The plot revolves around two feuding families — the aristocratic Hillcrists and the nouveau riche Hornblowers — and the consequences of their ongoing fight over land ownership. It’s no surprise that things end tragically.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“You are playing a game with me. Aren’t you ashamed?”
In the famous 1962 interview conducted by director Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock said, “I didn’t make it (The Skin Game) by choice, and there isn’t much to be said about it.” Hitchcock’s clear disdain for the material is palpable throughout the entire film. I have to agree with the director — it’s indeed one of his dullest movies.
Adapted for the screen by Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville from John Galsworthy’s popular 1920 play of the same name, The Skin Game is theatrical to a fault (there is a silent version that seems to have been lost forever).
According to film historian Patrick McGillan, Hitchcock held Galsworthy (Forsyte Saga) and his work in high esteem so it is a bit surprising that The Skin Game isn’t a better movie. Perhaps the fact that Galsworthy refused to allow any big changes to the play accounted for the film’s stately pace. Aside from some nice close-ups and a few moments of clever editing, this is nothing but canned theater.
The Skin Game explores the post–WWI British class system in an uninteresting, ham-fisted manner. It’s all played as a high-pitched melodrama, with lots of speeches and the kind of unrealistic twists that you can find in a modern TV soap opera. More important, the themes of Galsworthy’s story had nothing to do with Hitchcock’s universe.
The stage play had been a success and Hitchcock’s bosses rammed it through his throat thinking they had a surefire hit. The director had his eyes on another project, and unbeknownst to the money people, Hitchcock used the time of the shooting to develop something closer to his heart. Afraid of missing a paycheck (refusal to do a movie was punished with suspension without pay), Hitchcock pretended to be fully immersed in the current assignment while in fact he was working on something else — this is was a technique Hitchcock used again and again during the early years of his career.
The overly mannered performances don’t help the movie. Actor Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street) plays the patriarch of the Hornblower clan, a role he created on stage. He became a fantastic character actor in later years, but here it is too obvious that Gwenn had not yet learned to tone it down for the camera.
Gwenn isn’t the only one, though. All the actors are still playing to the back row in the theater. This is an early talkie so I was ready to give the film some slack, but Hitchcock’s previous movie, Murder!, doesn’t have this problem. Perhaps Hitchcock’s apathy is to blame for the overacting. Also starring Jill Esmond (This Above All) as Jill Hillcrist and John Longden (Juno and the Paycock) as Gwenn’s son.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Even though Hitchcock is still the most famous filmmaker in the world, there is a good chance that you didn’t even know The Skin Game existed. The movie has been buried beneath a long list of film accomplishments. I tried hard and long to find something in the film that could be linked to Hitchcock’s cinema and I kept coming up empty-handed. If you are a fan of the director, you should watch it. This is, however, a movie for non-fans — having no expectations will help you enjoy it a bit more. In any case, this is Hitchcock at his laziest. B&W, 85 minutes, Not Rated.