- Class meets crass and both cruelly trample on innocent dreams
- One of the Master’s best British films but it’s often unfairly overlooked
- Class system injustice is laid bare in a dirty game where everyone loses
- Even dirtier are the film’s many terrible bootlegs, tainting its reputation
- Every official, good quality release is listed here for the first time
Note: this is one of 100-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.
“Skin game” is a mid-C19th Americanism that’s long disappeared from regular use; the film’s Spanish title, Juego sucio (Dirty game) succinctly sums it up and has aged much better. Here’s a Spanish mini-remake.
The Hillcrests are a wealthy family who have held their country estate for many generations. They cherish the traditions of the landed gentry and regard their new neighbours, the Hornblowers, as upstarts – tradespeople who have fought their way up from the lowest section of society. The Hillcrests consider themselves the moral leaders of the community and on learning that the Hornblowers seek to dispossess the Jackman family after 30 years of tenure, they enter battle in the Jackmans’ defence. – Australian Polygram VHS/alt (1995)
Sexploitation, corruption, blackmail – all and more is wrapped up in this high stakes drama of two rival families. This is hellishly powerful stuff, and easily one of the Master’s most underappreciated films. It’s rife with twisting, turning moral dilemmas in which both parties fight dirty and almost no one emerges as wholly good or bad. There are more than enough ethical complexities and crises of conscience to satisfy even the most demanding fan of Hitch’s later works. It packs a lot of emotion, both subtle, overwrought and all points between, into its lean 80-odd minutes and really is one of my faves of Hitch’s British period. Just as it threatens to bow out on a not wholly-resolved denouement, a brief two-second final shot seems to show us the likely course of events after the final credits.
The assured direction, cinematography and mise en scène are never anything short of brilliant throughout. There are numerous examples of visual touches that Hitch would go on to use again and again in his future works. Skin Game is too often unfairly written off as a perfunctory stop-gap in his temporarily stalled ascendant career, but I wonder how many commentators have actually seen it in good condition, if at all. It’s patently obvious to anyone with eyes and ears that Hitch invested a lot of time, thought and care into crafting this film to be every bit as good as he could possibly manage.
The Skin Game was adapted from an eponymous 1920 play by John Galsworthy, who most famously authored The Forsyte Saga. The young Hitch greatly admired his works which, like this one, frequently turned their focus on the iniquities of the class system. Using the full cast, it was also filmed during its initial stage run and previewed in December 1920. That version was an Anglo-Dutch co-production, whose Dutch title, Hard tegen hard, literally translates as “Hard against hard”. Sadly, it appears to be lost. Hitch brought back two of the leads, Helen Haye and Edmund Gwenn, to reprise their roles in his version.
There were also numerous BBC adaptations: among them were those for radio in 1941, 1949 and 1965; and for TV in 1951 and 1974. Three further entries, for radio in 1934 and 1954, and TV in 1959, saw the return of Edward Chapman but promoted to Hornblower senior’s role; he played his opponent Hillchrist’s lackey Dawkins in Hitch’s film. The 1941 radio version featured Malcolm Keen as Hornblower; he had, of course, earlier starred for Hitch in The Mountain Eagle, The Lodger and The Manxman. Lastly, Galsworthy’s play was also adapted for US TV’s Kraft Theater in 1952. Of all the TV adaptations, I can only ascertain the survival of the 1974 UK version, which is preserved on standard definition Quadruplex videotape. Does anyone know of any others?
Article on the play by Ivor Brown, Radio Times (p.691, Vol. 44, No. 572, 14.9.1934)
As is often the case with Hitch’s works, the film’s title has multiple meanings; one of them being the commodification of featured player Phyllis Konstam as new bride Chloe Hornblower. Having inadvertently married into one of the film’s warring factions, like many young women in early Hitchcocks she was judged to be sexually compromised according to “polite” society’s norms and suffered grossly unfair treatment as a result. Konstam was married in real life just a few months following the première in a much more blissful, yet no less eventful, lifelong union to tennis star Bunny Austin and they published their punnily titled joint autobiography in 1969.
Largely confining her acting career to the stage, Konstam appeared in only 12 features and four of those – Champagne, Blackmail, Murder! and The Skin Game – were for the Master. Sandwiched in between them was her only other film currently available, the tightly plotted crime thriller Escape! (1930), also based on a popular 1926 play by Galsworthy. Featuring various other Hitchcock alumni including Edna Best, Gordon Harker, Madeleine Carroll, Ian Hunter and Ann Casson, it’s been released in a DVD set alongside three other films connected with Ealing Studios.
- A Mixed Double (1969) – H.W. ‘Bunny’ Austin and Phyllis Konstam
- UK: Network 2-DVD/4-film Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 1 (2013)
Home video releases
Circulating official transfers of Hitch’s hand-wringing opus are all of a very decent preserved print, but there’s no doubt the film could really shine with a new digital scan and restoration of the original negative and various other early generation materials in the BFI Archive. Unfortunately, that isn’t likely anytime soon. However, at least the current transfer is available on BD in the US, while there are various official standard definition options available:
- US: Lionsgate DVD 5-film AH: 3-Disc Collectors’ Edition (2007)
- UK: Optimum 9-DVD Early H Collection (2007, reissued 2016)
- Italy: Eagle 2on1 DVD (2005) w/Easy Virtue, also in 5-DVD/10-film AH Collection and 8-DVD/15-film AH Portrait
- Germany: Alive DVD (2020)
- France: Journaux.fr DVD/magazine (2002, 2005)
- Spain: Universal 4-DVD/7-film H Collection: La primera etapa del Maestro del Suspense (2007)
- Benelux: Universal 5-DVD/9-film AH Collection (2007), also in AH box set
- Scandinavia: Universal 5-DVD/9-film H Collection: Early Years of the Master of Suspense (2007) info
- Poland: Kino Świat 4-DVD H Masterworks (2008) – details
- Hungary: Caesar Film DVD (alt, 2007; reissued 2009 w/added Hu dub)
- Greece: Studiocanal 2on1 DVD w/The City of Lost Children (1995) – newspaper giveaway
- Brazil: Universal 3on1 DVD (2010) w/Number Seventeen and Rich and Strange, also in 18-DVD/23-film AH Collection
Note that the SD releases from the US have a slight edge in overall detail. The film was dubbed into German in 1978 and 2006; one of these, presumably the latter, is included on the German DVD. Note too that said DVD, the latest, is the first to present the film in the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio common to early talkies. All other releases, including the recent Kino set, have inaccurate 1.33:1 transfers.
Like all other British Hitchcocks, The Skin Game has suffered the vicissitudes of countless awful bootlegs and the relatively limited number of official releases to date can be ascribed to cause and effect. Among the tsunami of illicit DVDs and streaming copies, be especially wary of an anonymous, barebones Spanish BD-R, likely from Resen.
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Setting the Scene
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous British Films
- Free the Hitchcock 9! Releasing the BFI-Restored Silents on Home Video
- Bootlegs Galore: The Great Alfred Hitchcock Rip-off
- Alfred Hitchcock: Dial © for Copyright: British Law
- Hitchcock/Truffaut: The Men Who Knew So Much
- Alma Reville: The Power Behind Hitchcock’s Throne
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The British Years in Print
- Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side or the Wrong Man?
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous Releases
- Beware of Pirates! How to Avoid Bootleg Blu-rays and DVDs
- Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide, Part 2: The Bad, the Ugly and the Good
For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.