“Now I’d like to see you lick that bloke who knocked you out at the fair… and get my two quid back!”
When “La La Land” was released in 2016, Hollywood was perceived as having re-learned the ability to make the old-time musicals to which the film was paying tribute. Likewise, I often think that, with the advances in sound technology in film production and in cinemas, the “technology” of making a “silent” film has been lost. True, silent films were never silent, usually having musical accompaniments and sound effects either performed live or on record, but once actors were able to speak, there was no reason to shut them up again. Making a film that works only on its visual imagery has since been restricted to more comedic actors, like Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati or Rowan Atkinson, or films deliberately made to be “silent” – like “La La Land,” 2011’s “The Artist” appeared to earn its many awards through having made the effort to re-learn the old, previously trusted ways.
However, Alfred Hitchcock, studied as much as Shakespeare because he is the nearest film has to its own Shakespeare, thought the purest form of cinema was the silent kind, missing only, “the sound of people talking and the noises… But this slight imperfection did not warrant the major changes that sound brought in.” In all of Hitchcock’s films, dialogue only supports the visuals – turn down the sound on “Rear Window” (1954), “Vertigo” (1958), “Psycho” (1960), and the story will still be there.
While Hitchcock had an uncredited role in shaping all the stories he filmed, he is listed as sole screenwriter for one film, for which he also conceived the story. “The Ring” is the story of a fairground boxer, “One Round Jack,” who is beaten by Bob Corby, a professional boxer in disguise – Jack is then given the opportunity to become Bob’s sparring partner. As Jack works his way up the championship rankings, an affair develops between his girlfriend Mabel, later his wife, and Bob. Inevitably, Jack and Bob settle their differences in the ring, Jack winning after Mabel declares she wants to remain with him.
Hitchcock hangs his story on the motif of rings – the boxing ring, the wedding ring, and the ring formed by Jack, Bob and Mabel. There are only about seventy intertitles in a ninety-minute film, which is below average for the silent era, but I feel that could have been cut further, as jokes like, “This is to toast my success – and happiness…” followed by, “…but we won’t drink until the wife comes in,” don’t advance the story – I wonder if Hitchcock was obliged to keep some humour like this in for the benefit of his audience. Still only twenty-eight years old when he made “The Ring,” Hitchcock still had plenty of time to iron out his technique, in addition to playing with mirrors to make a boxing match look like it was shot at the Royal Albert Hall, seven years before this was repeated for “The Man Who Knew Too Much”.
When Hitchcock made his first film with sound, with 1929’s “Blackmail,” he used it as a tool, spreading it throughout the film, rather than converting only the last twenty minutes of his originally silent film, as originally asked. What delighted him was being able to hear the scraping of the blackmailer’s knife… as he ate breakfast.