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Alfred Hitchcock's films have never languished in obscurity. Moreover, their ongoing popularity has led to resurrections of his early silent films. Fresh from an apprenticeship in Germany and several uncredited assignments, he began plying his trade in 1925, directing nine silent features. The Manxman (1929) was the last. Blackmail (1929) began as the tenth, but in mid-shoot Hitchcock was ordered to make it a sound film, his first such. The silents are a mixed bag. The Lodger (1927) is the best of them and The Ring (1927), which Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville, helped script, is a better love triangle melodrama than The Manxman. Still, the latter is not without its arresting stylistic, if not narrative, moments.
Many take their cue from the environment of the harsh geography of the Isle of Man itself (although the film's location shooting was in Cornwall) - especially the craggy, rocky beaches that stand as a metaphor for the stony grimness awaiting the film's illicit lovers, and the dive off a pier by the despairing suicide-minded heroine. The film was the second based on the 1887 novel by Hall Caine, whose own Manx roots inform the story. The triangle is classic. Peter, a young, but poor fisherman, goes to Africa to make money to marry Kate, an innkeeper's father who has decreed Peter a "penniless lout." When naïve Peter asks his pal, Philip, a few steps above them on the social ladder, to look after Kate while he's gone, the inevitable happens. Malcolm Keen's Philip and Anny Ondra's Kate grow closer. When a telegram arrives announcing Pete's death, they are free (although not entirely) to act on their feelings, which by now include a pregnancy.
But wait! It turns out Pete hasn't died. He returns home rich (although we see no signs of it). Philip feels he and Kate must bury their love and that she must marry Pete, to whom she was betrothed. She does, although her heart isn't in it. Carl Brisson's Pete is so unrelievedly ecstatic that he makes you want to shake him. He doesn't seem any richer. And he can't count backwards from nine when Kate tells him she's having a baby. There are no title cards when she tells Philip - and then Pete - she's carrying a baby. You have to read Kate's lips to find this out. Although Brisson gets star billing, the narrow range of the arithmetic-disadvantaged Pete, who only deflates after Kate leaves him without identifying Philip as the baby's father, sinks the character.
Malcolm Keen's Philip fares little better. The male leads take turns mugging into the camera in head-on close-ups, laying their emotions in our laps. Keen's staring gray eyes beam anguish at us, running a narrow gamut from distraught to stricken. All does not end well, climaxing when Kate, rescued from the drink, is brought before Philip on his first day as a judge (or deemster, as judges are called on the Isle of Man), attempted suicide being a criminal offense. The uneasy status quo falls apart in the string of courtroom revelations, stoked by Kate's stern father (Randy Ayrton), who has his share of glaring-into-the-camera moments, too. When Kate and Philip go to Pete's cottage to tell him the truth about his non-paternity and claim the baby, they run a gauntlet of morally outraged villagers out of The Scarlet Letter. And the baleful observation of Philip's aunt, namely that Philip's father ruined his career by marrying beneath him, extends into the second generation as Pete is heartbroken and Philip's career is finished.
It's all pretty heavy-handed, except for Ondra's Kate. Born in Galicia, raised in Prague, Ondra had a Czech father, an Austro-Hungarian Empire army officer. Given the frequency with which Galicia's rule changed hands during the volatile run-up to and aftermath of World War 1, Ondra's nationality switched from Austrian to Polish to Russian to German. Most of her long career was in non-English-speaking films. It's not certain where Hitchcock encountered her; perhaps it was during his time in Germany. It's easy to see why he cast her, why she became the first of the blond actresses with which Hitchcock was so famously obsessed. With her backlit blond hair, her round kewpie-doll face and her perfect little cupid's-bow lips, she alone rides the close-ups and her other scenes vivaciously and alluringly. Her eyes convey the fact that her mercurial Kate is the only character of any emotional complexity. Her darting moves, and, in the clinches, melting abandon, pretty much solely keep The Manxman in the land of the living.
Hitchcock must have liked what he saw of her. He cast her in Blackmail, where she convinces utterly as a desperate young woman, first in danger of being raped by Cyril Ritchard's painter, then of being unmasked as a murderer after she defends herself strenuously with a knife. Not that she's entirely a victim in The Manxman. Part of the gleam in her eye is calculation; she's well aware that Philip's wealthy family of the professional class is a couple of cuts above Pete's world of fish. In fact, not until Under Capricorn (1949) was Hitchcock so inclined to throw a spotlight on the class system.
Hitchcock was careful in the scenes that indicate the progress of the affair between Kate and Philip with diary entries of hers that segue from referring to him as "Mr. Christian" to "Philip" to "Phil." He made sure they were written in a crude, minimally educated hand. Ondra delivers a performance that projects native intelligence and even ambition, but social uneasiness. Finally, a mating of coincidence and movie trivia: Brisson, a real boxer in his native Denmark, played a smitten boxer in The Ring. Ondra, in real life, married the real thing, too - Max Schmeling, Hitler's favorite heavyweight, at least until Joe Louis clocked him.
By Jay Carr