The Skin Game (Alfred Hitchcock / United Kingdom, 1931):

"A Talking Film by John Galsworthy, Adapted and Directed by Alfred Hitchcock." A class feud is the linchpin of England at a crossroads, aristocrats old and new on their way to mutual annihilation. The gray squire (C.V. France) like a pillar of traditional snobbery, the jovially ruthless industrialist (Edmund Gwenn) with "no past, just the future," and the piece of land that both splits them and chains them. Caught in the middle is the pregnant daughter-in-law (Phyllis Konstam) with a scandalous past, another girl who knew too much. "Now let’s have this impudent story torn to rags!" The ancestral cottage giving way to a panorama of chimneys is a central image, "neighborly" manners are a running motif. The proscenium style is a point later polished by Wyler, here as in The Manxman Hitchcock sets the stage only to abstract it into drawing-rooms overflowing with dread and guilt. (Chunks of dialogue are recited off-screen yet the focus remains on the shamed ingénue, agonizing behind the curtains in a chiaroscuro close-up.) A street altercation early on allows for a showy aural collage (squabbling drivers, barking dogs, honking horns, bleating sheep), though the keenest set-piece is the bidding war between the paterfamilias, a miniature concerto of hat tips, nods, finger movements and comic coughing sculptured with abrupt whip pans. (The crowd facing the lenses is plainly the audience sitting in the theater, a joke pushed even further in North by Northwest's auction scene.) Blackmail and trickery and disgrace, "not very sporting" but that’s business, a scuffle cuts sharply to a body being pulled out of the garden pool. Dreyer is very much evident in the coda, the lament for gentility dissolves from hands tenuously touching to a grand tree grandly toppled. With Helen Haye, Jill Esmond, John Longden, Frank Lawton, and Edward Chapman. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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