THE MANXMAN (1929): “I’ve promised myself to him, but I’ve given myself to you.”

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.

 

THE RING (1927): “I shall always be ready to fight for my wife against any man”

THE RING (1927) – Brithering1tish International Pictures – Rating:  ★★★

B&W (silent) – 90 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Carl Brisson (“One Round Jack” Sander), Lillian Hall-    Davis (Mabel), Ian Hunter (Bob Corby), Forrester Harvery (James Ware), Harry  Terry (Showman), Gordon Harker (Jack’s Trainer), Clare Greet (Fortune Teller).

Written by Alfred Hitchcock

Photographed by John Cox

Produced by John Maxwell

 

In 1927 Alfred Hitchcock signed with the newly-formed British International Pictures, becoming the highest paid director in England in the process.  Over the course of the next six years, Hitchcock would be involved with 11 different movies at British International, a period that bridged the end of the silent film era and the first years of sound films.   His output was uneven, and his relationship with studio head John Maxwell was occasionally rocky.   There are only two films from this period that are considered “classics” in the Hitchcock canon:  Blackmail  (Britain’s first movie with sound) and Murder!  The Ring, Hitchcock’s first movie for British International (the first movie ever released by the studio, for that matter) is also quite good, with an engaging story line,  groundbreaking visuals and flashes of humor.

Trivia buffs might be interested to know that this is the only film in Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work as a director for which he also received a writing credit; “WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK” reads a title card at the beginning.  The story is a classic love triangle, certainly not the kind of story that is generally associated with Hitchcock.  The film’s title, The Ring, refers to the boxing ring, as both male leads are boxers.  But it can also refers to a wedding ring, as well as a serpentine bracelet which features heavily in the plot.

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The movie opens with Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis) working as a ticket girl at a carnival attraction, where her boyfriend is an amateur boxer.  The boxer (played by Danish actor Carl Brisson), is known as “One Round Jack” because nobody makes it to the second round with him.  Until a man named Bob Corby (Ian Hunter) shows up and soundly beats him.  It turns out that Corby is the heavyweight champion of Australia.  Corby invites Jack to be his sparring partner, ostensibly to help him, but in reality to be closer to his girlfriend.  Corby gives Mabel a bracelet, in the shape of a serpent, which becomes the symbol of infidelity.   Mabel marries Jack anyway, even though she clearly has feelings for Corby.

The wedding sequence shows all of the carnival performers entering the church;  we see the Siamese twins, the dwarf and giant, in a comic scene which clearly prefigures a similar sequence in Hitchcock’s later film Saboteur.  Hitchcock loved images of the incongruous, which he indulged in frequently in his British period.  After the wedding, the movie shows Jack becoming a better boxer, getting bigger matches, while all the while his new wife Mabel gets closer to Bob Corby.  Eventually Jack confronts Mabel about her infidelity and she leaves.  Of course the movie will end with the two men settling their differences in the boxing ring, and of course Mabel will realize that Corby is a cad and return to her husband’s side.

The silent film aspect:   Most modern-day film goers have never seen a silent film;  even many fans of Hitchcock have probably not delved into his early silent period.  It certainly is a different experience, but in the case of Hitchcock the adjustment is not too difficult.  Throughout his career, Hitchcock was always a believer in telling a story through visual means;  he never forgot the things he learned in the silent era.  If you watch this movie, you will notice there are not a lot of title cards.  This is because the visuals clearly tell us what is happening on screen.

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John Cox, cameraman:  In the late 1920’s, there were not a lot of “special effects” techniques available to filmmakers, particularly in post filming.  So Hitchcock wanted to find a cameraman who was adept at filming effects “in camera”, as it was often done then.  He found just the man he was looking for in John Cox (or Jack Cox, or J.J. Cox, as he was also credited on some films).   Cox would end up acting as Hitchcock’s cameraman/cinematographer on a dozen movies, including every film he directed at British International.  They would also reunite one last time on Hitchcock’s 1938 masterpiece The Lady Vanishes.   From a technical standpoint, this is the most important collaborative partnership in Hitchcock’s entire British period.   (And also mirrors Hitchcock’s later partnership with American cinematographer Bob Burks, who would also work with Hitchcock on 12 movies.)

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In the image above, you can see how Cox was able to superimpose the image of Ian Hunter’s head onto the punching bag.  Even a seemingly simple shot like this took some doing in the 1920’s.   But Cox’s (and Hitchcock’s) innovations went far beyond this.  Later in the film there is a party sequence, in which the party goers  become out of control.  Hitchcock wanted to recreate the feel of the drunken revelry for his movie goers.  So into a montage of people singing and dancing are intercut images like this one to the right:  an eerily elongated piano, with a spinning turntable superimposed upon it.  Nothing quite like this had ever been seen in British cinema.

But perhaps the most important effect technique that Hitchcock wished to employ in this movie, (and would use again in a few later films) is called the Schufftan process.

Schufftan process:  This process is named after its inventor, Eugen Schufftan, who first used the process on Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis.  The process involves placing a mirror at an angle in front of the camera, with a painted or photographed image to the side, which will be reflected in the mirror, and captured on camera.  Then, scraping away part of the reflective mirror, leaving only clear glass, and filming live action through the newly scraped area.  The two images (the live portion filmed through the clear glass, and the reflected painted portion) will then appear to be one image.  Hitchcock wished to use this technique in the movie’s final sequence:  the boxing match in the Royal Albert Hall.   (Hitchcock staged scenes from three of his movies in the Albert Hall:  this one, and both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much.)   The following diagram shows how the Schufftan process worked.

Schuefftan-process

 

Performance:  All of the performances in this movie are solid.  There is perhaps no real “standout” performance but everyone holds their own.  Gordon Harker plays his role as Jack’s trainer for great comedic effect.  And Carl Brisson is very solid as the male lead.  He has to generate sympathy from the audience for the story to succeed, and he does so, admirably.

Recurring players:  Carl Brisson would later star in The Manxman.  Lillian Hall-Davis also appeared in The Farmer’s Wife.  Ian Hunter was in both Downhill and Easy Virtue.  Forrester Harvey would later appear in Rebecca.  Harry Terry was in The Manxman.  Gordon Harker was in The Farmer’s Wife and Champagne.  Clare Greet, one of Hitchcock’s favorite character actresses in his British period, also appeared in Number 13, The Manxman, Murder!, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage and Jamaica Inn.  Tom Helmore would later appear in The Secret Agent, and would also play the role of Gavin Elster in Vertigo.  

Where’s Hitch?   There is no credible evidence to suggest that Hitchcock made a cameo appearance in this movie.

What Hitch said:  When talking to Truffaut, Hitchcock said of this movie “…that was really an interesting movie.  You might say that after The Lodger, The Ring was the next Hitchcock picture.  There were all kinds of innovations in it, and I remember that at the premiere an elaborate montage got a round of applause.  It was the first time that had ever happened to me.”

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A shot from the climactic fight sequence, which employs the Schufftan process. Most of the spectators are a painted image.

Definitive edition:  There are numerous versions of this movie available on DVD in various box sets and “collections”, but the best print available is to be found on the three disc Alfred Hitchcock Box Set from Lions Gate Studios.  This set contains 5 of Hitchcock’s films from the British International Pictures period.  This print is far from pristine, but keeping in mind that the movie is almost 90 years old, it is definitely watchable, and relatively clean.  There are no extra features on this disc at all.