Alfred Hitchcock leaves the silent era behind with “The Manxman”

14 03 2010

β€œThe only point of interest about that movie is that it was my last silent one . . . it was a very banal picture.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Late in 1929 Hitch went back to a rustic setting like that of “The Farmer’s Wife” for his final silent movie, “The Manxman.” Set on the Isle of Man (thus the title), it’s another tale of marriage, divorce and infidelity, themes he had been playing with in “Downhill” and “Easy Virtue.”

“The Manxman” is based on a novel by Sir Hall Caine, and stars Carl Brisson, previously seen in “The Ring,” as Pete, a fisherman, as well as Malcolm Keen (“The Lodger”) as Philip, a lawyer, and Anny Ondra as Kate, daughter of the local saloon’s owner. Pete is infatuated with Kate, but when he gets Philip to speak to her father on his behalf, the father throws Pete out of his home, calling him “a penniless lout.”

With Philip in tow, Pete sneaks back to Kate’s home and talks to her at her window. He says he’s going to leave the island and make his fortune, then come back for her, if she’ll wait for him. She doesn’t take him very seriously, but finally promises that she’ll be faithful. Pete asks Philip to watch Kate while he’s gone, but of course, Philip and Kate fall in love.

Hitchcock reveals Philip and Kate's growing relationship by showing entries in her diary

Philip, meanwhile, is advised by his aunt to break things off with Kate, as she is so low-born she could ruin his career. Philip finds Kate, but just as he’s about to carry out his aunt’s wishes, they receive word that Pete is dead – and Kate takes this as permission to go ahead and openly pursue her relationship with Philip. Naturally, Pete turns up a few weeks later, not only alive but also with enough money to marry Kate. There’s no way out of her promise, so marry they do.

Kate soon learns that she is pregnant, and realizes that the baby must be Philip’s. She tries to get Philip to tell Pete the truth, but neither of them can reveal their betrayal of Pete’s trust. The baby is born, and Philip goes on to become the chief judge on the island, while Kate walks out on Pete and the baby. She asks Philip to let her stay with him, but then goes back for the baby – but when Pete won’t give the baby to her, she tries to kill herself. A policeman saves her, though, and she winds up in court – in front of Philip, sitting on the bench for the first time. Pete arrives in court to speak on behalf of his estranged wife, along with her parents.

Kate starts to explain that she had been in love with another man before she was married, and her father suddenly puts two and two together, accusing Philip of betraying Pete’s friendship. Philip admits the truth, resigns his new position as judge, and slips away with Kate, looking absolutely miserably, and leaving Pete to his own misery.

Although “The Manxman” isn’t much of a picture – the story is melodramatic and predictable – it still has more going for it than Hitch’s previous few pictures. Much of it was shot on location on the Isle of Man, and it’s obvious that Hitch enjoyed the location, spotlighting the wild terrain and rough fishing village. The production got underway just a couple of weeks after the birth of Hitch’s daughter, Patricia, and Hitch’s delight at the event is reflected in the scene where Pete gives his own baby daughter a bath.

From a technical standpoint, there are also a few panning shots unlike any I’ve seen in one of Hitch’s movies before.

Still, Hitch was about to undertake a much greater technical challenge with his first sound picture, “Blackmail.” We’ll look at that picture on March 21.

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