Every now and then a villain comes across your screen that you can’t help but find charming. In Hitchcock’s early silent films, that villain is Ian Hunter. And while it’s true he never plays a totally evil baddie, he’s usually embodying a character who’s actively attempting to ruin the main character’s life.
So take a break from tying a damsel to a set of train tracks as we talk about Alfred Hitchcock’s Charming Cad…
A lot of Hitchcock’s silent films are focused on the wrong man or wrong woman. But the term doesn’t apply as neatly as it does to his later works of suspense. In his early films, the stakes are lower. The “wronged” individual isn’t usually framed for murder or sadistically blackmailed. A man’s wife gradually reveals herself to be a shallow gold digger, a woman’s divorce proceedings are cruelly publicized, and a simple carnival boxer’s relationship is threatened. At the center of all these domestic dramas, Hitchcock places a charming cad played by Ian Hunter.
Hunter is distinct from Hitch’s other silent leading men, like Ivor Novello or Carl Brisson. Novello and Brisson both have an innocent quality to their collective screen presence. They’re both relatively defenseless against the whims of a cruel world. Hunter, on the other hand, is world-weary, with an inherent sense of droll playfulness. He gives the impression that he knows that society chews people up and spits them out…so why not have some laughs along the way.
His first Hitchcock film is Downhill, where he plays, what else, a sleazy bon vivant. The first frames of Hunter show a man stealing what looks like ice cream from the bowl of a beautiful woman who’s trying desperately to ignore him. It really paints a picture. He enjoys the indulgences in life and seems to tread on the good will of those around him.
In a great Hitchcock reveal, he and the woman are shown to be actors in a musical and, in the reality of the film, are lovers. The main character, an expelled school boy played by Novello enters their backstage dressing room and the pair instantly spot an easy target. Hunter’s character might as well be saying, “Welcome to my parlor.” Novello’s a fly compared to Hunter’s spider.
The arachnid’s femme fatale, played deliciously by Isabel Jeans, is more than happy to parasitically leech all of the boy’s money from him as she and Hunter live the high life. I made another video on Jeans and if you’re inclined to check that out there’s a link in the description. Suffice it to say that she more than matches Hunter’s preening villainous energy.
The best part of his performance in Downhill is how believable it is that even though Jeans’ character marries Novello’s, she never gives up her relationship with Hunter. And why would she? Novello’s a babe in the woods who probably can’t even hold an interesting dinner party conversation. If you really want someone to enjoy the good life with, Hunter’s your guy.
The second Hunter/Hitchcock collaboration is a movie called Easy Virtue. Hunter plays the plaintiff’s counsel who represents a man divorcing the main character, again played by Isabel Jeans. The reason for the divorce is mainly told in flashbacks and depicts the husband as an abusive drunk, but Hunter’s lawyer is able to spin a yarn that paints the woman on trial in a condemning light. As an audience, what’s happening is atrocious, but the jury is entirely convinced of the woman’s guilt, which has everything to do with Hunter’s self-assured manipulation…and the baked-in misogyny of a 1920s British courtroom.
After the divorce proceedings, the main character continues to live her life as best she can and, strangely, Hunter’s lawyer re-enters the narrative at the end of the film. He meets Jeans’ character after her past is exposed at a fancy party and uses his world weariness to assure her the world is cruel and there’s really not much she can do about it. It’s a bleak ending, to be sure, but Hunter does his job well by stating the movie’s message so matter-of-factly.
And lastly, we come to my favorite performance of Ian Hunter in a Hitchcock film, his third team-up with the director in 1927’s The Ring. His character, a suave, successful prizefighter, arrives at a small carnival and sets his sights on a lovely ticket taker. Her boyfriend, the carnival’s star boxer, is inside the tent fighting anyone with the gumption to challenge him.
In the wonderful book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock himself describes what happens when Ian Hunter’s character enters the story:
“We showed volunteer fighters going inside the tent and then coming out holding their jaw. Until Ian Hunter goes in. The seconds were sort of laughing at him and they didn’t even bother to hang up his coat. They just held it, thinking that he would never last more than one round. The match started and I showed the expressions of the seconds changing. Then we showed the barker looking in at the match. And at the end of the first round the barker took out the card indicating the round number, which was old and shabby, and they put up number two. It was brand-new! One-Round Jack was so good that they’d never got around to using it before! I think this touch was lost on the audience.”
It’s important to keep in mind that Hitchock’s conceit would not work nearly as well if not for Hunter’s imposing stature. The crowd underestimates him because he looks nothing short of a gentleman, but when he rolls up his sleeves to box, he breaks out in a pugilistic fury. He ruffles Jack’s feathers and sets his sights on his ticket-taker gal, firmly establishing the film’s indelible love triangle.
What makes The Ring so compelling is that, even though Hunter is clearly the film’s villain, he’s easy to root for. He’s cultured and sophisticated and goes to wild parties. He’s a fun guy, whereas Carl Brisson’s Jack just seems stressed out and jealous the whole movie.
Ian Hunter’s good at letting the audience bask in a villain who’s enjoying the banquet of life and laughing at all the people who are starving to death, which does make it exciting to see his downfall, too, whether he’s roughed up by Novello or knocked cold by Brisson. It’s always satisfying to see villains, no matter how charming, be defeated in the end.
Thanks for watching and if you’d like more videos about directors and their cads, hit that Subscribe button to stay up to date on this channel. I’ve also got videos on Isabel Jeans and Ivor Novello, both talked about prominently in this video, so look for links to those video essays in the description.
And as always…the Sarris Wheel spins on.