A Year with Hitchcock: The Skin Game, by Reed Lackey

27 Feb

For a director known for thrillers and suspense, I had no idea how many straight-forward domestic dramas were among his early films. Not to mention plays.

The Skin Game is yet another stage adaptation to screen, and it still mostly feels that way. However, this one benefits from impressive performances (particularly from Edmund Gwenn of Miracle on 34th Street fame) and from a tighter, more compelling script. Hitchcock also takes steps to make the film seem more cinematic than his previous outings (particularly Juno and the Paycock), utilizing the camera as more than a theatrical audience viewpoint and playing with alternate points of view (take note of the pivotal auction scene and how Hitchcock toys with expectation and information for a fun example of how the master tries to develop audience engagement).

The story itself is interesting, touching on themes of both class division and traditionalism versus progress. The upper class legacy family, the Hillcrests, are upset by a series of real estate and development purchases made by the Hornblowers (led by Edmund Gwenn). The Hillcrests unsuccessfully try to keep Mr. Hornblower from acquiring the last plot of legacy land at an auction and, following this failure, they learn of a devastating secret regarding Mr. Hornblower’s daughter-in-law and debate about whether to use the information to their advantage.

The somewhat odd title (which sounds much sexier than it really is) refers to a rigged gamble. It’s another word for a hustle or a con, but in the context of this story, it has much more tragic implications. The characters enter into a conflict over preference and control, but after taking steps to tilt the odds, things get out of hand (by 1930s standards) and the ends are at least somewhat fatal.

The dramatic turns (and the details which are considered more scandalous) may seem rather tame and outdated by today’s standards. But when context is considered, the story is quite resonant and even a bit emotional. Hitchcock claimed that he made the film more out of studio obligation than personal interest and his apparent disinterest in the material does shine through despite his already developing skills as a filmmaker.

The Skin Game remains really more of a novelty in Hitch’s early filmography than a landmark, but it’s a novelty worth checking out for those who are curious.

Accessibility – Available on several low-budget DVD collections
Themes – Social Inequality; Progress Vs Tradition; Consequential Rivalry
Category – OK, for the Curious

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