The Skin Game (1931) - full review!
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who along with his wife Alma Reville adapted the John Galsworthy play, the film's title (in lieu of its more modern definition) refers to something akin to "an eye for an eye" where everyone turns out blind in the end. In other words, no one has "clean hands", in the final accounting of this kind of grudge match. This average drama is not as bad as I was led to believe, and actually contains quite a good, early talkie performance by Edmund Gwenn, playing a character much different from the more gentle roles he would take later in his career. The titled "game" is between industrialist Hornblower (Gwenn), who wants to build factories on what has always been beautiful rolling hills in the name(s) of progress & profit, and the Hillcrist family, who owns (and has always owned) a country home in this idyllic setting. The film's sound quality, so poor during the auction sequence that one can't hear the reading of the land's particulars, improves as the story progresses.
Squire (C.V. France) & Mrs. Hillcrist (Helen Haye) are informed by an old farmer (Herbert Ross) and his wife (Dora Gregory), the Jackmans, who have worked the land they've just sold for 30 years, that the new owner, Mr. Hornblower, is planning to build a factory complete with smokestacks on the property. The Hillcrists had a verbal agreement with Hornblower not to evict the Jackmans, but Hornblower explains that he hasn't been able to buy the land he'd intended, so he really has no choice. Gwenn delivers quite a capitalistic monologue, perhaps the film's best scene, as he alternately oozes charm and rigidity. The thought of a factory being built so close to their country home so horrifies the Hillcrists that they employ their lawyer Dawker (Edward Chapman) to find a way out.
After unsuccessfully outbidding Hornblower at a land auction (Ronald Frankau plays the auctioneer), during which they'd shunned his daughter-in-law Chloe (Phyllis Konstam) out of spite, the Hillcrists learn from Dawker that Chloe has a sordid past. Konstam, foreshadowing Hitchcock's later use of sexy women, looks stunning; the director utilizing shadows to emphasize her (near hyperventilating) swelling breast. Mrs. Hillcrist is willing to exploit Chloe's past, while the Squire remains uninvolved, insisting their daughter Jill (Jill Esmond), who'd been "flirting" with the youngest Hornblower, Rolf (Frank Lawton), remain "in the dark".
Chloe had been a correspondent, something of which her husband Charles (John Longden), Hornblower's eldest son & business partner, was unaware. Dawker uses another man (R.E. Jeffrey, in a leather coat), who'd been at the auction, to set Chloe on edge. When Hornblower finds out about his daughter-in-law's past, he's forced by Dawker and Mrs. Hillcrist to sell back the auction land at a huge loss (5,000 pounds). Dawker had utilized both the man in the leather coat and one of her past clients (George Bancroft) to make Chloe admit her scandalous past. Hornblower makes Dawker & Mrs. Hillcrist hold a bible while swearing to keep quiet about what they know regarding Chloe.
*** SPOILERS ***
The unscrupulous Dawker is unable to keep the secret from Charles, who was curious as to why his father no longer owned title to the auction land. He pursues her to the Hillcrist’s home where she commits suicide upon hearing, from behind a curtain, of her husband's loss of any love for her (he'd learned the truth). After helping Rolf fish Chloe's body out of the Hillcrist’s swimming pool, Hornblower admits to the Squire that he is beaten. The Squire laments the nature of a "skin game".