Before the Japanese invaded our nightmares by unleashing Sadako, The Ring was a much more benign silent movie written and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It features a simple story about two boxers, “One Round” Jack Sanders (Carl Brisson) and Bob Corby (Ian Hunter), who fight both in and out of the ring for the love of a woman named Mabel (Lillian Hall Davis). As far as Hitchcockian movies go, this is a more conventional form of storytelling with not a lot of his trademark mystery or action. But the film makes up for it visually, with Hitchcock sprinkling a lot of interesting directorial flourishes that seem innovative for the time.
Silent movies, by virtue of them being silent, rely much more on visual cues to externalize a character’s interior life. This is of course more difficult — it is the voice of the character that grants us access to his innermost thoughts, emotions, aspirations. In the absence of voice, the language of emotion takes on a more material instead of narrative form.
Consider this particular use of imagery. A prominent prop in the film is the gold arm bracelet that Bob gives to Mabel:
In the opening scenes of the movie, we see Jack working in a carnival as a supposedly unbeatable boxer which the gentlemen there try to defeat. What he doesn’t know is that Bob is a boxing champion from Australia who fancies the carnival assistant Mabel. Mabel, as it turns out, is Jack’s girlfriend. This is the basic set-up of the central love triangle. Bob beats Jack and in doing so, he impresses Mabel. He then buys the armband using the money he had won from the fight:
Everytime Mabel goes out with Bob, she wears it like a badge of his affection:
But when she’s with Jack, she hides it from him by covering it with her hand and it quickly transforms into a symbol of infidelity and forbidden love:
The shifting meaning of this piece of jewelry from love to guilt mirrors the emotional undercurrent of Mabel’s relationships with Bob and Jack. In the final boxing match between the two of them, where everything is at stake including Mabel herself, she sits in Bob’s corner seemingly in support of him. But in the end, just when Jack is about to lose, she rushes to his side and stands by him, giving him the strength needed to defeat his opponent. The epilogue of the movie shows Mabel returning the armband to Bob – their tryst is over, and she returns the gift that started it, providing closure for her. This is clearly emotion projected on the material.
Another way that Hitchcock manifests interiority is by deploying spectral images:
These ghastly projections have a more negative connotation: fear, insecurity, jealousy. In the entire movie, only Jack sees these apparitions, a device to let us feel how he is threatened by Bob:
You can’t get any more literal than that — Bob’s face on a punching ball to represent Jack’s anger at him. But the more intriguing use of this technique is in a scene during a party that Mabel and Jack host:
Jack is in one room, and he glimpses Mabel in the other room sitting on Bob’s lap through a mirror hanging in the hallway. Immediately he conjures an image of what the two of them might be doing: laughing, having fun and flirting. The spatial logic of this sequence and how it unites Jack’s room, Mabel’s room, the reflection and Jack’s imagination gives the scene both a sense of depth and dislocation. Here, the warped space complements the paranoia that Jack feels, and it also makes the scene feel richer and more layered.
The final thing I’d point out is Hitchcock’s use of perspective shots, providing a bit of insight on a character’s point of view.
During the garden feast scene after Jack and Mabel’s wedding, Jack’s trainer drinks a little bit too much and his perspective changes after he gets a bit inebriated, providing a bit of comic relief:
The shot of the table gets distorted and stretched out, and the camera becomes shaky. I don’t know how technologically innovative this is, but it seems like a pretty darn creative way of portraying drunkenness given the constraints of the medium at that time.
Another is from the climactic boxing match between Jack and Bob. As Bob pounds on Jack, he falls down and the camera adopts his point of view:
The ropes, the lights and the audience dissolve and mesh into each other, again conveying disorientation and the struggle to maintain one’s grasp on consciousness. To compensate for the lack of dialogue, we see events unfold from the eyes of the character in order to understand better what they might be thinking or feeling at certain points in the plot.
When you consider the entire body of Hitchcock’s work, this doesn’t seem to matter much because ultimately, it is a traditional love story that has been told countless of times. But to see him give life to an otherwise drab story is quite an experience in itself. And once you consider that this is a boxing movie made in the 20’s, when the very idea wasn’t considered cheesy or cliched, then it becomes all the more impressive. Even at this point in his career, you can see that Hitchcock has a unique eye that is suited for filmmaking, silent or otherwise.
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