Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The Skin Game (1931)

  • 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 60-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.

Phyllis Konstam in The Skin Game (1931, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) 1

Judged dread: Phyllis Konstam sees the life she loves slipping away. US Lionsgate DVD.

Phyllis Konstam in The Skin Game (1931, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) 2

Phyllis Konstam in The Skin Game (1931, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) 3

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 that Hitch invested a lot of time, thought and care into making this film every bit as good as he was capable.

Phyllis Konstam in The Skin Game (1931, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Facing down her fate

The Skin Game was adapted from the eponymous 1920 play by John Galsworthy, also author of 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, featured Edward Chapman, 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 EagleThe 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, 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);

Frank Lawton, Phyllis Konstam and Edmund Gwenn in The Skin Game (1931, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Supportive Frank Lawton and Edmund Gwenn with Phyllis, seeking solace before her bombshell drops.

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 materials in the BFI Archive. Unfortunately, that isn’t likely anytime soon. However, said preserved print is at least available on BD in the US, while there are various official standard definition options available:

Note that the SD releases from the US have a slight edge in overall detail.

Phyllis Konstam and Edward Chapman in The Skin Game (1931, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Getting down to business: Phyllis Konstam tries to untie the Gordian knot binding her, while Edward Chapman pulls it even tighter.


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.

2 Comments

  1. Mandibil
    July 24, 17:46 Reply
    What an incredible work you've produced. A fantastic resource for the serious Hitch collector! :-)
    • Brent Reid
      August 13, 14:17 Reply
      Thank you so much; I'm really pleased you think so!

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