Review: The Skin Game (1931)

Possibly the most underrated film from Alfred Hitchcock!

Adaptation By: Alfred Hitchcock
Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

For some reason I never find myself thinking of Alfred Hitchcock as a great social commentator. He made great movies and he made movies that I love. However, I never put Alfred Hitchcock in the same sentence with sharp social commentary. This is an oversight that I need to rectify, because right alongside such pulpy fun as North By Northwest or Young And Innocent there are films such as Lifeboat and The Skin Game that have a lot to say about society.

Part of the reason why I tend to forget about Sir Hitchcock’s ability to comment on society in a movie like The Skin Game is because he is usually less flashy in his social pieces. The Skin Game is a film with fine production value (minus a few gaffes in the sound department, specifically the sound booming in and out when people move around in a few scenes), but it’s not as stylish or as flashy as something like Vertigo or Psycho. In The Skin Game the characters are put in simple surroundings where they end up suffocated by said surroundings. This is a chamber piece, a melodrama where the characters are trapped in their cycle of class condemnation and will never find a way to leave such petty class distinctions behind. To accentuate this approach Sir Hitchcock eschews trickery with camera angles or effects (save for one moment when Chloe is hallucinating). The focus in The Skin Game is very much so on the characters, and the film is all the better for choosing to focus on its characters.

There may be nothing worse than the battle of old money versus new money. It was present at the time that The Skin Game was being filmed and it is still present today. Old money don’t respect the earnings of new money. New money don’t respect the antiquated ways of old money. Caught in the middle are the poor and lower classes, who are treated with disdain by both segments of the money population. The Hillcrist and Hornblower families spend the entire movie conniving and acting as dishonorably as can be, all in the service of supposedly higher morals and ideals. Yet when it turns out that someone in their midst made shady decisions as a member of the lower class both families agree that such behavior is abhorrent.

Sir Hitchcock doesn’t zoom in on any faces in The Skin Game, but he does allow his camera to rest on the faces of his characters. We see the condemnation of Mrs. Hillcrist, the befuddlement of Mr. Hillcrist, and the obnoxious nature of Mr. Hornblower. Most importantly the camera allows us to see the fear of Chloe. She’s more worried about what she was than what she has become and she’s worried about how easily she will be dismissed once her secret is revealed. As the camera rests on the characters, new and old money, in The Skin Game their hypocrisy is revealed for the world to see.

The Skin Game is a stagey production, but unlike another Sir Hitchcock stagey production, Juno And The Paycock, it comes across like a film. The actors are acting for the camera, not for a back row of a theater that does not exist. Said performances are pitch perfect without being on the nose. Jill, the Hillcrist’s daughter, is a great example of this. She is naive and Jill Esmond plays the character as naive in a way that is totally convincing. Jill, the character, is also instrumental in establishing that the class distinctions remarked upon in The Skin Game are not going anywhere. This would not have been possible if not for the aloof nature with which Miss Esmond has the character view the world. The airiness with which she approaches the actions of the adults around her leaves no future for her character but the same as the present occupied by her parents.

I was surprised by how enamored I was with The Skin Game. It’s not an often talked about Alfred Hitchcock film, nor is it a film from Alfred Hitchcock that is highly thought of. It should be, the film hits all of its notes with great aplomb and in doing so Sir Hitchcock slices the belly of the rich upper class and their pettiness wide open. Amid the viscera and guts there lay the broken dreams of a girl just trying to get by in the world. A girl who is broken because she made the mistake of thinking that all people are created equal. Sir Hitchcock is more than happy to show how funny such a notion is, and he produced a great movie in delivering such social commentary.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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