The Ring: an early technical triumph for Alfred Hitchcock in the sport movie genre

Alfred Hitchcock, “The Ring” (1927)

An early triumph for the young Alfred Hitchcock, released in the same year as his better known “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog”, the boxing film “The Ring” deserves its own accolade as one of his more technically accomplished films from the silent movie era. Already the film features much symbolism in its name alone: there is the obvious reference to the boxing ring but the title also refers to a wedding ring, a bracelet and the love triangle that is the movie’s heart. Themes familiar to Hitchcock fans are not so much in evidence here and the major attractions lie in Hitchcock’s increasingly confident use of editing, montage, the camera as voyeur and development of character through action and emotion.

Jack Sander (Carl Brisson) works his way up as a boxer from fighting amateurs at country fairs to professional level. His main ambition is to succeed at boxing and earn enough money to marry the cashier Mabel (Lillian Hall Davis). However Mabel meets another boxer, Bob Corby (Ian Hunter), and falls in love with him. As Sander wins his bouts, he marries Mabel and continues to fight but gradually discovers his wife is still attracted to Bob. He vows to keep on fighting to a level where he can seriously challenge Corby. Eventually the match is arranged and everyone in town turns up to watch the match. Can Gander beat Corby and win back Mabel? Who will Mabel choose?

To us moderns, the story is hokey in its details but Hitchcock was more interested in the love triangle and the characterisation of Mabel who is the most developed character than in portraying boxing as a career in the 1920s. It’s a given in many of Hitchcock’s films that the main female character should be the most complex of the cast, no matter what the plot, and “The Ring” is no different here. Mabel is torn between the shallow, fun-loving life-style that Corby as an established professional boxer can offer her and the plainer, down-to-earth and genuine life that is Jack’s to give. The inner conflict that Mabel experiences is most vividly expressed in the climactic boxing scene where she is seen racing from Corby’s side to Jack’s side and back again. Hall Davis is quite effective as Mabel and has a lovely beauty in several shots. Unfortunately her career in films was short-lived; the arrival of talkies cut short further success and she committed suicide in 1933. Brisson brings to his role an imposing physical presence and height, and experience as an amateur boxer; he’s not much of an actor but he has a frank and open sincerity that makes him perfect as a wronged man. Ian Hunter as Corby hasn’t much to do apart from playing suave and seductive; he was to have a long film career that lasted nearly 40 years.

The film shows German Expressionist influences in a number of scenes and although the plot can be quite involved, it is skilfully relayed so as to rely on very few titles cards and the flow of the narrative is not disrupted as a result. Throughout his career, Hitchcock never forgot his roots in silent film and a number of his later movies, even famous ones made in the late 1950s and early 1960s like “Vertigo”, “North by Northwest” and “Psycho”, feature extended scenes where nothing is said. The boxing scene where Sander and Corby settle their differences once and for all uses clever edits and a dream-like sequence simulating the effect of slight concussion to draw out and heighten the inner and outer conflicts of the two men: they are fighting not only for their reputations and careers, they are fighting for the love of a woman. There are scenes throughout the film where the camera is used as a voyeuristic device that lets us see how the rivalry between Sander and Corby develops and escalates.

It is quite a slow film in its first half and doesn’t accumulate pace and tension until Mabel’s adultery with Corby becomes overt and Sander’s anger at her betrayal threatens to get the better of him. Minor characters such as Sander’s trainer provide light relief and pause in the tension. Overall “The Ring” is recommended to Hitchcock fans to see how their favourite director was refining his signature style.

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