The early thirties marked the start of a career decline for Hitchcock, his films were losing hold of the critical of box office success he enjoyed in the silent era. From 1930 to 1934 he took on a variety of projects, some he had no enthusiasm for, in an attempt to re-vitalise his career.
From this context comes The Skin Game. Following on from the completely average whodunit Murder! we now get a completely average dialogue-heavy drama.
The story focuses on the rivalry between two rural families who butt heads over the future of a plot of land. Mr. Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn) wants make way for new factories, while Mr. Hillcrest (C.V. France) wants preserve the tranquillity of the countryside.
What begins as impolite exchanges and sly business manoeuvres soon descends into scandal and mud-flinging. The Hillcrests gain a tactical advantage when they learn a dark secret from the past of Mr. Hornblower’s daughter-in-law, Chloe (Phyllis Konstam).
The Skin Game is a slow-burner. At first, it’s hard to care too much either family in their tussle, but after a pivotal auction scene – filmed in a wild and sweeping POV shot –things start to kick into gear. As future of the land lies in the balance, poor Chloe spots an unwanted figure from her past and has something of a panic attack. The drama takes on a crucial human element when her history is exploited by the Hillchrists and condemned by the Hornblowers. It bears many similarities with Easy Virtue, as we are shown the unsympathetic brutality of society as she’s dragged through hell.
Though Konstam undoubtedly has the stand-out performance as Chloe, there are strong characters as well. My personal favourite is Jill (Jill Esmond), a witty young Hillchrist who frequently deploys her rapier tongue.
“I’ll answer to God for my actions, not you young lady,” growls Mr. Hornblower. “Poor God,” replies Jill.
The Skin Game is marginally more interesting than Murder! and far more accessible than Juno and the Paycock, but it’s still hard to recommend except to hardcore Hitch fans. Sadly, it would be a while still until the Master of Suspense started to find his feet in the talkie age. For now, there is dud after dud to follow.