The Manxman (1929)

The_manxmanAn occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When two male friends both fall for the same woman, it leads to unhappiness and potential tragedy…

Before he established his reputation as the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock worked in several genres. In his silent period, for example, comedies and romances sat alongside the early thrillers. And 1929’s The Manxman – based on a 1894 novel by Hall Caine, the man to whom Bram Stoker dedicated his book Dracula – is pure melodrama. But at least it’s pure melodrama done with some sweetness, at least to begin with.

The plot is a by-the-numbers love triangle: The Manxman is more a case of man v man. Two life-long mates on the Isle of Man, fisherman Pete (Carl Brisson) and lawyer Philip (Malcolm Keen), are both smitten with local barmaid Kate (Anny Ondra, who sparkles with charisma in early scenes then brings real vulnerability to the role). Initially, Pete seems to be in with a chance, but Kate’s father objects because Pete has no money. So he sets off abroad to earn his fortune. While he’s away, Philip agrees to look after Kate. But their platonic friendship develops into romance.

Rumours then reaches the island that Pete has been killed in Africa, which makes Kate grimly relieved because she now wants to be with Philip. But when Pete arrives home alive and well, she feels enormous guilt and has no choice but to restart her relationship with him…

For all its orthodoxy, The Manxman is a compositionally beautiful film. Hitchcock opts for lots of straight-on, symmetrical shots and characters often look and deliver dialogue directly down the lens. This brings the viewer right into the heart of the story, making the characters vivid and memorable. There are also several nice, economic ways of advancing the plot. While Pete is overseas, for example, we see close-ups of Kate’s diary. As the weeks go past, ‘Mr Christian’ becomes ‘Phillip’ as they start their romance. Later, when Kate and Pete get married, the sequence is dramatised by a series of slow dissolves.

The lightness is giving way now, and the last third of the film contains some overwrought plotting. After Kate falls pregnant, it’s unclear who the father is. She goes to Philip, wanting him to take her away from her unhappy marriage. But his career has taken off – he’s now a Deemster, a Manx judge – and doesn’t want the scandal to damage his reputation. Kate is so alone and desperate she leaves Pete, but he keeps their newborn baby. Distraught, Kate attempts suicide by throwing herself into the harbour. She survives but suicide was an illegal act in 1929, so Kate is taken to court. And guess who the judge is?

The Manxman was Alfred Hitchcock’s final silent film and brings to an end the first phase of his career. He soon moved away from romances and embraced edge-of-your-seat thrillers. He experimented with sound and music. His movies became bigger is size and scale and ambition. And he developed a recurring character played by various actresses – a troubled, enigmatic blonde woman – and cast The Manxman’s Anny Ondra as the original iteration. Nearly four decades after shooting it, Hitchcock called this film an old-fashioned story. He was right. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still worth seeing.

Seven mills (but no Boons) out of 10.

Blackmail (1929)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A policeman’s girlfriend kills someone in self-defence, but then the pair are blackmailed by a witness…

There’s something about Anny. The star of this 1929 movie is Czech actress Anny Ondra, who had also been in Hitchcock’s The Manxman a few months earlier. She’s Hitch’s first tortured, haunted yet beautiful blonde, and is extremely watchable. Her character, Alice White, is annoyed with her boyfriend so rebels by going up to the apartment of an artist friend called Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). He, however, is a nasty piece of work and attempts to rape her. Fighting back, Alice grabs a knife, kills him and flees.

Her turmoil as she tries to hide her crime while the rest of the world goes on with its daily life is very affecting. One scene has her numbly walking through busy crowds, another has a family friend innocently repeating the word knife – each instance making Alice feel worse and worse. But as good as Ondra is, there’s something not quite right in the performance and it doesn’t take long to see – or rather hear – what it is.

When filming began, Blackmail was planned as a silent film. But ‘talkies’ were the coming thing and halfway through production Hitchcock jumped at the chance to convert his movie to sound. (It’s Britain’s first film with dialogue.) But Anny Ondra presented a problem. Her natural, mid-European accent wasn’t appropriate for the character of Alice. (To hear Ondra speaking, check out this amazing piece of test footage where Hitchcock embarrasses her for a laugh.) It needed replacing, but the technique of post-dubbing had yet to be developed. The solution? Have another actress, Joan Barry, stand by the camera and perform the dialogue as Ondra mouthed along – sometimes it works, but usually it’s just distracting. (Ironically, while English, Barry’s clipped voice doesn’t especially suit the working-class character of Alice either!)

Visually, the movie is brilliantly innovative: a shot of Alice and Crewe climbing a staircase is staged on a specially built set that allows the camera to climb with them; the rape scene is off-screen, with billowing curtains standing in for the violence; and there are match-cuts, a montage and a large-scale chase set at the British Museum. Oh, and Hitchcock has a substantial cameo as a train commuter being bothered by a naughty child. A real treat.

Eight men on the London Underground out of 10