‘What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’
(Mark chapter 8, verse 36/ Matthew chapter 16, verse 26)
So starts ‘The Manxman’, Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent movie.
I liked this film a lot. When watching it, my wife Clare and her mum came in about 10 minutes into the action and proceeded to watch the entire rest of the movie. It’s that good…
It begins as a standard love triangle themed movie, set on the Isle of Man. Carl Brisson (from ‘The Ring’) appearing here as Pete, a poor fisherman who is rejected as marriage material by Kate’s (Anny Ondra) father (‘you penniless lout’) – the preference being for the already-wealthy-with-prospects lawyer Philip (Malcolm Keen, from the lost ‘The Mountain Eagle’ and ‘The Lodger’). Of course, Pete and Phil have grown up together and are best pals, and Phil has a secret hankering after Kate himself – all adding up to a powerful potion of unrequited passion. Pete goes off determined to make his fortune (‘It’s a Queen I’ll make of you’) and is reported as having died. Philip and Kate start their life together…but then Pete returns, all too alive…
Hitchcock, as we have come to expect, is exploring interesting ways of relating his narrative: for example, when Pete has left we see Kate leafing through the pages of her diary, Pete featuring less and less as the days and weeks pass, Phil more prominently, this scene followed by some lush scenery sequences as the two of them embark on the beginnings of their affair.
Throughout the movie he uses many straight-to-camera full-face shots, bringing the viewer more into the story, as if you are being spoken to directly.
There is a nice technique also following the ‘bedroom window’ scene (see misc notes below) where the breathless and excited Kate reflects on Pete’s leaving – is she thinking ‘now’s my chance with Phil’? The lighthouse revolves and the background light changes from peak white to black, expressing the two choices she has, the good little woman waiting for her man…or the dark temptation of infidelity. When the (inaccurate) news of Pete’s death comes through she is positively beaming with relief, the cow.
The wedding of Kate and Pete is really nicely handled – just a few detail shots, hands/rings/her arm hesitatingly linking to his before the wedding breakfast begins at the mill – the very site of Phil and Kate’s romantic, and fruitful, liaison.
There is a lovely dissolve sequence here, Pete laughing overjoyed (almost hysterical) and Kate trying to raise a smile: their wedding cake splits the two of them down the centre of the frame, Phil then superimposed over the cake, glaring at his missed Mrs.
The wedding breakfast turns even darker as Kate’s father goes all apocalyptic, declaring the sanctity of the marriage vows and using the mill’s stones to declare ‘the mill of God grinds slowly’ – he knows the truth of Phil and Kate’s relationship and goes all Old Testament on them. He’s really good at it too – this is Randle Ayrton, and he’s very believable in this scene and in his later courtroom revelations.
The plot, starting as it does in a fairly thin way, escalates as Phil becomes the local deemster (Isle of Man parlance for a judge) and has to pass sentence on Kate, who has attempted suicide after leaving Pete and her new born baby (who is Phil’s, obviously). Kate, her blonde hair covered by a black shawl, looks like a black Madonna in the dock – her father unable to hold his tongue any longer and exposing Phil The Judge as not only the other man in the love tryst but also the father of the baby.
It’s like a 1920’s Jerry Springer episode and the unhappy couple have to run the gauntlet of disapproving, staring, cursing old biddies as they embark on their walk of shame away from the village. Cracking stuff and really well acted (although there are moments when Malcolm Keen as Phil overdoes it a bit – particularly when he realizes it is Kate in front of him on his very first day as judge. Then again, what are the chances of that?)
‘A trusting, joyous husband – an adored, unhappy wife whose secret misery brought death into her soul.’
Kate is really a cold hearted, cowardly specimen. She breaks her promise to wait for Pete (alright, she thinks he’s dead) but then goes ahead and marries him whilst pregnant with Phil’s baby, then proceeds to leave both him AND the baby with a brief handwritten note on the dinner table: ‘Pete, I can’t deceive you any longer. I’m going away. Before I married you I loved another man and I love him still. Good bye, K’. It’s the 1920’s equivalent of being dumped by text message, with a baby thrown in for good measure. I didn’t really buy that any mother would desert her child like this, bearing in mind it is her daughter with the man she truly loves – nor that she would then rush off and jump in the sea, attempting suicide, although this does occur after Pete has refused her wishes to take the child and turned his back on her. It’s all very dramatic and enjoyable so you find yourself going with it – the fact that it goes further off the rails than expected is a good thing.
It’s a minor Hitchcock, an enjoyable watch with good characters and performances (although both Brisson and Keen overdo it a bit at times – the former occasionally metamorphosing into a gurning buffoon, the latter all doom and gloom and brooding eyebrows). You still feel, like some of the other silents, that the director is itching to get back to what he is good at. Within months of finishing ‘The Manxman’ Hitchcock would make his first bona fide classic and find himself simultaneously at the vanguard of the first great revolution of cinema: talking pictures…
Pete’s dialogue scene to Kate (him telling her he is off to foreign climes to make his fortune) is reminiscent of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ – she high up in her bedroom window, him down below professing his intentions and love, humourously and perilously perched on Phil’s shoulders.
There is a nice profile shot of Anny Ondra about half way through.
A modest wooden staircase in Pete’s house. Must try harder, although I guess tricky in a poor fishing village.
IMDb notes that the 24 year old Michael Powell is again, as he had been on ‘Champagne’, uncredited as a stills photographer.