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.
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.”
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.
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.
A newly-discovered Hitchcock cameo?