It’s great that so many classic movies are now available for home viewing – but nothing compares with seeing them as they were made to be shown, on the big screen. So far I’ve only managed to see a relatively small number of older films in this way, but I’ve found they tend to stick in my mind more vividly than those I’ve only seen on TV. Last weekend I was lucky enough to be at the historic Hackney Empire cinema in London for the premiere of the BFI’s (British Film Institute) new restored print of Hitchcock’s silent boxing/romantic melodrama The Ring, accompanied by music from Soweto Kinch’s jazz band. I won’t write a full review (there are many excellent reviews of this film online, which I can’t add much to) but just wanted to say something about this movie and the BFI’s Hitchcock season. The Ring is one of the ‘Hitchcock Nine’ which the BFI has been busy raising money to restore – his nine surviving silent films. The £2million target to restore all of these with brand new musical scores has almost been reached, and four restored silent movies are being premiered as part of the London 2012 Festival, but the BFI is not quite there yet and still needs more donations.
However, these screenings of the newly-restored British silents are only a taster for the BFI’s major season The Genius of Hitchcock, a complete retrospective which will run from August right through to October and include various special events, talks etc as well as showings of all Hitchcock’s films. As I don’t live in London I’m not likely to be able to get to many, but may hopefully see one or two more of the films on offer during the run. I’ve read that the restored silents will also be going on tour to other parts of the world in due course, and let’s hope there will also be DVD and Blu-ray releases of the new prints eventually.
The film’s title, The Ring, refers not only to the boxing arena, but also to the wedding ring - and to a suggestive snake bracelet which becomes a symbol of the love triangle at the centre of the film. In fact, it is notable how little boxing footage there is during most of the film, with most of the fights shown only through brief clips or montages of newspaper reports and posters, which all helps to build the tension for the final fight sequence.
Beautiful silent film star Lilian Hall Davies plays a woman working at a boxing stall in a fairground, who is engaged to handsome young boxer Jack ‘One Round’ Sander, played by Danish star Carl Brisson. (The heroine is described as just “the Girl” in the film’s cast list and intertitles, but is also sometimes known as both Mabel and Nellie in discussion of the film.) She is clearly bored by her repetitive life – there are some haunting shots of her standing at the corner of the tent peering through a window in the canvas at her husband-to-be seeing off one contender after another – and, when a handsome stranger turns up, Bob (Ian Hunter), she is reluctantly tempted to flirt with him. Bob takes up the challenge to fight Jack and surprises everyone at the fairground by easily beating him – but then it is revealed that the stranger is in fact an Australian boxing champ, who wants to employ Jack as his sparring partner. Ironically, the wages he pays enable Jack and his fiancee to marry, just as she is being increasingly tempted to stray sexually – something shown by the way she moves the snake bracelet up her arm, and hides it with her hand when Jack is looking.
There was a brief talk by BFI representatives before the showing of The Ring at the Hackney Empire about how the “extreme restoration” had been carried out, and the chance to see a few clips in both the older, badly faded print and the new one, where the difference was quite startling. We were shown how even the intertitles had been restored to make them more readable and striking. The film itself runs at 108 minutes – it felt a little slow in places, but the print is stunning and the pace allows time to admire the various pioneering camera effects dreamt up by Hitchcock and cinematographer Jack E Cox, who went on to work on many more of the director’s early films.
The love triangle plot does become clunkingly obvious at times, as Jack sees his wife practically sitting on Bob’s lap, or swooning over a framed photo of him, and still wonders if there is something going on – but, even if the surface story creaks at times, the film is still fascinating for its many experimental moments, such as dream sequences and the fuzzy photography to portray drunkenness. I also enjoyed the way the sleazy fairground atmosphere is created (the BFI’s notes say that a full-scale fairground was built on set and populated by hundreds of extras) – and all the main actors are excellent. Carl Brisson had in fact been an amateur boxer, but is probably better in the scenes outside the ring, with his face vividly showing his fluctuating emotions. Lilian Hall Davis also gives a warm performance and makes her two-timing character more likeable on screen than she sounds when the plot is described. I was saddened to read that she was an actress who failed to make the transition to talkies and committed suicide in the 1930s – a real-life example of the kinds of stories which inspired The Artist.
I am definitely no boxing fan, but there is no doubt that it is the sport which has given rise to the most great films. This must be at least partly because boxing works so well as a metaphor for many other “fights” faced in life. I don’t see The Ring as a great film in itself, but it certainly shows the way forward for Hitchcock’s later work, as the tension cranks up powerfully at key moments, especially towards and during the final fight sequence. It is clearly influenced by German expressionism (Hitchcock had worked in Germany) and also itself influenced later fight films. This is the only film where Hitchcock was credited as sole screenwriter as well as director, so he had a lot of personal investment in it.