“It’s a story about two prize fighters who are in love with the same woman,” said Francois Truffaut. “I like that picture very much.”
“Yes,” agreed the Master of Suspense, “that was really an interesting movie.”
They were talking about The Ring, Alfred Hitchcock’s boxing picture released in 1927, at the tail-end of the silent era. “You might say,” Hitchcock himself suggested, “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 next Hitchcock picture?” A boxing movie? Really? I was mildly intrigued. I had barely even heard of The Ring before, even though I owned it as part of my treasured “Alfred Hitchcock: The Legend Begins” box set, and had never bothered to sit down and watch it until fairly recently, when Truffaut and Hitchcock’s ecstatic comments about it caught my eye. I was having a difficult time imagining how a boxing movie could be one of Hitchcock’s major works, especially since—as Truffaut conceded—“It isn’t a suspense film and has no crime ingredients.” Sports movie melodrama just didn’t sound at all to me like Hitchcock’s forte.
I’ve now watched The Ring (not to be confused with the overrated Gore Verbinski/Naomi Watts horror movie) in its entirety, and my feelings about it are… mixed. From where I stand, it’s good but minor Hitchcock, with some rather lame acting, an even lamer storyline and a punishingly boring first half, justified only by a second half that, surprisingly, offers a good deal of legitimately exciting cinema. The film’s second half, in which Hitchcock’s gift for montage comes vividly to life, includes a visually-stunning sequence in which the hero (an underdog boxer) is plagued by blurry hallucinations of his wife embracing his antagonistic rival, juxtaposed with crazed images of party guests engaged in a mad dance while a pianist’s fingers jump up and down on a keyboard. This, I’d bet you dollars to donuts, is the “elaborate montage” which Hitchcock claims received a round of applause at the movie’s premiere.
The story? Not nearly as exciting. A banal love triangle plot involving a boxer’s pathetic spiral downwards into jealousy when he discovers that his wife has been cheating on him with an Australian champion. Yes, “boxing” and “jealousy,” but don’t get your hopes up—this ain’t Raging Bull. It’s more like the 1927 version of The Room, with some boxing, some elaborate montaging and even a happy ending thrown in for effect. Is that a harsh comparison? Sure. Hell, if I listened very closely I could probably even hear Hitchcock spinning in his grave if he heard me writing this. But come on: when the hero of this movie is uttering corny lines of dialogue like, “I shall always be ready to fight for my wife against any man!” and “It seems as though I shall have to fight for my wife, after all!” well… you can see why somebody like Tommy Wiseau would have had a field day with this script.
The film’s casual racism is another concern. In the opening sequence, set at a carnival, a crowd of jeering white people is shown dunking a black man sitting in one of those water-filled booths that you usually see reserved for clowns. Time and time again, the black man is dunked into the water when a ball is thrown. His routine is to fall into the water, get out of the water, roar with laughter and then ready himself for the next dunking. I’m sure that Hitchcock filmed this scene only with the best intentions and that audiences in 1927 must have smiled at its depiction of mischievous fun at a carnival, but in 2012 scenes like this can only be met with a weary cynicism. The black man is obviously getting paid to be dunked, but we’re left wondering: what’s his story? How does he feel about a having a job that requires him to be humiliated by privileged white people? Why does he laugh every time he’s dunked? Is his laughter sincere, or is it a cover for his embarrassment? Will he be fired if he doesn’t laugh? The film, of course, addresses none of these concerns; Hitchcock treats it like stock footage, included in the film merely for decoration, completely irrelevant to the story.
Later in the film, the hero, jealous prize-fighter One-Round Jack (Carl Brisson), is planning to fight his way to the top in order to win back the love of his wife, and one of his trainers offers a bit of sly advice: “If you win this next fight with the nigger, you’ll be in the running for the championship.” Win this next fight with the what? Mind you, it’s not the mere use of this word that is offensive, but the fact that Hitchcock—who co-wrote the screenplay—brings it into the movie and then treats it casually, regarding it with the least amount of importance. If the use of this particular word in the film were to inform us of anything substantial about these characters and their prejudices, of course, then one would understand why Hitchcock chose to use it; indeed, one of One-Round Jack’s own personal trainers is a black man (seen above) who blends in perfectly with the rest of Jack’s white trainers, dining with them, drinking with them, celebrating with them. But because of this, it doesn’t make much sense for Jack’s trainers to be speaking in racist lingo when they’ve already accepted a man of color as one of their own.
I am not proud to admit that the film’s racism immediately made me think of D.W. Griffith, whose films I admire (for the part) but, alas, seem to have largely influenced Hitchcock in the wrong way here. It is no secret that Hitchcock was a Griffith fan (“Like all directors, I was influenced by Griffith,”), and in a sense that ought to be a good thing, but somehow the dunking scene, the jeering white crowds, the amazingly casual use of the N-word, etc., reminded me of the worst aspects of Griffith; the Klan’s glorified executions in The Birth of A Nation and Donald Crisp’s ridiculously sinister close-ups in Broken Blossoms both came to mind. Even a wedding scene depicting the marriage of One-Round Jack to his wife is spoiled by a crass shot of the ring-bearer (one of Jack’s trainers) picking his nose; I was reminded of a Southern maid (in blackface) in Birth of A Nation who does the exact same thing. To be sure, the guilty nose-picker in The Ring is a white man, but what difference does it make? Why does Hitchcock show him doing this in the first place? Is it supposed to be funny? What’s so funny about nose-picking?
The Ring is more successful, actually, whenever Hitchcock comes up with shots that seem to be of his own creation, rather than the ones that reek of Griffith’s influence. Had Luis Bunuel seen the film, he likely would have coveted the memorable sight gag of a pair of conjoined twins in the pews during the wedding, one struggling to pull out, the other begging to stay. I also liked the scene at the banquet following the wedding, in which the ring bearer, intoxicated, collapses at the table while witnessing a playful spar of fists between One-Round Jack and his rival; Hitchcock goes for a blurry POV shot that nicely illustrates his drunkenness. And there is a neat moment in the film’s final climactic boxing sequence when Jack looks over his rival’s shoulder and spots his wife down in audience; Hitchcock tracks down to her devilishly smiling up at him, and Jack, frozen with surprise (because he dreamt she’d be here), is so distracted that the rival knocks him down with one punch. POV shots of lines and orbs fill his blurry vision, foreshadowing that famous POV shot in Spellbound (1944) in which a revolver is turned around to fire at the camera (implying a suicide), and a burst of blood-red fills the screen. The boxing scenes themselves are intense and well-done for a silent film, although it’s unlikely that they influenced Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese once went on record as claiming that Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler was the only boxing picture that ever impressed him).
Is The Ring a great Hitchcock film? No. Its characters, for one thing, are too thinly drawn. One-Round Jack is not an interesting protagonist, his wife is too much of a hateful, scheming ice queen, and his Australian rival never comes into focus as anything more than a cardboard cut-out. And the first half, as mentioned before, is a chore to sit through. Truffaut claimed to have seen the film “several times.” I can’t imagine why. Maybe he kept coming back to the movie because he was fascinated with Hitchcock’s use of montage. Or perhaps because he liked the symbolism of the title; “The Ring” could mean anything, from the opening shot (a circular drum being beaten) to the fighting ring itself, to the bracelet worn on the shoulder by Jack’s wife—a secret gift from her Australian lover, who is surprised when the wife ditches it for an innocent gym employee to find (“Look what I found at the ring-side, Guv’nor!”).
Because the film’s first half is so dull, for awhile I dreaded the thought of even finishing it, worried that it might fall into that rare category of Hitchcock movies that have actually managed to bore me to tears (Jamaica Inn, To Catch of Thief). The Ring has its dull stretches, yes, as well as a dull story, but in the end, the exciting second half is what redeems Hitchcock’s effort with this material. I can’t quite figure out whatever must have compelled Truffaut to want to revisit the film “several times,” but ultimately, I myself am still happy to have seen it at least once. Maybe you, like Truffaut, will want to revisit it with multiple viewings. Maybe not.