woman. The title itself is dual in meaning and symbolic. The two rivals circle around each other in the ring, but there are also two “rings,” the wedding ring Jack gives his bride and the arm ring his rival gives her. Many colourful characters swirl around and a whole fairground was constructed on set with hundreds of extras to populate it. But the action is always focused on three people, played by Carl Brisson, Ian Hunter, and Lillian Hall-Davis as Jack ‘One Round’ Sander, the carnival boxer; big Bill Corby, the pro fighter; and “The Girl” they both want. Bill is after Jack’s Girl from the first frames. She’s perched up high outside the tent selling tickets for Jack’s matches inside, and big tall Bill’s standing by chatting her up. He’s a spoiler, looking like an ordinary mild, even soft, fellow in coat and tie when he goes in; but when he challenges Jack he goes more than one round with him — a thing that’s never supposed to happen. This could get Jack fired, but Bill has Jack come and try out the next day to be his sparring partner, and since that goes well and he instantly has a new, better job, to celebrate it Jack immediately weds The Girl. Meanwhile the crowd scenes are wonderful and the boxing cronies are colourful and funny. Jack soon works his way up the boxing ranks, but with him and The Girl constantly in the same gym or room with Bill and Bill constantly making nice with her, Jack realises if he goes away to train, he might as well plan on a divorce more than a championship. Where can this go? Obviously Jack and Bill are going to have to wind up fighting each other in the big ring and The Girl will play a pivotal role.
The film is as good with the betters, promoters, and boxing groupies as it was with the carnival crowds, and Carl Brisson is convincing and memorable as a tough, grinning “Rocky” character who becomes embittered as his wife’s disloyalty gradually becomes clear to him after he wins a decisive fight and, returning home to celebrate with cronies, finds her not there, out partying with Bob. This memorably sad sequence is all visual: the sour expression of Jack’s usually deadpan trainer (Gordon Harker), a big framed photo of Bill on the piano; and later, after Jack goes to a club and knocks Bob down, a scribbled note on the mantlepiece. And so of course we get the final big boxing sequence, the match against the two rivals in the Albert Hall. Though it’s a bit corny, hinging almost entirely on the motivation provided by The Girl, whose behaviour has been fickle (she never quite emerges as a character), the images here at the end as throughout in the film are superb, worthy of the boxing paintings of George Bellows but with a noirish even Rembrandtesque drama all their own.
In the end, it may not feel like there’s been much to The Ring, but it shows Hitchcock’s extraordinary command of the visual, as well as his penchant for playful visual tricks, like the roiling circular cameos of Jack’s fight crew floating in the air. This sort of thing is what caused Jonathan Rosenbaum in a 1976 piece to describe The Ring as “probably the most Germanic” of Hitchcock’s silents. (It should be noted that The Lodger is very “Germanic” too, however.) Rosenbaum delights in enumerating some of the various visual parallelisms and doublings in The Ring. But while these are fun to hunt out, and the cinematic elements in general are a delight, the story remains trite and negligible, poor material to hang a film on. Hence it’s easy to see why this was originally a critical but not a commercial success. We may ponder it now as a study in the limits of what a silent film can and can’t do.
As the BFI said in connection to their first screening of this restoration in November 2012, “Hitchcock claimed that, after The Lodger, this is the next ‘Hitchcock’ picture. It’s difficult to disagree. ”
This print was monochromatic, which I assume is true to the original from all that is known, since the BFI used an “original negative’ for the restoration. The results were very successful.
Reviewed as part of the US premiere of The Hitchcock 9 BFI-restored silent films by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, shown at the Castro Theatre June 14-16, 2013.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Carl Brisson, Lillian Hall-Davis, Ian Hunter
Runtime: 72 min