Week 8: The Manxman (1929)

manxmanposter.jpg“What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
“I’d do anything for Pete — his friends are mine.”
“When I come back, it’s a queen I’ll make of you — if only you’ll wait.”
“I’m glad Pete’s alive but it makes no difference. I don’t love him.”
“Whatever happens, Pete must never know.”
“But I’ve still got my baby.”
“Pete, we too have suffered.”

The Manxman

Continuing in a prolific vein, Hitchcock got started on The Manxman just two weeks after Patricia Hitchcock was born, unaware as he made it that this would be his final silent film. However, it was also his first remake. The film was based on a novel by Hall Caine, which had not only been a successful stage play, but had already been made into a movie in 1916. Set on the Isle of Man (the title refers to a denizen of that place) but filmed in Cornwall, the movie is more than slightly reminiscent of several of previous Hitchcock works while continuing to highlight the directing strengths that were keeping him in the business.

annyondra.jpgJust like The Pleasure Garden and Easy Virtue, The Manxman is a romantic melodrama, and like both The Lodger and The Ring, it features a troublesome romantic triangle. No great surprise, considering it was the eighth and final collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and Eliot Stannard. The film is even more reminiscent of The Lodger and The Ring by virtue of the starring actors: Carl Brisson (the Danish actor who played Jack in The Ring) and Malcolm Keen (the hapless detective Joe from The Lodger). The lead female role went to Anny Ondra, an extremely popular and truly international Czech film star.

carlbrisson.jpgIn The Manxman, lowly fisherman Pete (Brisson) and up-and-coming young lawyer Philip (Keen) have been best friends since childhood. Pete has his sights set on Kate, the daughter of the local innkeeper. Philip is also in love with her, but due to his position and friendship with Pete, he says nothing of it, even when Pete asks him to talk to Kate’s father (a terrifying fellow named Caesar) about the possibility of marriage. Caesar refuses to hear of his daughter marrying a penniless fisherman, so Pete decides to set out and seek his fortune on the high seas. Before he goes, he secures Kate’s promise to wait for him and charges Philip with watching after her.

malcolmkeen.jpgIn his absence, Pete’s best friend and his girlfriend slowly fall in love with each other. They say nothing of it to each other until word reaches the island that Pete has been killed. Their passionate affair has barely begun, however, before Philip receives word that the rumors of Pete’s death were greatly exaggerated. He’s on his way home with enough money to marry Kate. Although Kate no longer loves Pete, she and Philip decide that he must never know what happened between them. Unfortunately for all involved, Kate turns out to be pregnant with Philip’s child, and events spin steadily towards a striking and cautionary finish.

placement.jpgWhile the film is often emotionally overwrought, and certainly overlong at 110 minutes, its well-managed individual elements complement each other nicely. The three stars are excellent in their various roles, good enough that they are allowed to convey a great deal simply through changes of expression and significant glances without having to rely on the clumsy intrusion of too many intertitles. The performances are further heightened by the way Hitchcock places them and frames the shots. The locations are top-notch, and are integrated very well into the setting to the point of helping tell the story.

diary.jpgThere is an especially noteworthy device employed to streamline the story early on. After Pete ships out away from the island, the scene transitions to a shot of a small black book with “My Diary” on the cover. Kate’s hands flip the book open (her name is inside the cover) and then turn through the dated pages. The entries begin with “Pete sailed today” and then continue with a few entries consisting of “Mr. Christian called today.” Before long, an entry reads, “Mr. Christi Philip took me for a walk.” And then she begins calling him Phil, the levels of informality reflecting their growing intimacy and affection.

mill1.jpgShortly after Pete is declared dead, he appears standing outside some kind of shop, where he writes a note to Philip. He is alive and well, and coming home with money to burn. After Pete has written his note to Philip, but before it has arrived, Kate and Philip have a private tryst in an old abandoned mill.mill2.jpg Kate turns the crank, revolving the rod inserted in the hole of the grindstone, which causes the whole apparatus to turn. She seems quite surprised that it works, then goes over to Philip and they begin to embrace passionately. The shot switches discreetly back to a close-up of the grinding mill, in what is possibly the most oblique reference to sexual intercourse I have yet encountered in cinema.

After he receives Pete’s letter, Philip calls Kate for a rendezvous at the “usual place.” This turns out to be a private beach. Hitchcock employs some of the most impressive exterior camerawork we have yet seen as Kate goes to meet Philip, including a striking silhouette shot that looks like something out of an Ingmar Bergman film and a series of shots framed by some particularly striking rock formations.


return1.jpgThe tension in this scene is palpable, as Kate and Philip argue over what to do out on the beach, intercut with views of Pete’s ship drawing closer and closer to port out on the horizon. A key element of the ensuing tragedy is set in motion when Kate doesn’t reveal her pregnancy to Philip at this point (it is unclear whether she knows yet), and they decide to say nothing to Pete. If Pete were more perceptive, they wouldn’t have to. Neither of them seem to crack a smile during the entire remainder of the film. However, Brisson plays the character with such a sense of delirious happiness that his obliviousness is actually believable.


sermon.jpgEverything Pete says or does seems to inspire feelings of guilt and remorse in the other two, including the unfortunate choice to hold his wedding reception in the old mill. Caesar adds to the general dourness of the scene by taking the opportunity to make a solemn speech about the sanctity of marriage: “Marriage be a mighty reverent thing. All manner of punishment comes to them that’s false to its sacred vows.” Then, to illustrate his point, he sets the mill grinding. Harsh.

Philip cuts out as quickly as he can and takes a vacation. Kate is quietly miserable as a married woman, feeling she is living a life of deceit. As soon as Philip returns, she lets him know about the baby and once again they argue over whether to tell Pete. Kate wants to, while Philip demands that she do nothing of the kind. She seems determined to tell anyway, but only gets out the words, “I’m going to have a baby” before she loses her nerve at Pete’s ecstatic reaction. The wedding must have taken place within a matter of days after Kate’s fling with Philip, because no one (and certainly not Pete) ever suspects that the baby was conceived outside of wedlock, even once it is born.

leftme1.jpgMeanwhile, Philip achieves his lifelong ambition of becoming a Deemster (which, we are informed, is what they call judges on the Isle of Man). His in-statement is marred, however, by Kate appearing in his new office to inform him that she has left her husband. She couldn’t take it anymore, so she left himleftme2.jpg a note and disappeared to hide out with Philip. Pete tries to cover for her by telling everyone that he sent her on a holiday to London, but he privately confesses the truth to Philip, not knowing his wife is listening through the door. Clearly at this point the objective of not breaking Pete’s heart is a total wash, and they ought to tell him everything, but, inexplicably, they don’t.

darkwater11.jpgShortly thereafter, Kate goes back to get the baby (it is unclear why she left it behind in the first place), but Pete won’t give it up, even when she tells him it isn’t his. Fraught with despair, Kate goesdarkwater2.jpg out and throws herself off of the dock. She is rescued by a bystander and arrested for attempted suicide. Poor Philip. Her case turns out to be the first (and last) he presides over as a judge. (There is a great transition from the bubbles rising out of the dark water where Kate disappeared beneath the surface to an extreme close-up of Philip’s inkwell as he takes his place at the bench.)

truth.jpgAlmost before Philip has a chance to fully realize whose case he is actually hearing, Pete and his in-laws crash into the courtroom and Pete begs Philip to let her return to him rather than face punishment. Philip agrees, but Kate suddenly pipes up, refusing to go. Right about here, Caesar suddenly realizes what Pete was too thick to get, and loudly proclaims it to everyone. Philip has no choice but to confess (and it seems from Pete’s expression that nothing less than a first-hand confession from his friend would have convinced him of such disloyalty — his honest, blind trust is commendable, if ill-advised). He resigns his new post on the spot and steps down to confront the consequences of his actions. Pete is too shocked and saddened to be angry.

end1.jpgThe three return to Pete’s house, but don’t speak. The men stand awkwardly, avoiding looking at one another, as Kate gathers up the baby and its things and the whole village gawks through the windows, then the unhappy couple braves the gauntlet of the loudly disapproving village hags and walk awayend2.jpg over the horizon. They will leave the island in disgrace, probably never to return, but it is Pete who has really lost everything. In the film’s final seconds, he is seen standing in a fishing boat, staring out at nothing, and then we see the fishing fleet sailing out to sea (a reversal of the opening shot where they were coming in to port) before the scene fades completely.


Interestingly, some of the film’s most important moments (particularly those involving Pete) are filmed through windows, as though indicating a distance or barrier between Pete and the other characters. Sometimes it makes him seem powerless and uninvolved in his fate, at other times clueless, as though he sees everything with a false tint. When Pete sends Philip in to ask for Kate’s hand, he watches closely through a window in the wall between the inn’s main room and a backroom. Just like the audience, Pete can’t hear what is going on inside. Caesar seems very pleased at first, and it is obvious he thinks Philip is about to ask permission to marry his daughter. Philip shakes his head and points out through the window. Caesar’s smile changes to a frown.


After Kate’s father turns him down flat, Pete and Philip walk around the side of the inn and Pete tosses pebbles at Kate’s window. When she sees who it is, she disappears inside to throw on a shawl, but Pete climbs up on Philip’s shoulders and sticks his head inside. Kate seems to think it’s all a joke, but Pete begs her to be serious and finally secures her promise to wait for him to make enough money to satisfy her father. She then pulls the window-shade down in his face and he climbs down, ecstatic.


notewindow.jpgPete composes the note to Philip informing him that he is still alive using the window of a shop as a desk, shot from the other side as he writes. When he arrives back on the island, he goes straight to the inn. Philip walks up to the door and peers in to see him enjoying the attention of everyone who thought he was dead. As he looks, Pete glances out through the window and spots him, his face lighting up as he beckons Philip in.


Coming home from a day with the fishing fleet, Pete spots his wife being a little too friendly with a man as he glances through the window. His face lights up when he gets inside and sees that it’s only Philip. When Kate returns home to collect her baby, she first watches Pete through the window as he tends to the child. Finally, as Philip and Kate prepare to leave the island in disgrace with their love child while Pete stands helplessly to one side, a shot reveals a crowd of the townspeople peering in with their faces pressed tightly against the glass.


A grimly moralistic tone squelches all of the fun out of The Manxman, in the end. As with many of his earliest works, Hitch remained unsatisfied with the finished film, but it was a financial success. However, it was not released until after the success of his next film (much as his first two films weren’t released until after The Lodger). Hitchcock continued to distinguish himself visually, but the stories he filmed remained largely sub-par.

By the end of his silent period, he had only directed a single suspense thriller, and had also shown a certain flair for staging light-hearted comedy. However, he had largely been left to do what he could with thin melodramas of various stripes, with less than spectacular results with respect to lasting appeal. This would soon begin to change. Unfortunate material aside, Hitchcock had thoroughly mastered the technical aspects of his chosen art form when the silent era came to an end, and the techniques he had acquired of telling a story purely with visuals would continue to serve him well long after the transition to sound had been made. Indeed, sound would remain entirely superfluous to many of the most striking and famous scenes of his prestigious career.

Next Week: Hitchcock directs his first sound picture (sort of)


~ by Jared on February 20, 2008.

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