Updated: Mar 20, 2021
The Manxman (1929)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by John Maxwell (6, 7, 8)
Screenplay by Eliot Stannard (1-8)
Based on the novel The Manxman by Hall Caine
Cinematography by Jack E. Cox (7, 8)
Edited by Emile de Ruelle
British International Pictures
Distributed by Wardour Films (UK), Sono Art-World Wide Pictures (US)
(1:40) Hitchcock: British International Pictures Collection Blu-ray set, Kino Lorber
“The only point of interest about that movie is that it was my last silent one… it was a very banal picture.” - Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, p. 61)
Hitchcock may have considered his last fully silent picture banal, but the evidence proves otherwise. With The Manxman Hitchcock continues to refine his skills, delve deeper into character, and provide his audiences with hints of the greatness that would fully emerge in his subsequent films. This is far from banal.
Reflecting on the silent era with François Truffaut, Hitchcock commented:
Well, the silent pictures were the purest form of cinema; the only thing they lacked was the sound of people talking and the noises. But this slight imperfection did not warrant the major changes that sound brought in. In other words, since all that was missing was simply natural sound, there was no need to go to the other extreme and completely abandon the technique of the pure motion picture, the way they did when sound came in. (Hitchcock/Truffaut, p. 61)
The opening of The Manxman delivers that feeling of pure motion picture as we watch a fleet of fishing boats headed to port, not only to bring in the day’s catch, but also to release the anxious men aboard, eager to protest the recent appearance of fishing trawlers encroaching on their local waters. One of the fishermen, Pete Quilliam (Carl Brisson, last seen in The Ring), asks his longtime friend, attorney Philip Christian (Malcolm Keen) to draft a petition for the group.
In one of Hitchcock’s earliest, least-mentioned uses of foreshadowing, the group of fishermen march to the local pub to sign the petition as two young boys in the distance fight each other.This moment is also significant in that Hitchcock rarely spends time on the political aspects of his films. The Manxman clearly displays a time and place filled with economic hardship, complete with a labor protest, yet Hitchcock is interested more in character development and contrast (compare Philip's clothes with those of the fishermen, including Pete) than social commentary. We will see other instances of this as we progress throughout Hitchcock’s filmography.
Both Pete and Philip are smitten with Kate (Anny Ondra), the pub-owner’s daughter, and probably have been for a long time, yet their friendship has suffered no ill effects. Until now.
Encouraged by a new sense of confidence in bringing about the petition, Pete works up the courage to ask Kate’s gruff father Caesar (Randle Ayrton) for her hand in marriage, then reconsiders. No, Pete thinks, asking Philip to speak to Caesar for him (as he’s representing the fishermen) would be a better idea.
Throughout this sequence and afterward, Hitchcock uses the beam from a lighthouse to create tension and a sense of ambiguity. As the beam passes, we see characters in shadow and light, unsure of whether they are agents of good or evil, or perhaps a combination of both. Hitchcock even moves his camera like a lighthouse beacon during this sequence as Philip enters the back room where Caesar works, a room separated from Pete’s anxious gaze only by windows. This provides a nice moment that brings to mind several moments from Rear Window (1954), a film 25 years away.
Yet Caesar’s not having any of it, calling Pete a “penniless lout” before dismissing him from the pub and Kate’s life. More determined than ever, Pete pledges to sail to Africa, get rich, and return, proving his worth.
As Pete climbs up to Kate’s bedroom window, the illumination from the lighthouse continues, throwing doubt as to what might really be in Kate’s heart. (The photo above also shows just one example of the wonderful contrast lighting we see throughout the film.) At Pete’s urging, she promises to wait for his return. Pete foolishly asks Philip to take care of Kate while he’s gone, never realizing this is exactly what Philip had in mind.
You can guess what happens next: Philip woos Kate, she falls for him, and all is right with the world. If they just knew what to do about Pete…
Despite a warning from his aunt that a marriage to Kate would be beneath him and lead to the same type of ruin his father suffered, Philip and Kate pass the point of no return. Hitchcock continues to set Philip apart by his appearance, clean and wearing light-colored clothes, practically sparkling while the fishermen lumber around the pub in dark sweaters and grungy trousers.
Then the news arrives that Pete has died on his journey. If there’s any mourning in Kate’s heart, we don’t see it. Instead, the title card tells us what’s really on her mind: “Phil, we’re free. Don’t you see what this means?” Inside the mill with Philip, Kate slowly turns the massive stone wheel, setting in motion not only the act of grinding, but also their fate. (The rough interior of the mill calls to mind the innards of the bell tower in Vertigo.)
Yet we soon learn that Pete isn’t dead, that he’s planning to return and marry Kate. The wedding party marches to the mill, recalling the earlier procession of fishermen to the pub, intent on signing the petition. Here Caesar makes the grim pronouncement, “Punishment is due to those who ignore wedding vows… The mills of God grind slowly…”
I'll leave the rest of the story for you to discover on your own.
As Farran Smith Nehme points out in yet another outstanding commentary, novelist Hall Caine and Hitchcock clashed over several aspects of the film, not the least of which was Hitchcock’s decision to eliminate most of the main characters’ backstories. What Caine failed to appreciate is Hitchcock’s ability to convey character through the use of carefully-presented close-ups. (The actors’ talents are obviously a key part of this as well.) Recall Hitchcock’s dedication to “the technique of the pure motion picture” mentioned earlier and the tools at his disposal to show at least something of the inner character through facial expressions and close-ups.
Speaking of close-ups, several of these “through the window” shots of one character observing others are what writer Dave Kehr refers to as “confrontational close-ups.” Not only do these shots convey character and create tension, they often suggest menacing intentions while also making the audience complicit in the action. Has any other director mastered this approach as well as Alfred Hitchcock? Once again, we see techniques that Hitchcock will use time and time again here in their relative infancy.
As Nehme points out, we don’t see breathless escapes, wild plot twists, red herrings, or even a true MacGuffin, but rather three more-or-less normal people dealing with a very difficult, emotionally-charged situation. The Manxman may not be a great film, but it is a good one that not only stands on its own merits, it also points to the greatness the director will unleash on his audiences in the years to come.
A question for a bit of fun: Who appeared in the most Hitchcock films (not counting the director’s own cameos)? It wasn’t James Stewart or Cary Grant.
The actor with the most Hitchcock screen credits is a tie. Clare Greet appeared in six HItchcock titles (seven, if you count the unfinished/unreleased Number 13 from 1922): The Ring (1927), The Manxman (1929), Murder! (1930), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Sabotage (1936), and Jamaica Inn (1939).
Leo G. Carroll also appeared in six: Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), The Paradine Case (1947), Strangers on a Train (1951), and North by Northwest (1959). So pat yourself on the back if you knew the answer to that one. And thanks to Farran for pointing that out on the commentary.
Thanks to Linda R. over at the Alfred Hitchcock Fans Facebook page for pointing out that Bess Flowers appeared in seven Hitchcock films: Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Notorious, Dial M for Murder, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief. Thanks, Linda!
Next time we’ll move into sound with Blackmail (1929). I hope you’ll join me.