September 20, 2018
The Manxman – 1929, UK
Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent film (technically, his next film, Blackmail, was shot as both a silent and a talkie) is all about atmosphere. It’s about the bright lights and joyous aura of a harbor city pub, the small town camaraderie that can produce smiles and laughter as easily as rumors and distrust. It’s about stolen looks between characters that fate has seen fit to keep apart, the resignation that hangs in the air when one’s destiny does not seem to be one’s own, and the heavy physical and emotional burdens that promises given in haste can create. It is not a film about the dark underbelly of society or characters driven to murder by circumstances considered to be out of their control. In fact, of all of the Hitchcock’s films I’m familiar with, The Manxman has the simplest plot, and this is both a blessing and a curse.
It’s a blessing because its limited scope allows Hitchcock to focus almost exclusively on the film’s three main characters: childhood friends Pete Quilliam (Carl Brisson) and Philip Christian (Malcolm Keen), and Kate Creegan (Anny Ondra). Pete is a seaman, Philip a lawyer, and Kate the woman they are both madly in love with. This is made abundantly clear in the facial expressions that form when they simultaneously greet her in her father’s pub. Both of their faces begin to radiate unabashed adoration, and as the scene progresses, we get hints of a looming conflict.
Oddly enough, that conflict really kicks in when the film begins to veer into what contemporary viewers will recognize as Pearl Harbor territory, which only goes to show just how long plots have been being recycled. (The Manxman is itself a remake of a 1917 film of the same title.) By now viewers will recognize the structure instantly: Love is interrupted by a departure; the departed one is assumed dead; the departed’s best friend attempts to comfort the woman his friend left behind only to find himself falling in love with her, despite the overwhelming sense that doing so is an act of betrayal. Of course, young passion is rarely contained for long in movies, of course, and it is not here. And then, just in time to contribute to the emotional mess that already been created, the young man returns alive, desiring to resume the relationship, which, in his eyes, never really ended.
So, as far as the plot goes, we’ve seen this before (though perhaps the word after better reflects the situation here). Now, this is normally when I say something to the effect of but we’ve never seen it done this well, but I find it hard to make that assertion here. For one, The Manxman’s narrative brevity is not reflected in the film’s length. Many of the scenes go on much longer than they should, and while this gives the cast plenty of opportunities to display their impressive talents, there’s simply no way to escape the feeling that eliminating about a half an hour would have made the film a great deal tighter. Two, the film requires viewers to have an understanding of late 19th century-early 20th century British law (Hall Caine’s novel of the same name had been released in 1894.). For example, it would help viewers to know in advance that people who failed at suicide could be prosecuted in court and that divorce was far harder to get. If you don’t know these details, the film’s final scene can be a bit jarring.
As a director, Hitchcock gets powerful performances from his cast. As played by Brisson, Pete is a genuinely heartbreaking character, for he is played as such a joyful, aspirational one. Pete is a reminder that men who get exactly what they want in love are often blind to its disintegration. As much as I appreciated Brisson’s performance, Keen actually has the more difficult role, for he has to convey resolve, disappointment, love, and pain often in the same scene. Looking at him, we fully comprehend Philip’s torn loyalties and the emotional toll that doing the right thing takes on him. However, the film’s best performance is given by Ondra. She is tasked with making viewers understand the playfulness of her character, how someone can flirt with one person while preferring the person standing next to him. Kate could easily have been portrayed as an virtue-less woman playing with men’s hearts, and callously leading them down a path of destruction. However, the way Ondra portrays her allows us to understand her pleasure at being pursued by more than one person, as well as to see the honorable side of her character. In a way, the emotional devastation of the second half is the direct result of her having kept her word.
There are some memorable Hitchcockian moments scattered throughout the film. In several scenes, he shoots from the perspective of the outsider looking in, as if we looking through Pete’s eyes and thereby feeling his hopes and fears. In another, he masterfully shows us Kate immediate regret after she playfully agrees to wait for Pete. Hitchcock allows us to see her full facial expression, and it is one of absolute agreement. Wisely, Hitchcock keeps his camera on Kate as she turns and sees Philip, and her expression becomes truly distressing. There are other things to admire, for example, Hitchcock’s use of Kate’s short diary entries to convey her growing closeness with Philip and an excellent scene of Kate and Philip waiting for Pete’s ship to arrive at a spot where high land meets the ocean. This is the Hitchcock that gets less attention, the one that could make us both believe that two characters were in love and feel both the glory and tragedy of that level of affection.
The box art for the DVD of The Manxman includes the following description: “An early masterpiece and Hitchcock’s last silent film.” I respectfully disagree. While The Manxman is a moving film about memorable characters in situations that we can easily empathize with, it is also a film that never finds the right pacing, and there were several times when my eyes began to feel heavy, only for them to open wide again once the next scene began. So, the film is both mesmerizing and dull, a strange contradiction to say the least, but one that feels appropriate in this case. In the end, it’s a film I admire a bit more than I like, one that had the potential to be great but settled on being pretty good at times and just good at others. It’s a film that some reviewers will undoubtedly refer to as “lesser Hitchcock.” I would agree with that description. (on DVD)