Director’s Spotlight: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Manxman (1929)

Synopsis:

Set on the Isle of Man, a remote island located between Great Britain and Ireland, the film tells the story of two friends, a poor fisherman, Pete Quilliam (Carl Brisson, The Ring), and a wealthy lawyer, Philip Christian (Malcolm Keen, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog), who fall in love with the same woman, the beautiful Kate Cregeen (Anny Ondra, Blackmail). The love triangle has tragic consequences.

Reaction & Thoughts:

What The Manxman, Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent movie, lacks in substance, it makes up in execution. The story is simple, yet the visual language is complex, gorgeous, sublime. It’s an exercise in technique, where images and mood are more important than plot. And the film manages to expose the heart of Hitchcock’s modus operandi — the banality of everyday life is interrupted, unexpectedly, by horrendous tragedy.

Although not entirely obvious, The Manxman is not all that different from Hitchcock’s auteurist concoctions. It’s true that for Hitchcock this was just a “filler” (that’s how he called the films he made between his pet projects); a straight adaptation (by Eliot Stannard) of a then popular novel. But if you pay careful attention you’ll notice that this is indeed a Hitchcockian movie.

The Manxman lacks the master’s quirkiness, that much is true. The movie has a conventionally love triangle and the melodrama is a bit thick. But the film does fit in the director’s oeuvre.

The idea of a woman trapped between two men is a major plot point in Hitch’s previous The Ring (1927), and later Notorious (1946), Under Capricorn (1949) and Dial M For Murder (1954). In each case the love triangle is an excuse to explore the idea of rules & duty versus personal feelings. In Hitchcock’s universe, mores always conspire against self-hood.

There is also the issue of parental control, a favorite Hitchcock motif. And the director touches upon the frailty of government officials. Hitchcock had an anti-government streak that was subtle, but very real. It got more to do with the distrust of authority than outright hate for the government. for example, the lawyer-turned-judge is so messed up that you instinctively know that he’s incapable of judging others by their behaviors, an unmistakably powerful irony.

The best thing about the movie, for me, at least, is actress Ondra, who was the first bona fide Hitchcock heroine. She had an extraordinary face, tailor-made for silent movies. Sound put an end to her career. Ondra married legendary German boxer Max Schmeling and retired from films.

The director, of course, puts Ondra’s character through hell. This is the kind of attitude that has always put Hitchcock in hot waters with feminists. That’s one of the most misunderstood aspects of Hitchcock’s art though. The director’s mistreatment of his heroine is a reflection of Hitch’s Catholic background, not misogyny. Hitch always placed a high value on the redemptive nature of suffering.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

While today’s audiences only care about Hitchcock’s thrillers, his early work is interesting because of the director’s idiosyncrasies. The Manxman is a tender little film, with an uncommonly heavy-hearted tone and plenty of poetic imagery. Heavy on romantic lyricism and populism, this small-scale melodrama shows Hitchcock at his most humane, compassionate. Hitch’s dismissive attitude notwithstanding, this is a fine drama that made a strong impression on me.  B&W, 100 minutes, Not Rated.

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