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.

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The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

The Lodger at the Door

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While London is being rocked by a series of violent murders, a man checks into a boarding house near the scenes of the crimes. Is he the killer?

Context is everything. I’ve started Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger on three occasions, yet only finished it twice. The first time was during my university degree course in the late 90s, projected onto a big screen, and for a long time afterwards I remembered an entertaining, creepy and visually ambitious film from the silent era.

Two decades later, when it came to viewing the movie for this blog, I went online and found a cheap second-hand DVD available to buy. After it arrived in the post, I excitedly put the disc in the machine… and barely lasted 10 minutes. I had to switch off in disgust.

The DVD had been issued by GMVS Limited in 2004 and was such a ghastly piece of work it made me cringe. I was offended on The Lodger’s behalf. As good as many silent movies are – as great, as important, as interesting, as fun – it’s sometimes difficult watching one. Unless you’re a silent-era buff, the passage of such a long period of time inevitably creates barriers. As a modern viewer, you often need to abandon expectations of pacing and storytelling conventions, and learn how to enjoy a movie without audible dialogue, that has fewer cuts and camera moves, and can (sometimes) be dogged by overly theatrical performances.

And the process wasn’t helped by the awful, lazy, sloppy presentation available from GMVS. The print of The Lodger was dirty, scratchy, damaged. There were jarring cuts. Every scene was in dull black-and-white. Unrelated – and presumably available for free – music had been plastered onto the soundtrack, irrespective of relevance or rhythm or mood. (The macabre discovery of a murder victim next to the Thames? Scored by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy….)

Thank the cinematic gods, therefore, for the heroes at distribution company Network who, in 2012, reissued The Lodger as a lovingly assembled DVD and Blu-Ray. The print had been artfully cleaned and repaired by the British Film Institute. The film’s colour had been restored to what audiences in 1927 would have seen – the image tinted blue for exterior scenes at night, for example, or tinted a warm yellow for homely interiors. And a musical score by Nitin Sawhney had been specially commissioned, recorded and expertly dubbed. Now, thanks to Network, The Lodger can shine in all its glory.

(Just to balance all this gushing, I should say that the new score is only partly successful. Although a definite improvement on the GMVS disc’s that’ll-do dubbing, Sawhney opts for too much bombast. There are also – bewilderingly – *songs*, which is just distracting.)

The Lodger is the story of a Jack the Ripper-style serial killer called the Avenger. Near where his victims are being found, the family who run a boarding house start to fear that their new resident – a handsome but troubled young man played by Ivor Novello – could be the killer. The daughter of the house is a fashion model called Daisy (June Tripp) and she soon grows close to the man; her boyfriend, Joe (Malcolm Keen), is a policeman investigating the deaths.

Of course, Ivor Novello isn’t the killer. His character is actually a bereaved brother searching for his sister’s murderer. This revelation follows a fantastic scene where the suspicious police search his bag and discover details of the Avenger’s crimes. Novello’s performance alters at this point – his eyes well up and he pleads with the audience for sympathy in the classic silent-movie style. (Hitchcock had considered leaving it ambiguous as to whether the character was guilty, but studio bosses insisted on him being innocent. They reasoned that Ivor Novello’s fanbase wouldn’t like him playing a serial killer.)

Not for nothing, The Lodger’s director later called it ‘the first true Hitchcock movie’ because it introduced so many of his favourite themes and ideas. There’s tension and suspicion, romance and playfulness, dark humour and cynicism, an ambiguous hero and an enigmatic blonde. The film tells its story both through the perspectives of its characters *and* from a detached, omniscient point of view. It also makes great dramatic use of the boarding house’s staircase, starting an obsession with stairs and steps that ran through the rest of Hitch’s filmography.

At times the movie feels like a horror film (especially in the evocations of Jack the Ripper, whose crimes were then just 39 years in the past), while there’s also a real debt to German cinema of the 1920s. Hitchcock had worked in the German film industry prior to making The Lodger, and had generally been wowed by the works of directors Robert Wiene, FW Murnau and Fritz Lang. There’s some of their influence in The Lodger, especially in its use of shadows and camera angles. The way the lodger himself is sometimes shot brings to mind Count Orlok, the Dracula-by-another-name villain of Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu.

But the movie also has its charming and upbeat pleasures. There’s the gorgeous, Art Deco title cards… Scenes in the 1920s fashion world… A snappy, inventive sequence showing news spreading across London… The famous ‘glass ceiling’ shot as Hitchcock shows us a man pacing about in his bedroom *from beneath*, a moment of filmmaking bravura that takes your breath away…

What a brilliant movie. Inventive, clever, dark. It’s well worth seeing. Just make sure you see a decent version.

Nine men standing by some railings out of 10

Champagne (1928)

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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 hedonistic heiress has to make her way in the world when her father says he’s financially ruined…

An odd Hitchcock film, this. Almost entirely lacking in tension, and featuring a lead character whose biggest problem in life is that she has to have a job, Champagne may be frothy and occasionally fun. It features some nice humour and the contemporary 1920s fashions are a treat. But it ultimately falls flat. There’s no fizz.

Betty (Betty Balfour) is a young, rich socialite who angers her father by using his Charles Lindbergh-style biplane to fly out to the middle of the Atlantic and board an ocean liner. The plane is sunk in the process, but she fares better: on the rowboat sent out by the liner’s crew, she removes her hat, goggles and coat to reveal an immaculate flapper frock. She’s made the journey to be with her boyfriend (French actor Jean Bradin), but he’s suffering from seasickness. The boat, you see, is rocking violently with the Atlantic swell – a motion that’s conveyed charmingly well by the Star Trek trick of having actors stagger from side to side. There’s also a creepy-looking passenger (Ferdinand von Alten) who eyes Betty up at any opportunity…

Eventually, Betty and the unnamed boyfriend reach Paris and she throws herself into the lifestyle of a bright young thing. When her fella visits her apartment she says to him, ‘Come on in – I’ve met some lively people – invented a new cocktail – and bought a lot of snappy gowns.’ Being a silent film, of course, the dialogue is relayed via a title card. There are remarkably few of them in the movie: we’re told just 70 lines of dialogue in 93 minutes.

However, back in America, Betty’s millionaire father (played by Gordon Harker, who was the son of the man Bram Stoker named the character of Jonathan Harker after in Dracula) is fuming. His mouth twitches comically as he reads about his daughter’s rebelliousness in the newspaper, while a phalanx of employees nervously fuss around him. He makes the journey to France and when he arrives he says he has grave news: his fortune – earned in the champagne business – has been wiped out after a bad day on the stock market. They’re now skint. (A prescient plot point, this: the Wall Street crash was the year after this movie’s release.) This distressing news doesn’t seem to affect either father or daughter too badly, though, and soon the two are making a fist of it. They share a cramped bedsit and she sets about finding a job.

Finding one at a high-class restaurant, Betty goes off the rails – or at least by 1920s standards. She drinks! She smokes! She dances! She enjoys herself – the slut! Both her boyfriend and her father disapprove, while the creepy guy from the ocean liner is still sniffing around. She then gets an almighty shock when her father confesses that he’s not penniless after all. It was all a lie – a ruse to see how she’d cope without capital. Justifiably angry, Betty turns to the creepy guy and asks for help in getting out of the country. He agrees to take her home to America, but then aboard the boat he locks her in their cabin…

But don’t worry! He’s not a dangerous, sinister type – turns out, he’s a detective hired by Betty’s father to keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn’t come to any harm. So that’s all right, then. I guess. The dad and the boyfriend show up, relationships are mended, lies are forgiven and everyone gets a happy and disgustingly rich ending.

With such a drab, lifeless story, you have to look elsewhere for Champagne’s pleasures. As ever with Hitchcock, it’s a visual treasure trove. The director is regularly experimenting or innovating with point-of-view shots (including a few through champagne glasses), crowd scenes, dissolves to suggest time passages and character’s thoughts, and other tricks such as moving footage becoming a still photo. There are also a few decent gags, like when Betty embraces her boyfriend while cooking and leaves flour handprints on his back. But overall this is a rare thing indeed: a *boring* Hitchcock movie.

Four cocktails out of 10

NOTE: An interesting quirk of film restoration means that the footage in Champagne is now probably *entirely different* from that seen in cinemas in 1928. When archivists at the BFI studied the surviving negative it soon became apparent that it was actually a version of the movie assembled from ‘second-best’ takes. It’s assumed this was compiled as a kind of safety copy. Sadly, no print of the theatrical cut has been found, so this ‘echo’ version of Champagne is now the default.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922, FW Murnau)

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Aka: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The main character’s hometown has been moved from London to the fictional German city of Wisborg. The film therefore has to ignore the fact that a journey from Transylvania to Germany by sea doesn’t make sense. Oh, and for some reason it’s 1838 rather than the 1890s of the book.

Faithful to the novel? Kind of. It’s an adaptation of the novel, yet the makers neglected to pay for the rights (the book was still in copyright, of course). In a fairly half-arsed attempt to muddy the waters, the characters’ names have all been changed. Bram Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement and the courts ordered that all copies of the film be destroyed. Luckily for us, some survived. It’s still the same essential plot as the book, though things deviate from the source material once Count Orlok (the Dracula equivalent) arrives in the town that Hutter (ie, Harker) comes from. Meanwhile, Van Helsing is rewritten as a minor, bumbling local called Professor Bulwer, and other characters such as Lucy, Seward and Quincey are missing all together. (By the way, Orlok’s arrival comes after two-thirds of the movie; in the book it happens after a fifth of the text.)

Best performance: Max Schreck looks absolutely terrifying as Count Orlok. Bald head, big eyes, sharp teeth, demonic ears, long fingers – it’s a primal, creepy, awful image.

Best bit: The stuff on the ship is the most unsettling, especially a shot of Orlok springing up from his coffin as if by magic.

Review: There’s a lot to admire, there really is. For a start, the adaptation makes some economic trims to the book’s plot: this is Dracula striped down to its core elements. So while we lose subtext and complexity, the story rattles along. And for a movie made almost a century ago, there’s a lot of fun to be had on a technical level. Rather than black-and-white, the film is tinted in different colours to suit each scene. There are innovative uses of double exposures and negative images. The sets are in the style of the then-cutting-edge German Expressionist movement. And we see some fantastic locations – in Berlin, northern Germany, Slovakia and the island of Sylt – which may have been used to save money but give the whole thing a grand scale. It’s dated, of course, like any silent-era movie. The overwrought acting styles take some getting used to, while the characters are bland and shallow. But it’s still easy to see why the film has had such an impact.

Seven Venus flytraps out of 10

Next time: Shadow of the Vampire, a 2000 movie set behind the scenes on Nosferatu…