The Manxman (1929)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Carl Brisson, Malcolm Keen, Anny Ondra
* Published specifically for The 7th Annual Rule, Brittania Blogathon hosted by Terence at A Shroud of Thoughts *
The story takes place in an unspecified coastal village on the Isle of Man. Pete Quilliam (Carl Brisson) is one of many fishermen trying to make a living in difficult working conditions. His best friend since childhood is Philip Christian (Malcolm Keen), a lawyer from a well-to-do family who has aspirations to become a judge, or Deemster. The two men are so close that they consider one another to be brothers. Philip uses his legal position to help fight for the fishermen’s rights; a gesture of generosity that helps his dear friend and which also gets the attention of Kate Creegan (Anny Ondra). Kate is a ravishing young woman with humble origins as her parents are innkeepers who also run a tavern. It is not noted how long Peter, Philip and Kate have known each other but it has obviously been long enough to allow both men to fall deeply in love with her.
Pete is the first to act on his feelings and propose marriage to Kate. His intentions are criticised by her parents, especially her father who feels that Pete, being just a poor, lowly fisherman, has no right to ask for his daughter’s hand. While they are alone, Kate agrees to marry Pete after he gets back from a long trip to South Africa; a place where he sets his sights on becoming rich. This would allow them to get married because he would win the approval of Kate’s father and be able to give her a comfortable life. All of this is witnessed firsthand by Philip who is internally miserable though outwardly supportive of his friends’ plans. Asked by Pete to keep tabs on Kate when he is gone, Philip uses the opportunity to see her as much as possible. The two quickly become accustomed to the other’s company and fall in love. One day they receive news that Pete has tragically died abroad, allowing them to be freer with their intentions. They soon consummate their relationship.
Out of the blue, word comes that Pete is actually alive and well. When he arrives back on the island, he is warmly greeted by the locals. Philip and Kate are more reserved with their behaviour but Pete does not seem to notice. Although Kate wishes to tell Pete right away about their affair, Philip disagrees and prefers to pretend as if nothing ever happened. A quick wedding is arranged without protest from Kate even though she is hiding a terrible secret: she is carrying Philip’s child. The ensuing events will permanently alter the lives of these three people and shock an entire island.
Thoughts on the Main Characters
Kate: “I’m glad Pete’s alive but it makes no difference. I don’t love him.”
Philip: “Kate – you promised yourself to him.”
Kate: “Yes, I promised myself to him but I’ve given myself to you.”
The Pete-Kate-Philip love triangle is depicted neither as sappy nor soapy but rather as painfully realistic. There are no winners or losers in a situation such as this one since people will inevitably get hurt along the way.
As a woman, I cannot help but to myself in Kate’s place in regards to her choice of suitor. It is clear that both Peter and Philip have strong feelings for Kate but does she consider them as equally? It is my opinion that she does not. Kate has always had the truest and profoundest amount of love for Philip over Pete. This is most evident to me in two scenes. The first is when we are introduced to the character of Kate in the Manx Fairy tavern. She beams upon seeing Philip and though she spends a good amount of time conversing with Pete, her regard is never far away from Philip. Like a playful schoolgirl, she knows that he is watching her and flirts with his stare from afar. This is not something she does to torment him however, since she has no idea at that point that he will not come forward about his sentiments. The second is when Pete proposes to Kate upon her windowsill. It takes her a long moment to accept his proposal and she seems to express regret immediately afterwards. Perhaps she thought that Phillip would ask for her first or that she could make him jealous with the engagement. When Pete leaves, the twosome is able to finally express what they have both held pent up inside.
Philip is a tough character to read because he seems to be depressed and dismayed a large part of the time. His sadness is understandable since he is lovesick over Kate but he is constantly downcast. He does also have a naturally serious self-presentation which can be attributed to his high class upbringing. Being with Kate allows him to express his love but it also releases his soul from the confines of class order. Her social status only means something to his demanding, snobbish family who have already “suffered” public humiliation when Philip’s own father ran away with a woman who was considered to be out of his league. I definitely believe that Kate was better off with Philip though I do not agree with how he treated her/his attitude in the latter events of the film.
When it comes to Pete, he is an ever-smiling, ever-optimistic young man who seems to have only the best of intentions. He never questions Philip’s foul mood or suspects that anything could be going on between them. To me, I cannot help to think that Pete’s naivety is not just one of innocence but is rather an attribute of being uneducated. If you look at the writing on the petition, you’ll see Philip’s neat and aesthetically pleasing handwriting. In reading Pete’s handwritten letter to Philip, his handwriting is more child-like and unstructured. Even one of the lines in the telegram he sends to Mann shortly before his return is perplexing: “I… shall arrive almost as soon as this letter. Don’t tell Kate. I want it to be a surprise to her.” Suddenly showing up after having been presumed dead for months is hardly a pleasant shock! His behaviour leads me to consider Pete as hapless and foolish though in his simplicity he was kind and loving.
Titillating, Melodramatic Suspense
Hitchcock is generally referred to as the Master of Suspense which is in direct correlation to his more famous films about spies, sabotage, and murder. The word suspense has come to suggest dark, thrilling, even macabre themes that are very Noirish in nature. As a result, when audiences discover Hitchcock’s earlier work and even some of his films post-1962, they can find themselves out of their element. Is it plausible that Hitchcock could be a romantic? My answer that question is a resounding YES. He could be sensitive especially when he was in admiration of the material and, of course, his leading ladies. Take, for instance, the 1964 film Marnie, which is a classic example of a Hitchcock film that failed to live up to expectations due to its heavy psychological/human nature overtone. The characters have many flaws but display complex, raw emotions that actually lead them to a happy ending. Tippi Hedren, with whom Hitchcock was enamoured, looked absolutely radiant and was much more glamorous than she had been in The Birds. Marnie quickly became one of my favourite contemporary Hitchcock pictures as I was drawn to this twisted tale of passion.
With The Manxman, Hitchcock gives us a powerful love story that is as touching as it is tragic. He is able to effectively capture the budding moments of romance which slowly bloom into a full-on liaison. Being the dreamer that I am, I could not help but to feel my own heart flutter as I witnessed the building chemistry between Philip and Kate. The moment they decide to have sexual relations is climatic in more ways than one. Hitchcock has always enjoyed using tasteful yet self-explanatory visual imagery to represent the act of sexual intercourse and this film is no exception. The director happened to be very fond of Czech-born Anny Ondra who is considered to be Hitchcock’s first icy blonde femme fatale. She is a beautiful woman who attractiveness is well complimented by the camera. Not long after this film wrapped, she would star in Blackmail with Hitchcock and become a veritable sex symbol. While Ondra has the girl-next-door appeal, she has a sort of fire inside of her that gives her characters a notable inner strength. I absolutely loved her strong-willed portrayal of Kate.
As you can see, Hitchcock was more than a just purveyor of fear. He understood eroticism and interactions between people because as an observer, he studied then analysed behaviours. This sort of perpetual voyeurism helped him to tap into his own multitude of phobias, allowing him to explore his own fears by portraying them on-screen. In this way, Hitchcock did not have to resolve his issues but could be appeased by having them acted out. The only downfall is that he would never be able to close the book on them but, then again, we as an audience would not have profited from his magnificent work otherwise!
Sir Alfred Hitchcock decided that it would be too inconvenient to make the entirety of the picture in Mann so filming eventually moved to a village on the southern coast of Cornwall. The landscape of both places resembled one another though the Cornish weather conditions were more favourable for the filmmakers. The Manxman is often noted for its rich photography which captures the natural beauty of the British coastlines. Hitchcock wanted to use nature as much possible in his scenes, particularly when it came to depicting and emphasising the lifestyle of the Manx people. Some more critical voices will claim that the director moved filming outside out of boredom since the story was not exactly one that enchanted him. This is not a stance that I will challenge since I am very familiar with the ups and downs of Hitchcock’s overall demeanour. However, it would have been impossible for Sir Alfred to have made such a remarkable film without having been interested to a great extent in the overall project.
Before writing about this film, I knew that The Manxman was not one of Hitchcock’s better known works. Further astonishing me is that the film gets very little mention in one of the most complete Hitchcock resources out there, Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. While it is not highly ranked amongst film historians or even in Hitchcock’s filmography, it deserves to be remembered. Thanks to the British Film Institute, it and Hitchcock’s eight other silent films have been restored so that they can be enjoyed for generations to come.
This film is set on the Isle of Man which is nestled in the Irish Sea. To its north, there is Scotland. Wander south and you will reach Wales. Heading east will take you to England while going westbound will lead you to Northern Ireland. Geographically-speaking, Mann is the heart of the British Isles. The term “Manx” is used to describe the island’s once principal language that has recently seen a revival with up-and-coming native speakers.
The Manxman is unique in that it is amongst only a few major, worldwide motion pictures featuring the island. In fact, it is historically only the second film ever to be made there; the first being the 1916 original adaptation. The 1929 film also notably marks the official end of silent era filmmaking for Hitchcock.
As ever with Hitchcock films, there is always a lot to say about them that can hardly be summed up in a few thousand words. Although I end my piece here, I encourage you to learn more about The Manxman as well as Hitchcock’s complete filmography.
I recommend the Foreign Correspondents: Deeper into Hitchcock podcast. Click here for their main FB hub page and here to listen to the podcast episode on The Manxman via YT. They also stream on several platforms including Spotify and iTunes.
Many thanks also to The Hitchcock Zone for so actively keeping Hitchcock’s work alive and well. It was a wonderful resource for me in writing this article, not to mention in utilising frames from The Manxman.