Hitchcock-a-thon: The Skin Game (1931)


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.


Hitchcock-a-thon: Murder! (1930)


Blackmail was a peculiar mixture of silent montages and long talking scenes. Juno and the Paycock was not much more than a filmed stage play. In his third talkie, Murder!, we see Hitchcock begin to master editing in the talkie age. Flowing dialogue overlaps his short, speedy cuts and there’s a well-implemented early example of a voiceover. It’s a shame Hitchcock’s lively editing struggles against a flat and uninventive script.

Acclaimed stage actor Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) sits on a jury for a murder case. The lead suspect is a fellow thespian, a young actresses called Diana (Norah Baring) who was found in a daze by the bludgeoned corpse of a colleague. Although Sir John initially believes she’s innocent, he’s peer-pressured into a “guilty” verdict by his fellow jurors. Soon afterwards, he starts having second thoughts and sets out on an investigation of his own with the help of the stage manager Ted Markham (Edward Chapman). Who killed Edna Druce? Can Sir John save an innocent woman from the gallows? And what the hell does Hamlet have to do with anything?


Just haaaanging around

The script, adapted from the whodunnit Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, tries to address some heavy subject matter such as the fallibility of the legal system and questioning the line between acting and reality. Where it stumbles is in its clunky execution. The story moves along at a snail’s pace (despite Hitchcock’s slick camerawork) and there are some absurdly theatrical moments. In the scene where Sir John is bullied into changing his verdict by the rest of jury every objection he raises is drowned out by a repeated chorus chant: “Any answer to that Sir John?” It’s rather silly.


They also stand behind him when he pees

As mystery it doesn’t really work either. A key plot-point is based around a racial issue that doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s not an offensive portrayal, but it sure is baffling.

That’s not to say the film is without its merits. Herbert Marshall is a sound lead; Hitchcock shows off some decent camerawork; and the intense final climax at a circus ends on such a dark note it freaks the shit out of a clown. But even down to its title, Murder! is almost the dictionary definition of an average Hitchcock.


Though I do always like it when clowns are scared

Hitchcock-a-thon: Juno and the Paycock (1929)


Of all the films under Hitchcock’s belt up by 1929, Juno and the Paycock might be his most impenetrable for modern audiences. Yes, even more so than his two hour silent rural comedy.

A lot of this comes from immediate technical problems. The film used ridiculously cheap sound equipment so there’s muffled speech and droning background static throughout. Combine that with some questionable “Irish” accents and you’ve got audio as rough as a badger’s arse.


No one does glares like the Irish

But the most off-putting element in Paycock is the pacing. Hitchcock was a huge fan of Seán O’Casey’s original play and wanted to adapt it as faithful as possible, often running directorial decisions past O’Casey to make sure he was happy. Hitch’s loyalty is commendable, but his attachment to the source material ultimately holds the film back. It unfolds like a filmed stage play, rather than a movie. The thrilling visual language we’ve seen in Hitch’s silent films (and Blackmail) is abandoned and we’re left with an inert and “wordy” one-room drama.

But once your ears have stopped bleeding and you ease in to the slow pace you’ll uncover an engaging story. In the slums of Dublin at the height of the Irish Civil War we follow the struggles of the Boyle family: Juno (Sara Allgood), her two children Mary (Kathleen O’Regan) and Johnny (John Laurie) and her husband Captain Boyle (Edward Chapman) who’s nicknamed the peacock – or “paycock” – on account of his vanity and uselessness.


He even has to concentrate to drink tea

When the family starts to tear apart the film reaches a shockingly bleak – almost nihilistic – conclusion. Allgood nails her final heart-wrenching monologue and it makes for an impactful send-off. It’s a fitting ending to a highly ideological film dealing with issues of national loyalty, the scars of guilt and the terrifying judgement of a devout Catholic society.

Despite these meaty topics, Paycock fails to utilize the inbuilt differences between film and theatre. It’s best to approach it as a venture into new territory since Hitchcock would later discover how to “translate” plays into films with Dial M For Murder and Rope.

An interesting early attempt, but as the great director later admitted in his famous interview with François Truffau, Juno and the Paycock has “nothing to do with cinema.”


Well I don’t know what y’all so happy about