Law & Film

Reel Property: Hitchcock’s Skin Game

A working-class family is wrongfully evicted from their rental homes and may lose their jobs. A neighboring landowner and his shrewd agent try to stop the sharp-dealing landlord from destroying property values with industrial air pollution. Can they successfully escalate conflict without unintended fallout?

This is the subject of Alfred Hitchcock’s  early film, “The Skin Game” (1931). The Skin Game is based on a play by John Galsworthy, a British lawyer who found a second career as a writer. Mr. Hillcrist (C.V. France) is an old-money landowner at odds with Mr. Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn), a nouveau-riche industrialist. Hillcrist objects to Hornblower’s purchase of neighboring pristine countryside for the construction of new smoke-belching factories. The two battle over competing visions for the Deepwater community in a series of increasingly sharp business practices. The Hillcrests’ agent, Mr. Dawker (Edward Chapman) plays an easily overlooked role in this dark comedy.

Jocelyn Codner observes in her blog, The Hitchcock Haul, that The Skin Game speaks to contemporary controversies surrounding land use, fracking and class warfare. Contemporary audiences may identify with the film in additional ways. The Skin Game’s audience remembers the horrors of global war. Worldwide recession brought high unemployment. Fear and desperation hide in the film’s shadowy scenes. These emotions unfold in total war between the neighboring landowners with tragic, unintended consequences. Tenants’ and neighbors’ rights versus job creation.

The aggressive business practices in the movie are frequent, rash and ill-considered. I found myself counting all of the legal claims and defenses that could potentially be brought in Court (this post makes no effort to interpret the facts under 1931 British law). Spoilers follow, but they are 83 years in the making!

  1. Violation of Covenants. In order to build new factories, Mr. Hornblower violated a covenant he made to Hillcrist when he turned out long-standing residential tenants. In Virginia, that would likely unfold as a contested unlawful detainer (eviction) action. Since the parties did not end up in Court, I assume that the Hillcrists failed to make the covenant legally enforceable.
  2. Bid Rigging. A mutually coveted parcel of land goes to a public auction. Ominously, the auction house’s lawyer reads the conditions of sale so softly that only the front row can hear. The Hornblowers and Hillcrists bid in concert with their own secret bidding agents to confuse their opponent and hike the price. Hornblower wins. Hitchcock uses quick camera work and multiple angles to build suspense and simulate confusion.
  3. Fraud. Hornblower’s daughter-in-law Chloe (Phyllis Konstam) has a secret past that includes employment by men to help them secure divorces premised upon adultery. This doesn’t come up much in the era of non-fault divorce, but giving false testimony for hire is sanctionable.
  4. Conspiracy. The Hillcrists’ estate agent, Mr. Dawker discovers Chloe’s past from her former client. Mrs. Hillcrist and Mr. Dawker decide to use the secret to extort Mr. Hornblower into selling them the contested parcel at a loss. The parties anticipated that disclosure of the secret would destroy Chloe’s marriage with the young Hornblower. The consideration of a sale from Hornblower to Hillcrist consisted of both (a) a written contract for cash and (b) a secret unwritten agreement not to reveal Chloe’s past.
  5. Breach of Contract:  Upon pressure by the young Hornblower, Mr. Dawker violates the secret unwritten non-disclosure agreement and likely his fiduciary duties to the Hillcrists.
  6. Professionalism. In contemporary transactions, one would expect Mr. Dawker to be a licensed real estate agent. His role in the bid rigging and the conspiracy would potentially expose him to disciplinary action by the Real Estate Board.
  7. Assault. In a fit of rage, Mr. Hornblower throws his hands on Mr. Hillcrist’s neck.
  8. Defense of Unclean Hands: Although the evicted tenants temporarily get their cottage back, this victory falls flat because of the greater tragedy which brings Mr. Hillcrist remorse. Unclean hands foul the initial nobility of their cause.

Was there a moment when a more trusted advisor, be it a realtor, attorney, or friend, could have helped Hillcrest settle the dispute? The loud passions of the warring families obscure Mr. Dawker’s fateful role as agent in the “Skin Game.” In the final scene, loggers chop down one of the Hillcrists’ oldest trees. What goes around, comes around.

photo credit: twm1340 via photopin cc

John Colby Cowherd
John Colby Cowherd
Attorney protecting the rights of Virginia property owners. Cowherd PLC (703) 884-2894