Hello again, and welcome back to Weekly Hitch – the blog wherein I watch all of Hitchcock’s movies in chronological order and you read, like, half a blog-post and then skim a bit because seriously who has time for this?
This week I watched Hitchcock’s last official silent film, and his first real adaptation of a novel, 1929’s religious-allegory/morality-tale/melodrama The Manxman. So buckle up, because things are about to get Hitchy.
A very transitional and fascinating entry into Hitchcock’s early work, The Manxman serves as both the penultimate chapter of Hitch’s first decade, and also the continuation of an odd sort of stagnation for the director – but, in my opinion, it’s also one of his stronger silent films. So let’s take a look at it.
Beginning with possibly the most fortuitous symbolic elements in all of Hitch’s work, The Manxman opens with a shot of a ship’s sail, and on that sail is a symbol – a triskelion – three legs in a sort of pin-wheel effect. The icon is the symbol for the Isle of Man, which is where this film takes place (Manxman, is a person from the Isle of Man) – but the triskelion is also a symbol for the movie as a whole. Three people, stuck together by fate, unable to move forward.
The film itself is another of Hitch’s familiar (by now) silent morality tales, very much like The Ring (which also starred Carl Brisson – who stars in this one) and in a way also like The Lodger (which starred Malcolm Keen – who is in this one as well), The Manxman starts us off with two friends, Philip the lawyer (Keen) and Pete the lowly fisherman (Brisson).
Pete is in love with Kate (played wonderfully by the seriously stunning Czech actress Anny Ondra), but her father won’t let him anywhere near her because Pete is poor. So Pete decides to go off on a sailing voyage and make his fortune, and he makes Kate promise to wait for him – which she does, just barely. See, Kate is only lukewarm on Pete, but he doesn’t care because he’s a happy-go-lucky doofus. So Pete asks his best buddy Philip to watch over his girl, and Pete heads off to sea.
Bad move, Pete! Mostly because Philip also has a bit of the hots for Kate, and while Pete is gone the two grow close. (Hitchcock cleverly shows this by letting us glimpse Kate’s diary) But then word comes that Pete was killed at sea, and Kate and Philip decide to go for it and start full on boot-knocking. But of course, Pete wasn’t really dead at all, and soon he comes back a wealthy man – and Kate and Philip are in a pickle.
Philip decides that he can’t betray his friend, so he gives up Kate (sorry ladies, what you want won’t matter for another… I guess 70 years or so?) and Philip gets her father’s permission to marry her.
The wedding brunch awkwardly takes place in the old mill, which is where Philip and Kate used to have their secret trysts, and where her father talks about all people as being nothing but grist for God’s mill and how he wears us all down. Total bummer of a wedding speech.
Anyhow, Kate and Pete are now married and Philip is miserable – but on his way to becoming a judge… until Kate tells him that she’s pregnant and that he’s the father, not Pete!
(Hitch brilliant doesn’t use an inter title here for the line “I’m going to have a baby.” – you straight up have to read her lips and it’s fantastic.)
Philip is freaked, and they decide to tell Pete the truth, but when he comes home she can’t do it. And before you know it, Pete and Kate are welcoming a baby that isn’t his. Awkward…
Of course this all soon wears Kate down to a sad depressed wreck, and while Philip ascends to the judge’s bench, she decides enough is enough and she runs away from Pete, leaving her baby behind. She tells Philip that she couldn’t take it any more – but he is too morally proper to actually take responsibility for his sex-drive. So Kate decides her only option is to kill herself.
She jumps in the ocean – on the same day that Philip is sitting as a judge for the first time. And wouldn’t you know it, his first case is that of an attempted suicide. And Kate’s the accused! (looking very Mary mother of God)
Soon it all comes to a head as Pete shows up, and her father is there, and the truth finally comes out. Pete learns that his best friend slept with his wife while they thought he was dead and the baby that he so adored isn’t his, and also everything’s the worst. Philip resigns in shame and he and Kate are forced out of town with the baby.
And Pete heads back out to sea.
The (depressing) End.
Now then, I can imagine that you’re basically dying to know what I thought about the movie, so I’ll just come right out and say it.
The Manxman is fantastic. For realsies.
Hitchcock, in his Truffaut interview, called the picture “banal” – say that it was only noteworthy because it was his last silent film, but on this note I have to disagree with the master.
First off, the film is stunningly beautiful. Something about Hitchcock filming outside of the studio and away from London always winds up looking amazing, and especially in this film. His camerawork (or Jack Cox’s I suppose) is enthralling and restrained. The performances, especially Ondra and the innocent goofiness of Brisson, are note-perfect – and the story, much like previous adaptations The Lodger and The Farmer’s Wife is so well worn and polished that Eliot Stannard was able to craft a really tight and moving scenario.
The tale is also symbolically and allegorically rich enough that the surface melodrama (effectively a lower-class Downton Abbey sort of tale) is elevated to a rather impressive level. Hitchcock (or probably the source material) has imbued this film with so many religious undertones and double meanings and allusions that the simplicity of the story becomes just a veil over something much deeper.
And then there’s the filmmaking itself. The dramatic seascape or Cornwall, coupled with Hitchcock’s most simple and subjective filming yet, really makes The Manxman into a practical thesis statement on what Hitchcock had learned during the silent era.
Characters sometimes talk and look directly into the camera, emotions seem to radiate from the screen, every moment is played for pure empathy and understanding. There are no trick shots, no clever gags or mirrors – in this picture Hitchcock did what he would learn to do in later years, he held back and put the focus, not on the camera, but on what it sees. This is Hitchcock growing up, and probably knowing that it would be his last film made in complete silence.
Truly, this movie is not Hitch’s best – maybe not even his best silent picture (some would say The Lodger, some The Ring), but The Manxman is definitely, in my opinion, his most grown up and sophisticated film of the 20’s. It has flaws and may be a little too heavy on love-triangle-drama and big emotion, but it’s the purest distillation of the filmmaker Hitch was then, and as such – it’s wonderful.
Hitchcock began production on The Manxman just two weeks after the birth of his daughter, Patricia – in fact, I (along with others) suspect that maybe the young baby girl seen in the movie is the baby Hitchcock herself – and it must have been interesting for Hitch to embark upon a movie about a man and woman both welcoming new life, and having it – and love – destroy them at the same time.
Filmed on location in Cornwall (standing in for the Isle of Man) and then in British International’s studios at Elstreet, the movie marks a series of lasts for Hitchcock, and in retrospect may have been a slightly melancholy affair.
This was Hitch’s last silent film for starters. After this his camera would be placed in a box and actors would be dealing with microphones and he would lose some of the freedom to move and experiment with his lens that he’d enjoyed over the last ten years. Sound, while being an exciting advance for cinema, also made filmmakers take a few steps backward in terms of camera movement and expression and it would be several years before Hitchcock would again be able to let his pure cinema dictate the films he made.
The Manxman was also the last picture Hitch would make with his screenwriter Eliot Stannard. Stannard wrote eight films in total for Hitchcock, starting with The Pleasure Garden in 1925 and working on every film Hitchcock had ever made (there’s no doubt he at least contributed to The Ring). He was remembered by Sidney Gilliat (who would write The Lady Vanishes) as the most prolific and ubiquitous British screenwriter, and that “He seemed to be writing or rewriting everything.” Stannard finished his career in the late 30’s with over 150 credits to his name.
And on the acting side, this would be Hitch’s last picture with both Carl Brisson and Malcolm Keen – the two male leads in the film. Brisson had been a discovery of Hitchcock’s and Keen had been one of his most likeable and earnest ‘other men’. But at least, in Anny Ondra, Alfred had found an ideal ‘Hitchcock Blonde’.
Hitchcock had discovered Ondra somehow the year before and very much wanted to cast her in Champagne before having Betty Balfour thrust upon him – a fact which led him to treat Balfour horribly, petty as he was. But he got Ondra finally for The Manxman. Born in Czechoslovakia, Anny Ondra was a star of German and Czech silent comedies before being brought over to England where, unfortunately, the arrival of sound would send her right back to Germany again – but not before making two films with Hitchcock.
The film was completed around the fall of 1928, and may have been initially shelved by studio head John Maxwell as being of poor quality – but when the picture was finally released in 1929, The Manxman earned good reviews and was seen as an impressive work of adaptation for Hitchcock.
The Manxman is a pretty unique and fascinating film in terms of Hitchcock’s legacy – and I think one worthy of a bit more attention than it’s received over the years. So I’ll do that now.
Basically, it’s a movie that makes me a little sad. Sad because it’s a snapshot of a filmmaker that we will almost never see again. Hitchcock at this time was pretty much strictly a drama-director, and a particular kind of drama – that of friendships and betrayals and love-triangles and ruined lives. Prior to the 1930’s, that was Hitchcock’s bread and butter. But after the successes of Blackmail (next week) and Murder and The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitch would leave drama forever and stick to his comfort-zone of death and intrigue and thrills… and to an extent that means we lost out on a very talented dramatic director.
The Manxman is also the last pure silent film from Hitchcock. It would be the last time he would have to challenge the audience as much as himself, the last time he would struggle to find a way to say something with no option at all to have it heard. And though Hitch was among the greatest purely visual filmmakers, he would never be so pure as he is in this film.
And it is such a pure film. Uncharacteristically, in fact. Actors looking directly into the lens, Anny Ondra practically seducing the audience with pretty blatant looks, the emotion just enveloping us in a way it hasn’t in any other Hitchcock film yet – it may not have been a personal passion project for Hitch, but it’s definitely a project filled with passion.
Also filled with symbolism. The Manxman, again, is not regarded as a classic Hitchcock film – but there is a whole lot of him in it, and it starts with religion. Hitch was raised a devote Catholic, went to Jesuit school – he knew the bible and the whole movie is rife with religious symbolism and imagery, from the mill to the lighthouse’s ever watchful eye, to Ondra’s wardrobe. It’s a masterclass in putting a veil of meaning over the simplistic. Something hitch would do for the rest of his career.
And finally, there are more basic elements of legacy. In the future, Hitch will revisit the torment of a law professional compromised by love (The Paradine Case) and he would again have a despondent blonde dive into the water (Vertigo), his blatant use of windows as voyeuristic elements (Rear Window), and there would be many, many loves gone wrong – but never again would he combine all these elements with small-town charm and gorgeous views and in-your-face emotion and the pure cinema of a classic British melodrama.
And that seems a loss.
Next week we finish the 20’s with Britains very first talkie, and Hitchcock’s return to crime with 1929’s Blackmail! See you then.