The Wrong Manx

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Hitchcock more or less dismissed THE MANXMAN as of no importance apart from being his last silent film. In fact, it’s not even that, since Hitch was about to make BLACKMAIL as a silent before instantly remaking it with sound.

On the excellent DVD, Noel Simsolo calls it one of Hitchcock’s three silent masterpieces, grouping it with THE LODGER and THE RING.

Who’s right? While I wouldn’t go as far as Simsolo, I think all Hitchcock is potentially of interest, and  this is a film with some very strong qualities, and thematic connections with the best of its director’s work. Like THE RING, and numerous later movies, it’s a tale of the eternal triangle. Building on THE FARMER’S WIFE, it creates strong pictorial values from the English scenery (actually Cornwall, future setting of REBECCA, rather than the Isle of Man). Also, it features a crime of passion (attempted suicide), with the story climaxes in a courtroom drama, which Hitchcock usually avoided, but here the judge is emotionally involved in the case, so it’s a question of passion rather than procedure.

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More to the point, John Russell Taylor in Hitch observes ~ “Above all, it is surprisingly sexual in a way surprising in the brisk, masculine world of Hitchcock’s British films. This seems to have something to do with the extraordinary quality of Anny Ondra, perhaps the first clear example of a classic Hitchcock blonde. One has only to compare the scenes of the romantic triangle in which she is involved with those in THE RING featuring the charming but anodyne Lillian Hall-Davies: suddenly there is a living, sensuous woman in front of us, one who seems conceivable as the object of such passionate conflict between the two childhood friends — and a participant, herself torn by passion, rather than merely a light-minded flirt.”

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It’s true that Anny is almost TOO erotic in this film. She laughs, cries, looks anxious, and throws herself off a harbour in a sexy manner. Her soft curves — she’s ALL soft curves — coupled with the sleepy eyes and unusually sculpted lips makes for an unforgettable effect. Hitchcock apparently thought so too, judging from the way he shoots her. In the first meeting of the three points of the triangle, Hitch films all of his characters head on, looking into the lens, as if he was Ozu. In other scenes, Hitch skilfully uses blurry foreground action to isolate Ondra and her lover in a vignette of action.

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Anny Ondra (real name Anny Ondrakova), a Polish-Czech-Austrian-German-French singer and actress, became great friends with Hitch and Alma Reville, his wife (Hitch had fairly recently become a father, which may have helped with the emotive scenes between Carl Brisson and his baby daughter). Hitch even sent her a teasing telegram when she married boxer Max Schmeling, the Third Reich’s greatest sportsman. (Although Anny acted in German films during the Hitler years, including a Heinz Ruhmann comedy where everybody is merrily zieg heiling each other (which must have, er, dated the film rather badly), she seems to have emerged from the war still popular and untainted by fascism, as did Schmeling (who risked his life to save two teenage Jewish boys during Kristallnacht).

Watching this silent film, I would occasionally be reminded of Carl Brisson singing “Cocktails for Two” in a Danish accent in MURDER AT THE VANITIES, or Anny Ondra’s sound test for BLACKMAIL, especially since her behaviour during scenes of panic in THE MANXMAN is very much like her behaviour in the test, as Hitchcock teases her into a state of complete hysteria —

Adorable. The German accent doesn’t get enough credit, I feel.

In THE MANXMAN, Ondra marries Brisson despite conceiving a great love for, and a child with, Malcom Keen, a rising young lawyer. Leaving Brisson, Ondra returns to take her baby, but is rebuffed by Brisson, who refuses to accept that the child isn’t his. She throws herself in the sea, is rescued, and pit on trial for attempting suicide. Keen, newly promoted to judge, finds himself hearing the case, and at risk of exposure for his scandalous adultery.

The conflict of love and duty, and love and friendship, isn’t particularly original or noteworthy in itself, but Hitch’s framing and cutting express the drama very nicely. While Hitch complained to Truffaut that the story lacked humour, which is true, there’s something nice about the fact that the film takes its story seriously — something of a relief after the forced inconsequence of CHAMPAGNE.

There’s a bit of a problem in Brisson’s blindness to the fact that Ondra’s been sleeping with his best mate, and isn’t happy with him at all. Ondra and her lover (Malcolm Keen, far less appealing than Brisson) telegraph their emotions at us so effectively that Brisson can’t help but look a bit of a simp for not noticing something’s up. In the end, his father-in-law has to point out the howlingly obvious. Also, this state of affairs lasts for quite a bit of the picture, without developing very rapidly. As with several other Hithcock films of this period, the attempt to be fair to all the characters, and present all their POVs, results in a slightly compromised drama. Just who IS the protagonist of this film? Who is the Manxman, even?

While Ondra’s plight is credible at first (she falls for Keen while Brisson is presumed dead, although she does seem rather too relieved to hear he’s been lost at sea), she loses a lot of our sympathy when she wants to take her baby away from Brisson. Brisson is entirely the victim in this affair, but has no active role to play. Keen is the one who faces a moral dilemma at the climax, and so therefore should be the hero, but he’s a less appealing presence than his co-stars, and isn’t given enough room to develop into a lead.

Rather unpleasantly and incomprehensibly, after Keen resigns from the bar, exposing himself to the scorn of his community, but declaring that he wants to put right the wrongs he has committed, he and Ondra take the baby and poor Carl Brisson is left with nothing. How is that righting the wrongs?

That ending really bugs me.

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A newly-discovered Hitchcock cameo?

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15 Responses to “The Wrong Manx”

  1. Christopher Says:

    thats a sweet little film clip..She is adorable….good ol’ HITCH…They was callin’ im Hitch then! :o))

  2. Yeah, possibly my favourite scene of Hitch himself. His home movies around this time are quite fun: eating a banana in reverse, and such.

  3. I’ve never seen The Manxman, but the first two frame grabs make me think this film should have been titled The Wicker Manxman.

    Also, what are the odds that someone might make an ‘X’-rated version called The Wanxman, and would you watch it?

    I must get back to work now, before I think of some even better ideas.

  4. I think at some point I wrote porno titles for every Hitchcock film. I MUST have done The Wanxman, surely?

    There’s something nice about Hitch filming The Manxman in Cornwall, and the Cornish-set Rebecca in California. And transposing The Birds so that it’s actually SET in California. To complete the pattern, he should really have transposed a Californoan story to Cornwall and filmed it on the Isle of Man (they give generous tax breaks these days, and even pay productions to shoot there).

  5. “You’ve slept with men?” You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if she had. I’ve seen that sound test before, but I’m not sure where — maybe it’s in “The Other Hollywood?”

    I think the claim that Anny Ondra emerged from the Nazi period untainted and still popular is a modest one, given the mutual amnesia pact that the German public of the late 40s and 50s seem to have entered into with the former “UFA stars,” — Heinz Ruhmann being a good example of a thoroughly collaborationist yet “untainted” actor.

  6. Christopher Says:

    Hitch says “A Talk’ing PIC’tuah!”..I catch myself doing that all the time…He must be mimicking that old sound test reel that accompanied the Jazz Singer?..I think…

  7. Yes, the clip appears in The Other Hollywood, as well as a few docs about Hitch. Brownlow also tracked down the sound technician from Blackmail, who has some fascinating stuff to say.

    I guess when a situation as enormous as Nazism is ended, there’s a collective rush to amnesia since life must go on. Leni Riefenstahl really carried the can for the entire German film industry, since she refused to say, simply “I was terribly wrong and I now see the error of my ways.” The makers of some of the most horrible Nazi films were able to be “rehabilitated” and went on to have long and happy careers. Anny only acted, and not in anything really disgusting like Jew Suss.

    Christopher, I believe you’re right! Proof that even in 1929/30, that guy’s enunciation was seen as weird! Preston Sturges stock company veteran Julius Tannen plays the sound test man in the reconstruction used in Singin’ in the Rain.

  8. My but Hitch is a cheeky chappie in that clip!

    Leni would never admit to being wrong about anything. So she obfuscated. To hear it from her Triumph of the Will was the first cinema verite film.

  9. Christopher Says:

    ok…so it only appeared in Singin’ in the Rain?..I do remember it turning up in that ..That one clip got banndied about so much in the 70s in various Documentaries that one might think it actually was a real bit of old 1920s hollywood…I’m in a haze here..My Arkansas hillbilly cousin used to quote a line from “The Buster Keaton Story”..”They’re all going to see that NEW TALK’ing Pit’cher!”..I might be getting things mixed up…Later we’d joke…”They’re all going to see that Tolkien Pic’tuah!”

  10. By God you’re right, only your version is called The Wanksman. Clearly we need to produce competing X-rated remakes of early Hitchcock films. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…

  11. How that can be cinema-verite when that entire boytoy parade was staged just so she could shoot it…that way.

  12. And they wonder why Hitchcock was such a big star…

  13. I read that the French actor Jean Martin died earlier this month. He played Lucky in the first production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It”s a very funny play. Martin was in such films as Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, Alain Resnais’ Je T’aime, Je T’Aime and Rossellini’s The Messiah.

  14. Wow, I’m delighted so many of you hadn’t seen the sound test — I was afraid I was being redundant by posting it. Must see what else I can dig up.

    Christopher — there WAS a genuine “tawking pictuahs” showreel that did the rounds. The one in Singin’ in the Rain is a pretty faithful mock-up of it, perhaps because the original was owned by Warners, or perhaps because they wanted to comedically exaggerate it (although that’s hardly necessary!)

    Arthur, Riefenstahl didn’t quite go so far as to claim cine verite, but David’s right in that she continually blurred the lines in her statements, sometimes saying she simply documented the event, sometimes admitting that her job was to make Hitler look as good as possible — but she still seemed to see that as “documenting the event”. She was never ashamed of Triumph, but when a short film she’d made as a test resurfaced, she was very ashamed of that, because it was technically substandard.

    Her failure to simply issue an insincere apology almost looks like integrity next to those who saved their careers, but it’s not, it’s just her pathological inability to admit error. But let’s be clear, it’s that pigheadedness she was punished for, not her Nazi associations, since other and worse people kept making films.

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