HITCHCOCK MASTER OF SUSPENSE #8: THE MANXMAN [1929]

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Directed by:
Written by:
Starring: , , ,

UK

AVAILABLE ON DVD

RUNNING TIME: 86 min

THE HITCHCOCK CAMEO: none

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic

 

the-manxman

SPOILERS!

On the Isle of Man live two childhood friends. One is Pete Qualliam a poor fisherman, and the other is Philip Christian. Pete is in love with Kate and asks Philip to ask Kate’s father for him if they can marry. The father refuses to consent to their marriage, so Pete sets off for Africa to make his fortune, asking Philip to take care of Kate until he returns. In his absence, Kate and Philip fall in love. When news reaches them that Pete has been killed, they begin planning their lives together, as Philip prepares to assume the position of Deemster, the island’s chief magistrate. However, the news was false, and Pete returns to the island a wealthy man…..

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An intense, harsh love triangle with a fatalism not unlike film noir, The Manxman, though maybe in the end nothing special, is to me Hitchcock’s best film since The Lodger and was a pleasant surprise. Typically, he himself dismissed it, but it looks to me like he was certainly interested in the story even if it is further from the typical Hitchcock tale than most of his other silents. It is a film that may very well leave you with some questions. Can love be forced? Is personal happiness worth sacrificing for someone else’s? Is loyalty really a good thing? I don’t think The Manxman is in any way a personal film for Hitchcock, but I would have liked to have seen him attempt this florid kind of romantic melodrama [unless you count Under Capricorn and maybe Rebecca] again. He was a director of romance almost as good as he was a director of suspense and thrills, something that to my knowledge only Francois Truffaut, whose lengthy interview of Hitchcock is one of the great books about filmmaking, has put down on print. If you do feel like doing what I’m doing and go through these films having not previously seen most of the pre-The Man Who Knew Too Much pictures, I am tempted to suggest you go for The Lodger, or maybe Downhill, and then skip straight to The Manxman.

Hall Caine’s 1894 novel of the same title, which was itself partly derived from Tennyson’s Enoch Arden [and may have inspired Pearl Harbour], had actually been filmed before in 1916. Once again Eliot Stannard wrote the screenplay, in fact Hitchcock was increasingly surrounding himself with people he had worked with before. The Manxman was set on the Isle of Man and was intended to be filmed on location there, but Hitchcock preferred to film in nearer Polperro, Cornwall, though some say two scenes were still filmed in the originally intended location [though probably not by Hitchcock]. Just before the commencement of production, the first talkie The Jazz Singer came out and Hitchcock wanted to make his film in sound, but in the UK at the time the technology only enabled shorts to be made that way, so it was still shot silent, something which probably aided in Hitchcock’s dislike of the film. At least it had a female star in German actress Anny Ondra, who became the first full blown Hitchcock blonde in the sense that he clearly adored her, though she’s not quite in the mould yet, her two parts for Hitchcock not making much use of the studied cool that would typify the Hitchcock Blonde, a certain kind of feminine archetype representing perhaps his ideal woman on screen and in life. The Manxman was a moderate success though was soon largely forgotten as talkies became the rage.

The story concerns a love triangle, but it’s a much more interesting one than the triangle depicted in The Ring. For a start the woman doesn’t even love one of the men but feels morally bound to him. On the surface the man we are supposed to feel most for is Pete. It is he who first lets it be known he loves Kate, he who first woos her, and he who comes back from the dead to his wife who is withholding a certain secret from him. The film even ends with Pete, his face showing intense hurt and pain as he stands on his fishing boat after relinquishing Kate to Pete. However, Phillip is just as sympathetic to me, and they could just as easily have made the film more from his point of view. I was reminded of Cyrano de Bergerac as he helps his friend woo his love, and though he gets Kate pregnant [remember, these were the days when unmarried mothers were in the minority rather than the majority and were often ostracised] and appears to ignore woman and child for the sake of his career, perhaps he is doing so to keep his friend happy in ignorance. As for Kate, whom crucially you always feel is trying to do the right thing, she is a rather tragic heroine, and though she may end up with the person she loves at the end, it certainly doesn’t seem like her and Phillip are in for much of a good life in a place where they have now been virtually demonised.

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This is a film of intensely dark romanticism through and through, right from the early scene where Pete climbs onto Kate’s balcony, Romeo And Juliet-style, except that Phillip is in the background and Kate just does not love Pete. Anny Ondra’s performance is almost painful in its effectiveness in conveying Kate’s emotions. She is deeply flattered by Pete’s words, and doesn’t want to reject him. then, once he has gone, she seems happy about the fact that she has a future with a man, even if it is one she does not love. Then, her face turns to worry as she realises what she has done and the loveless future she may have. Though it may not be, in the end, ‘realistic’ acting, especially by today’s standards, it gave me all the information I needed about Kate’s emotions and did it expressively and artfully, so I would say it worked. But then, she’s fantastic throughout, especially in her court appearance [echoes of Easy Virtue] at the end.

The film seems to be 75% point-of-view shots, and an unusually large number of them in which a character looks straight into the camera. Often this is Pete, maybe implicating us in the guilt of the others. There are few ‘tricks’ in the direction this time round, but the film looks amazingly smooth apart from a few occasions where the story skips forward rather too much, something Hitchcock sometimes gets around, such as showing pages of Kate’s diary. Cleverly he has the first meeting between her and Phillip take place in a lush field, emphasising the beauty of their love, but their second meeting, which is tarnished with the news of Pete’s impeding return, takes place on a beach where they are dominated by jagged rock formations. The ‘love’ scene between Kate and Pete on their wedding night is also well evoked, with Pete putting his head on Kate’s lap and kissing her hands, lost in a romantic and false dream, while Kate’s expressions show her agony, yet she pretends to enjoy kissing Pete when he puts his head up. And after this, the camera sometimes goes outside to look in through a window at Kate, as if she is a bird trapped in a cage.

The story moves quite swiftly, perhaps too swiftly, as if some scenes had been cut out, to its heated climax, and certainly doesn’t bore despite its lack of actual excitement and the awkwardness of a few scenes which just don’t really come off.  I should also say that Carl Brisson [from The Ring ] isn’t very good as Pete, for a start grinning far too much [though this may have been intended to emphasise his naivety]. The Manxman is in no way shape or form a neglected masterpiece, but it has passion, power and conviction, which makes me think that Hitchcock, certainly while he made it, really did like it. I should also say that the DVD I watched actually had a rather good soundtrack for a change, a very emotive one that worked as a proper score [rather than just repeating a few tracks over and over again] and whose Wagner-like style rather suited the film.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Dr Lenera
About Dr Lenera 2433 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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