Undoubtedly one of the very finest 20th century film directors, best known as the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock started his career in the early 1920’s. He made nine silent films, honing his directorial and story-telling skills. And while the man is worthy of a much longer thought, I recently acquired The Ring (1927) and The Manxman (1929), two beautifully restored melodramas that look like they were shot last week.
Danish actor Carl Brisson stars in both – his startling blue eyes, dimples and boxer’s physique resulting in one of the more handsome stars of the silent era. Though his film career fell victim to the talkie as his heavy accent made him an unlikely leading man, he went on to star in Broadway musicals and released a number of successful albums. His co-star in The Ring suffered a more horrid fate – finding herself out of work, Lillian Hall-Davis gassed herself and slashed her own throat in 1933 at 35. Czech actress Anny Ondra, playing the love interest in The Manxman, continued to work in film, shifting to Germany in the mid-30’s. There she met and married heavyweight boxing champion, Max Schmeling.
In The Ring, Brisson plays ‘One-Round’ Jack Sander a side-show boxer taking on all comers, saving his money so he can marry his girl, Mabel (Hall-Davis). One night he steps into the ring to find he’s met his match with Bob Corby (Ian Hunter), who takes his winnings and blows it on a silver bracelet for Mabel – which she coyly accepts. It turns out Corby is a professional boxer who takes Sander on as a sparring partner, dallying with Mabel behind Jack’s back. But even the most naive of men will eventually cotton on.
If The Ring were made today, it’d probably star Matthew McConaughey (who bears an amazing resemblence) and the starlet of the moment. However, the carny folk would undoubtedly receive far more politically correct treatment – and the flick is a reminder of just how much our culture has shifted in the last 80 years.
The Manxman is my favourite of the two, with Brisson playing Pete, a fisherman who goes off to make his fortune when he’s thrown out of the public house by his sweetheart’s father. He entrusts his best friend Philip (Malcolm Keen) to look after the lovely and coquettish Kate (Anny Ondra) while he’s gone. Philip and Anny become the best of friends, both aware that if Pete were not in the picture they would fall in love, though Philip is hesitant as he is from an upper class family and wishes to pursue a career in law. His family assures him she will never do.
When they receive news that Pete has been killed in an accident, they give in to the long-pent passions. Hitchcock has some fun here, euphemistically grinding some millstones stones in one love scene and having a ship ‘slip’ into a harbour in another. But before they can make plans, it turns out that Pete is still alive – and he’s coming home.
Hitchcock keeps a reign on his actors, limiting the overdramatising so often associated with silents, which can render them unwatchable. (However the use of lipstick and eyeliner on the male stars is a little bizarre.) He also stays away from quote panels, which disturb the pace of the film and remind me the film is silent, despite the score. Instead he relies on visual clues and expects you to do a little bit of lip reading. This was also a way to get around the censors, especially in the second film, dealing with adultery and fornication. I was on the edge of my seat here wondering how it would turn out.
These films are for Hitchcock fans, interested in his early works. He was still a young man learning his craft here, unlike Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Fritz Lang or F.W Murnau who were at the top of their game and produced stunning work. Indeed, Hitchcock appears to have begun his career more as a lightweight – focussing on love triangles. But he moved on…
Notorious, from 1946 with Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains is my favourite Hitch – what’s yours?