Monday, November 17, 2014

The Manxman (1929)

There is no love triangle quite like this one.

I first watched The Manxman years ago, having already seen several of Alfred Hitchcock’s other silent films. None of those ones had overwhelmed. Though they showed touches of the brilliance to come, they were also the products of a youthful director still finding his footing. They were uneven and, by the standards of late-20s silent cinema, nothing to write home about.

But The Manxman? I loved it. Was transfixed by it. My heart broken by it. Could predict not one moment of it. I told people to watch it, promising they’d have a similar experience. A few did, and most of them agreed. But it remains a film few people know about, available in lousy video copies and rarely mentioned even when Hitchcock’s silent films are (rarely) mentioned.

I like to think BFI is changing that. Its 2012 restorations of the “Hitchcock 9” (the surviving nine silents that the master directed—out of a total of ten) lets these films shine as best they can—eliminating, for the most part, the wear of time, and allowing them to be judged, without qualification, on their artistic merits. Some still fall short. The Manxman, in my opinion, soars.

The story takes place in a fishing village on the Isle of Man, in the present day. It concerns three young people, two of whom are friends from boyhood: Pete Quilliam (Carl Brisson), a fisherman; and Philip Christian (Malcolm Keen), a lawyer. Pete is good-looking and well-liked—he’s one of the boys. Philip is more serious, and far better educated, but his heart, too, is with the common man. He uses his skills to help the Manxmen in their struggle against industrialized fishing interests.

Pete and Philip have a bond based on brotherhood and trust. It surpasses social position—as it must, for Pete is a near-penniless labourer and Philip the son of one of the Isle’s wealthiest families, on the fast-track to a position as deemster (judge). How these two became friends is never explained, but such is the essential goodness of each man that we don’t question it, at least at first.

Only one thing could set these two at odds. The “Manx Fairy”, Kate Creegen (Anny Ondra), is the daughter of the village pubmaster: a few years younger than Pete and Philip perhaps, and adored by both of them. When we first meet her, working behind the bar during a crowded meeting of Manx fishermen, we find her to be a free spirit, even flighty. She flirts with both men, but more with the handsomer Pete, who confides to his friend, later that night, that he intends to ask for Kate’s hand. Permission for Kate’s to marry must be granted by her father, Caesar (Randle Ayrton), who looks like he’s spent much of his life facing into a hard wind. Pete worries, rightly, that Caesar will not give his daughter away to a man without much money; so he implores the more learned, eloquent Philip to argue on his behalf. Philip does this, but painfully—for he loves Kate as much as Pete does.

What follows is a series of incidents that push Kate closer to Pete while her heart pulls her closer to Philip. To elaborate would spoil the film; it’s enough to say that if Pete were not around, Kate and Philip would probably be happy, and Philip knows that, and feels immense guilt over it. And because he feels that guilt, he works doubly hard against his own happiness, and Kate’s, by continuing to insist that Kate fulfill her promise to marry Pete.

Watching this film a second time, in a theatre filled with people, it struck me how close to a comedy The Manxman really is. Kate and Philip’s love is repeatedly thwarted by the blundering Pete, who just wants what’s best for everyone and assumes everything’s fine just the way it is right now. There was something farcical about Philip and Kate—highly intelligent people—being outmaneuvered by this man, whose wide-eyed and clueless approach to anything he couldn’t pull from a net got repeated laughs from the audience. That Pete never obstructs them on purpose—and could not, unless they allowed him to—just adds to the fun. Or it would, if events didn’t take such a painful turn.

I’d like to have been around when Hitchcock and Brisson discussed this role. Brisson plays Pete as a man without guile—and in a film where he shares every scene with Keen, Ondra or Ayrton, who carry so much more emotional weight, he seems almost like a caricature. This pays off later. But there are points early on when it seems like Brisson’s in a different film.

In fact, Brisson’s performance fits in with the rest—you just have to consider it one oddity among several.

You notice them after awhile. We’re told, for example, that Pete and Philip have been friends since boyhood, but Philip looks quite a bit older than Pete. It is implied that the story is set in the 1920s, yet—I am almost certain—there is not one piece of modern technology that appears onscreen. Likewise, among the supporting actors and dozens of extras Hitchcock filmed, none are young or attractive. It is as though Pete, Philip and Kate occupy a space where the strictures of time are loose or blurry; where they are unique beings. The only things that feel real and fixed are their emotions and the pain that results from them.

But how does Kate actually feel? Ondra’s performance here is truly fascinating. Like Brisson, she occasionally goes over the top, but I believe it’s to a purpose. Her Kate is a young woman who has created a character to help her negotiate the sexual politics of her village—a village in which she is, apparently, the only beauty, yet remains powerless. Kate vamps and teases, at first getting laughs from our audience, who may have thought Ondra couldn’t act. But much of this is deflection; meant to rebuff a man without hurting him. Kate rarely reveals what she’s really feeling, fearful, perhaps, of having her options further constrained by the men in her life. And the more those fears are realized, the darker a figure Kate becomes. Her ‘turn’, which comes surprisingly early in the film, is chilling, and yet she never loses our sympathy.

In fact, none of them do. Like any fine, sad story, there are no villains in The Manxman. Just people trying to do what’s right—for themselves and the ones they care about. That each manages to ruin the lives of the other two is what finally turns The Manxman from a comedy of errors into a tragedy for the ages. I want you to see this film, so you know what I mean.


The Manxman was the last true silent film Hitchcock directed. His next one, Blackmail, was filmed as both a silent film and a talkie. Blackmail feels like a Hitchcock film, too—or at least the prototype of one—while The Manxman does not. But The Manxman is better. It has deeper characters, a stronger story, and a better performance from Ondra, who stars in both films. And because this post is already long, I don’t have room to tell you about its other good qualities: particularly Hitchcock’s use of lighting, including the oscillating bright and dim of the Isle lighthouse, which illuminates, then consumes, the Manx Fairy in her bleakest moments.

The Manxman screened at Toronto’s Revue Cinema on November 15, 2014—part of the Toronto Silent Film Festival’s Hitchcock 9 series. Accompaniment was provided by Fern Lindzon.

Read my post on Blackmail (1929), also screened as part of this series.

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