This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand, writer, composer, silent film accompanist and TV and radio presenter. Brand will accompany a screening of Alfred hitchcock’s The Ring at the Royal Albert Hall on 4 October 2015
The Ring is the only Hitchcock movie scenario that Hitch wrote himself. His highly regarded screenwriter Elliott Stannard, Hitch and Alma, his wife plotted it out together, inventing wonderful visual set-pieces such as a sideshow boxer’s rise through the ranks shown as changing fight posters over the months and the leading character’s Othello-like jealousy growing throughout a drink-fuelled dinner party.
Lillian Hall-Davis arguably precedes Anny Ondra as Hitch’s first sexy femme fatale, particularly in this film, in which she loses her head to boxing beefcake Ian Hunter despite marrying genuine athlete Carl Brisson, who is forced to fight for his wife’s affections.
I first scored this film over 10 years ago for a small jazz ensemble and have always loved its daring, its cheeky vivacity and the physicality of its fight scenes. But where did Hitch’s love of the fight game come from, and what does this eccentric film tell us about its creator?
The only one of Hitchcock’s silents not to be a literary adaptation and his first to be made at British International Pictures, The Ring is a boxing movie, with a love triangle plot neatly expressed by the film’s central symbol. The ring is where Jack “One Round” Sander and his rival Bob compete, but it’s also a nod to the wedding band that Jack’s wife Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis) wears, and her bracelet, which was given to her by … Bob.
With flashy editing that betrays a Soviet influence and some neat typological tricks too, The Ring is a visual triumph. The subject matter may not be what we expect from the master of suspense, but Hitchcock was very proud of it:
“You might say that after The Lodger, The Ring was the next Hitchcock picture. There were all kinds of innovations in it, and I remember that at the premiere an elaborate montage got a round of applause. It was the first time that had ever happened to me.”
The Bioscope was just as fond of it as it was of The Lodger, heralding it as “the most magnificent British film ever made”.
That said, The Ring is not so popular today. The plot lacks the fireworks of a Hitchcock thriller and the stars here are not so well remembered as Novello, say. There’s also the matter of some outdated and offensive language. The Ring is set in multiracial 1920s London, and yes, some people use that word. They did then. It’s not pleasant, but it’s not a reason to avoid the film.
The Ring is one of Hitchcock’s most successful silents, and its tight dramatic structure as well as its obsession with circles is a precursor to the pleasing graphical neatness of many of his better-loved later films: the grids of glass in Rear Window and the “criss-cross” of train tracks in Strangers on a Train. Indeed, from Kim Novak’s chignon to Janet Leigh’s iris, spirals and circles continued to fascinate Hitchcock throughout his career (the explanation for this may be slightly distasteful).
It’s also worth remembering that this is the work of Hitchcock’s A-team – he collaborated on the script with Eliot Stannard and, of course, Alma Reville. Those visual effects are enhanced by the work of painter W Percy Day, too.
This summer’s gala screening of the BFI’s restoration of The Ring promises to reinvigorate the film. A film with this much style and swagger will shine when it has been been fully restored and it’s going to be shown at the Hackney Empire with a score by Soweto Kinch, known for his socially aware fusion of hip-hop and jazz. Indeed, the premiere screening of the new print at this year’s Cannes apparently received a standing ovation.
Synopsis: Love triangle melodrama set in the world of boxing. When Jack ‘One Round’ Sander is discovered by promoter James Ware, his career takes off. But rival Bob Corby, heavyweight champion takes an interest in his girlfriend. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: Eight minutes in: a discovery, a proposal, and a whole lot of circles within circles.
Last year, a silent film wowed the Cannes film festival, and look where that ended up? This year, the BFI’s new restoration of Hitchcock’s 1927 film The Ring will be premiered at the festival – so the delegates at the film industry’s most glamorous get-together will be the first to see its full splendour.
When the film screens at the Hackney Empire in July, it will have a newly commissioned live score by Soweto Kinch. That screening will also be streamed online so people around the country can join in the sense of occasion. The Cannes crowd are in for a treat too, though: the festival screening will be a gala in itself, taking the form of a ciné-concert with London’s own Stephen Horne providing the music.
Obviously one is rather tired of annual trip to the Croisette, but this year we may make an exception, if only to see what the world’s cinema press make of a work that was heralded on its initial release as: “the most magnificent British film ever made”.