05 October 2008

The Skin Game (1931)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 77 mins.

If you're the sort of person who enjoys the melodrama of feuding wealthy individuals, you might find some sparks of entertainment in Alfred Hitchcock's The Skin Game, a 1931 drama that is one of his typically unseen early British productions. If, however, you're like me, you'll find The Skin Game to be another mediocre entry into Hitchcock's pre-1934 works.

The film pits two rich families – the Hillcrests, from old money; and the nouveau riche Hornblowers – against each other in a fight for the English countryside. The Hornblower patriarch is attempting to muscle out farmers so he can push forward the production of factories on the lands. The Hillcrests are resentful, both professionally and personally, and they do their best to ostracize the other family and make them "unwelcome" in moneyed circles. But then an unexpected dark secret from the Hornblower family emerges, the Hillcrests embark on a blackmail mission.

The Skin Game was one of the many theatrical plays Hitchcock adapted while in Britain. Producers at British International preferred the stability and predictability of stage adaptations to original film screenplays, but Hitchcock's biographers note that, by The Skin Game, he was becoming restless. It is commonly written that he was bored on the set, at times only deriving pleasure from the occasional torment of his actors. As I've noted extensively before, his transparent boredom can be an utterly damning quality for an otherwise average film. The Skin Game shows glimmers of creativity in some parts, but there are also some failed experiments.

Consider an early scene where two characters are having a heated conversation in a darkened house. The audience can't see the two talkers; only the outer facade of the house and the blackened doorway. Hitchcock keeps the camera focused on that generic facade for an intolerable length of time before they emerge. It's not hard to blanch at something like that, but then Hitchcock gives you this little gem of a scene: a well-crafted auction sequence where, for a sustained period of time, the camera turns to function as the point-of-view of the auctioneer, roaming around the faces of a crowd and zipping and panning between a heated bidding battle. Granted, in terms of heart-pounding excitement, it is not exactly a crop duster diving for Cary Grant, but it is a flash of genius that stands out and illustrates why Hitchcock was one of the preeminent directors working in Britain in the 1930s.

The film holds itself together, which admittedly is not much of a ringing endorsement. The flourishes aren't as prevalent as you might wish. It's rather droll but not egregiously awful.


darkcitydame4e 05 October, 2008  

Hi! T.S.
I agree, some of Hitch's early work in England were "hit" and "misses." But I am looking at his (Hitch) early work from the perspective of someone who was "honing" his film making skill!...his experimental stage!
Btw, because I consider myself a "Hitchcock fanatic" I am printing (boy! Oh boy!...is my printer about to burn out! but, I think that it's worth it!) yours' and Deadpan, reviews of Hitch's films in order to get a different perspective or view from other(writers/reviewers) take on Hitch work!


I have to check my collection to find out if this film is among the films in my early batch of Hitch work. Because my mother purchased almost all his American films for me.But, she didn't think that I would be interested in his early films made in England.

Sam Juliano,  10 October, 2008  

Yeah I agree here with your assessment as this particular film is static an dated, hence laborious to sit through. Definitely among his worst films. As you have noted, his British period, however does contain some truly great work, but THE SKIN GAME is indeed as Dark City Dame suggests, an "experimental" film so to speak.

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