The Skin Game [DVD]
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Social drama based on the play by John Galsworthy. When the wealthy Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn), claims a valuable forest property, the British countryside turns into an ideological battlefield. The property has been controlled for centuries by the 'landed gentry' and the local squire (C.V. France) and his wife (Helen Haye) refuse to acknowledge Hornblower's presence.
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The upper class Hillcrists (CV France and Helen Heye, amongst others) spar with the newly moneyed Hornblowers (including Edmund Gwenn), with the main crux of their arguement being that Mr Hornblower has gone back on his word not to evict the tenants of a house which stands on land sold to him by Mr & Mrs Hillcrest. If that doesn't sound a particularly thrilling premise for a film there's probably a good reason...it isn't.
The most exciting sequence in the film is a subsequent land auction, no really, where the Hillcrists and Hornblowers are pitted against each other, bidding to gain control of a vital piece of land. Again if a land auction doesn't sound as if it should be the most exciting part of a flim...well, you get the idea.
Most Hitchcock fans will feel that the film is too focused on dialogue and it displays little of the technical flair that most would associate with the director. It is true that he had little interest in the subject matter and as a result the film seems little more than it is; a play on film.
The acting is stilted in many parts, although Phyllis Konstam gives a delightfully over-the-top performance as Chloe Hornblower, who's secret blows the plot wide open when the Hilcrest's use it to blackmail the Hornblowers to retain ownership of the land that was sold at the auction.
In the final analysis its a decent film, and one that is completely at ease with the, then still new, processes of the "talking picture". What it most certainly isn't however, other than in name only, is an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The lack of interest he had in the project can't help but shine through. Still the fact that it's based on a solid Galsworthy play means that it's not a complete washout.
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The first two films in the set "The Ring" and "The Manxman" were made the year after the success of "The Lodger" (which would been shelved when studio executives thought it a disaster. Luckily, Michael Balcon stepped in a man who championed Hitch early in his career and the film was a wild success). "Murder!" is an early talkie (sadly the German version isn't included. It would have been nice to see for comparison sake as it was shot with a different cast on the same sets). In the early days of film alternate versions were shot for other markets where they might be popular usually with a different director. Hitch spoke German since he worked early on in that country shooting films and absorbing much of the early German expressionist styles that he would reference throughout his career)so directed it himself. "The Skin Game" and "Rich and Strange" (the latter an early Hitchcock classic) are also included. A pity that "Blackmail" (Hitch's first talkie that was also shot to be shown as a silent film) isn't included as well.
The bad news is that we don't get any feature length commentary tracks by Hitchcock historians and film scholars (which is just as well if these things bore you). We do, however, get a new 15 minute featurette focusing on Hitchcock's early life, his collaboration with his wife Alma (who is often overlooked--we must remember that it was team Hitchcock collaborating which consisted of Hitch, his wife Alma and whomever their current favorite writer was)and the development of his early style. It features interviews with USC Hitchcock Professor Drew Casper, director Peter Bogdanovich, Hitch's daughter and screenwriter/film historian Steve Haberman. We have a generous amount of clips from the set illustrating their points. I do wish that "The Lodger" had been included in this set but that's a pretty minor point (although honestly it does belong here as an example of his developing sense of style). Also missing is Hitch's "Number 17" which would have been a natural to include in this set even though the plot is a bit confusing, it's a fun ride.
This is an excellent collection of early minor classics as Hitch developed his film style. It's clear that he was influenced by seeing other directors such as Fritz Lang and FW Murnau but he had already begun to develop his own distinctive voice as a film director. This is a good set to get and is a pretty inexpense handsome package for fans.
I would have given this DVD box set 5 stars except that 1) These are not Hitchcock classics, they are good examples of his early work but they are no Psycho, 2) While mastered from 35mm, they did not get the Criterion treatment of removing scratches & dirt specks. Still this is a great improvement over previous releases of these titles. I only wish "NUMBER 17" was in this set, that early classic deserves the Studio Canal treatment.
This set features a mix of silent films & early sound British films. There is also a nice 15 minute bonus on disc 3 that explains the difficulties of filming sound films in 1930 and how Hitchcock got around the problems.
Disc #1 : Two Silent Films
"THE RING" (1927) - Two boxers fall in love with a girl named Nellie. Very visual, early signs of Hitchcock's style.
"MANXMAN" (1929) - Hitchcock's last silent film! A Love story about two fishermen & a landlord's daughter.
Disc #2 : Two early sound films
"MURDER" (1930) - the 104 minute U.K. version, good suspence drama. A jurer re-thinks his verdict and investigates the crime himself.
"SKIN GAME" (1931) - Based on a John Galsworthy play, a little stagy. A traditional family battles a (then) modern family over land. Not as racey as the title would suggest.
Disc #3 : One more "talkie" and a bonus feature
"RICH AND STANGE" (1931) - Unexpected riches don't bring happiness for a married couple. A tale with a moral.
"THE HITCHCOCK WAY" (2007) - 15 minute documentary interviewing Alfred's daughter and surviving crew members as well as film historians. Of special interest is the explanation of how difficult it was to work in early sound films and how Hitchcock got around the problems in 1930.
The films will be primarily of interest to an avid Hitchcock fan, with their subjective camera tricks and embellishments, early examples of the Hitchcock style. "Murder" yields some interesting moments, such as the melodramatic musical cue of "Tristan and Isolde", later used as a basis for Bernard Herrmann's "Vertigo" score.
Looking forward to a second volume from Canal.