Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Ring (1927) with Soweto Kinch, Hackney Empire, London

Lilian Hall Davis and Carl Brisson
This extraordinary event was the third in the BFI’s season of restored Hitchcock silent films and it’s going to be hard to better. A packed audience in the Hackney Empire -one of London's finest Victorian theatres - witnessed the rebirth of The Ring with a thrilling new jazz score from the Soweto Kinch Sextet.

I’m not sure whether it’s a stylistic thing or whether British films just feel closer to me as a native, but The Ring offers a grittier, more prosaic contrast to many Hollywood films, with characterful – ordinary - English faces and much imperfect dental work on display. The world of The Ring doesn't feel so far away.

English folk at the fair...
The fact that we were in Hackney, a stone's thrown from Alfred Hitchcock’s home turf helped in this reconnection. It’s a vibrant place with a rich cultural mix - earthy as well as intellectual - the perfect setting for this pugilistic tale.

The evening was introduced by representatives of the BFI who explained the restoration work performed on what was nearly a lost film. The team had to work with severely warped and deteriorated stock and also to painstakingly recreate the inter-titles. The result is a stunningly clear new print that was all the more impressive on the big screen. Most of the screen shots here are from previous versions and they bear no relation to the new version – there are a few shots from that which highlight the massive improvement.

Carl Brisson, Lilian Hall Davis and Ian Hunter
The BFI gave us a questionnaire to complete before and after the film and one of the questions was whether we enjoyed the film or the music the most. This was impossible to answer as the score from Soweto Kinch and his sextet infused the film with life and new feeling as well as embellishing the existing narrative… A new experience based in equal parts on both elements.

This exuberant groove was mixed with older sensibilities to create a thoroughly modern mood – Hackney past and present collapsed into one exhilarating mix.
Cutting a rug...

As for the film, it was one of three that Hitchcock made in 1927 and is the only one he directed from his own script.  It is very well made with directorial influence from expressionist cinema as well as Gance and Epstein (shots in the fair are similar to Cœur Fidèle, with the camera strapped into a ride as lovers are thrown about). Hitchcock was intent on showing interior dialogue and feeling as well as external action.

The opening sequence is probably the best in the film, directed with a sure hand throughout and showing the excitable chaos of the fairground. Here we find 'One-Round' Jack Sander (lissom Carl Brisson) who takes on all-comers and easily beats them.

He operates from one of the tents from which the exuberant Showman (Harry Terry) calls out to the public to try their hand as his trainer (Gordon Harker) holds up the placard proclaiming his ability to knock out opponents in “One Round”.

Lilian Hall Davis
There’s a pretty girl selling the tickets, Mabel (Lilian Hall Davis), who looks on bored… Her eye catches that of a tall man in a bowler hat and he comes over to chat. He is Bob Corby (Ian Hunter) who, unknown to all, is the Heavyweight Champion of Australia.

Accompanied by his manager/promoter James Ware (Forrester Harvey) the two enter the tent to watch Jack in action. Here the action is expertly mixed with the reaction of the audience. Hitchcock marshals a cast of extras who are striking in their ordinariness… men build up the courage to get in the ring but all are easily and comically despatched.

Ian Hunter
Bob climbs into the ring and suddenly things change and we see him and Jack trade blows of equal skill and force. Bob wins and Jack faces the consequences of the end of his act. Yet Bob wants him for his sparring partner and his manager sees potential in this new find.

Manel and Jack have been saving up to get married and this new career offers them the chance to realise this dream…yet Bob has taken a shine to the girl and makes advances from the outset, buying her a bracelet with his winnings. This becomes the symbol of their relationship as well as a ring that mirrors the boxing ring and the marriage ring.The ring represents conflict as well as binding love; it always means that you have to fight to win out.

Jack wins his first professional bout and marries the girl on the proceeds. There’s a great scene as the fairground freaks arrive for the wedding and then a marvellous wedding party at which Jack’s trainer gets so drunk his viewpoint is shown as blurred and distorted…we’ve all been there.

Bob has lost the initial round for the girl but Jack will need to be wary and to meet his adversary on equal terms if he is to keep his love.

In parallel we are shown the development of Jack’s boxing career, as he moves higher up the billings, whilst at the same time his wife is being wooed by Bob and taking part in London’s unrelenting nightlife. There are some great party sequences which worked spectacularly well with Kinch’s music: making us want to dive off to the nearby Vortex club for some after-show freestyle Charleston!

Gordon Harker and Carl Brisson
The closer Jack gets to boxing success though, the more it seems his wife is off gallivanting… he earns the right to challenge Bob for the British title but his wife leaves him and is seemingly on his opponent's side: has it all been in vain, can Jack win the fight and win back his wife?

Carl Brisson and Lilian Hall Davis
Needless to say, Hitchcock handles the finale with panache, staging the fight in the Royal Albert Hall (or what he makes look like the RAH) with much tension between the three main characters. It’s one of the first films to use a boxing match as the dramatic centre and, whilst we have become used to this over the years, the denouement is no less exciting for this. Again the score worked superbly well by building up the beat alongside the contest and ensuring that the primal reaction to watching a fight left us all shuffling in our seats!

Carl Brisson had been an amateur boxer and his moves are sure footed against the heavier Ian Hunter. Both act well and strikingly, Hunter’s character isn’t really a “baddie” just a rounded human being looking for the right girl.

Lilian Hall Davis

That girl is exceptionally well played by Lilian Hall Davis who gives a subtle and believable portrait of someone caught between two destinies. She kept on reminding me of Kiera Knightley for some reason – similar features – and is the main face of the film. She is superbly naturalistic and doesn’t overplay some of the overt symbolism.

She was also to feature in Hitchcock's The Farmer's Wife (1928) but died tragically young. There are details on the BFI website.

The Ring is available in so-so quality on DVD and also on the Internet Archive but for the real deal best wait for the restored edition whenever it comes... it'll be worth the wait.

Details of Soweto Kinch are on his website from which you can download his latest album  The New Emancipation.


  1. The evening was highly enjoyable, which is reflected in this informative post exceptionally well. I thank you!