THE MANXMAN – 1929 – British International Pictures – ★★
B&W – Silent – 81 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Principal cast: Carl Brisson (Pete Quilliam), Malcolm Keen (Philip Christian), Anny Ondra (Kate Cregeen), Randle Ayrton (Caeser Cregeen), Clare Greet (Mother).
Screenplay by Eliot Stannard, based on the novel by Sir Hall Caine
Cinematography by Jack E. Cox
Welcome to the machine: For much of his tenure at British International Pictures, Hitchcock felt like a cog in a machine. While he made several good films during these years, he frequently had no choice in his assignments, taking whatever the studio gave him. This was one of those cases.
The novel was very well known, so Hitchcock could not stray too far from the source material. Even though this movie does not have much of Hitchcock’s signature style in it, there are still brief moments where he was able to incorporate some of his trademark visual flair.
The story set up is rather trite; a basic love triangle. Pete loves Kate, but he is a poor fisherman, and Kate’s father says he’s not good enough. So Pete heads off to South Africa to make his fortune, asking his good friend Philip to “look after” Kate while he’s gone. Kate promises Pete she will marry him upon his return. Philip is a deemster (a Manx judge) and very well off. He is perhaps a little too good in his role of protector, and he and Kate begin to fall for each other. Hitchcock employs a clever visual using Kate’s diary to show how she and Philip grow closer together over time.
Eventually a false report of Pete’s death arrives from South Africa. Kate and Philip can stand it no longer, and they sleep together, inside the town mill. This being a very early silent film, the sex had to be implied. All we see is a kiss, shot from a distance and in shadow, then a cut to the mill wheel spinning, and a fade out. The rest is left to our imagination. But to an audience of the time, the implication would have been clear.
Despite Hitchcock’s dislike for location shooting, there are some beautifully lit and framed exterior shots scattered throughout the film.
Kate and Philip learn that Pete is not dead, and will return in a matter of days. Kate also discovers that she is pregnant with Philip’s child. Philip cannot bear the thought of hurting Pete, even though he is in love with Kate, so he insists that she marry Pete. They do marry, and she raises the baby as Pete’s.
Kate is unhappy, and eventually flees, leaving her child behind, and attempts suicide. She is fished from the water and brought before the deemster, who is of course Philip. During this courtroom scene, Hitchcock found an opportunity to use his subjective point of view, as Kate’s father pivots his head from Kate to Philip, and back again, putting the pieces of the puzzle together.
The movie ends with Philip, Kate and baby leaving town, while being derided by the townsfolk. And the last shot mirrors the first, as Pete heads back out in his fishing boat.
Hitch on the shelf: John Maxwell, the head of British International Pictures, was so disappointed in the finished product that he shelved The Manxman. After Hitchcock’s next movie Blackmail became a hit, and after a successful screening for the press, The Manxman was finally released, to moderate success in Britain.
Source material: The movie is based on an 1894 novel of the same name by Sir Hall Caine. Caine’s book was immensely popular in Britain and the United States, selling over half a million copies (a rather large number for those days). The movie retained the general plot of the novel, involving the love triangle between Pete, Kate and Phillip. The novel had a much greater depth of detail.
It is not an easy read by today’s standards, one reason being that it includes a lot of colloquialisms from the Isle of Man, which can make the dialogue tough to follow at times. It is a very well constructed book, and an engaging if familiar story. There are much deeper Biblical overtones in the novel. Just before Kate surrenders herself bodily to Philip in the novel, she plucks an apple from a tree and offers him a bite (bit of a heavy-handed metaphor, there). And poor, dear Pete is one of the most generous and long-suffering characters in fiction.
It is a little frustrating to read, because both Kate and Philip are presented with many opportunities to come clean at an earlier point, but they persist on their path until things are irreparably damaged for all concerned. In the novel, Philip is to be named Governor of the Isle of Man at the end, and at the ceremony he confesses his relationship with Kate, and steps down from his position.
Recurring players: Carl Brisson starred in The Ring as boxer “One Round” Jack. Malcolm Keen had appeared in both The Mountain Eagle and The Lodger. Anny Ondra would star in Hitchcock’s next film Blackmail. Clare Greet, Hitchcock’s favorite character actress from his British period, also appeared in The Ring, Murder!, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage, and Jamaica Inn.
Where’s Hitch? There is no Hitchcock cameo to be found in The Manxman.
What Hitch said: Hitchcock had very little to say about this film over the ensuing years. Even in his conversations with Truffaut, he was quick to dismiss it. Here is the sum total of his comments:
The only point of interest about that movie is that it was my last silent one…it was a very banal picture…the picture was the adaptation of a very well-known book by Sir Hall Caine. The novel had quite a reputation and it belonged to a tradition. We had to respect that reputation and that tradition. It was not a Hitchcock movie.
Definitive edition: Like most of Hitchcock’s early British films, The Manxman is in the public domain, which means several different versions of varying quality are available for home viewing. The best version currently available is to be found on the Lion’s Gate 3-disc “Alfred Hitchcock Collection” boxed set. Also included are 4 other titles from Hitchcock’s early British period. The picture quality is decent, and there is an accompanying piano score. There are no extra features.