In Truffaut’s indispensable Hitchcock, the subject of the book describes The Manxman: “The only point of interest about that one is that it was my last silent one.” Indeed, this 1929 feature leads the way into Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound picture Blackmail. But is there more to the story than the filmmaker’s oft-reported boredom with it?
Hitchcock was, after all, earning a reputation as a progressive filmmaker for his era. And turning a novel from 1894 into a feature was probably not among his preferred ideas. Yet here is The Manxman in all its fishing village glory, weaving a melodramatic and somewhat romantic tale worthy of a few weeks of modern soap opera.
The picture takes place on the Isle of Man and stars Carl Brisson as humble fisherman Pete. Pete is friends with Phil (Malcolm Keen), who is a lawyer. The two have been pals since childhood. Pete is sweet on Kate (Anny Ondra), the daughter of the tavern owner (Randie Ayrton). Her dad refuses to give his daughter away to the poor fisherman, so Pete heads off to Africa to make some money.
In the meantime, Pete leaves Kate in the care of Phil. The inevitable happens and Kate falls for Phil. When news hits the village that reveals that Pete’s been killed, Kate reacts with ferocious lust and says that the final roadblock to her relationship with Phil is out of the way. But when word travels back that Pete is in fact not dead, the plot thickens and twists and turns and thickens some more.
There are many, many twists to The Manxman and things eventually get ridiculous, so much so that one of the final shots of the movie is actually a horde of villagers booing the couple like a Jerry Springer audience. The only thing missing is the stripper pole.
Despite some period language and some really goofy facial expressions, mostly from Brisson and the adorable Ondra, The Manxman is actually a pretty modern picture. And it’s a good indication of what Hitchcock would have to come, especially when you consider the arrival of the prototypical blonde and the twisted roads romantic entanglements take.
Interestingly for the time, The Manxman goes to no great lengths to make its characters unlikable. Brisson’s Pete is foolhardy, beaming like a senseless chump constantly and naïvely lumbering around in a big sweater. He’s completely oblivious to the rather obvious glances and looks exchanged by Phil and Kate. When Kate passes out from the predicament, Pete assumes that it was the stress of his return that was the catalyst.
At the core of The Manxman is a tale about influences, with the cultural influences of the fishing village bearing themselves out in the way Phil proceeds with care regarding his reputation and the way Pete wants to push his own fortunes ahead by seeking out opportunity elsewhere. This is his way of being influenced by Kate’s father, whereas Kate herself can’t help but feel the paternalistic push.
The Manxman is certainly not Hitchcock’s finest hour as a filmmaker and his indifference can be felt in the languidness of many frames, but there’s still something spicy and soapy about it. Ondra is attractive and her expressions are priceless, especially when she reveals a lusty and mischievous side. She is the catalyst, the “thing” that brings all the boys to the yard, and the movie is better for it.