The Manxman

lands on its feet

article for Hitchcock Magazine

I have always thought it sad that so much has been written on the Hitchcock oeuvre, with no one paying much attention to the silents in general, and ignoring The Manxman [1929] in particular. Alfred Hitchcock himself made a few remarks in passing about it, in the Truffaut interview, only one of which is notable, and which will be discussed. But I am not sure that anyone has actually seen and criticized this film with the enthusiasm devoted to a work on the order of Vertigo or Psycho.

I do not exaggerate when I say that this is an important film, which is necessary to intelligently view to understand some of what was to follow in Hitch's career. The Manxman is a microcosm of his later camera and story technique, which says to me that if the picture had been more successful in its first run, its director might well have made thrillers only occasionally, and more dramatic pieces as a matter of course. For while The Manxman is not a thriller by any means, it is a gem of a film, a study in character, and the manner in which the camera reveals the characters to the audience. Its first half, at any rate, is top drawer silent cinema, and is every bit as good as any Hitchcock up until, say, the first Man Who Knew Too Much, because it seldom relies on formula, but invents as it goes along, and more importantly, the audience understands and follows. This to me is the trademark of a ground breaking director, as opposed to those whose films are so obscure in technique (say, Man With a Movie Camera) that they are alienating to an audience, or loaded with hommage (almost the entire œuvre of Brian DePalma) that they seem like clones of one another.

For those unacquainted with his silent films, Hitchcock began his career writing the dialogue intertitles or subtitles, as they were called then (the Main Title being the distinction making all other word titles "sub-") and he eventually directed a film in Germany, which was moderately successful. Not long into his career he directed The Lodger, a fortunate choice of subject, dealing with a Jack the Ripper-like character, a film which has many visual ideas in it, and which has much to recommend it even today, with a proviso. It is a delightfully inventive film, but only has an impact if seen with a proper musical score. I will never forget spending an eternity watching it in a huge auditorium with a pianist who seemed to be cleaning the keys more than accompanying anything, and the audience only yawned and laughed at inappropriate times.

Admittedly, The Lodger is so mawkish at times, one needs to watch it with one of those sly "the old days" asides to enjoy it. Not so much of that is needed in The Manxman. In fact, it takes little effort to cast aside the Grand Manner acting techniques which make so many audiences laugh today, and really enjoy the picture as it was meant to be enjoyed.  

Many critics, after noting that The Lodger foreshadows the master's future efforts at thriller pictures, buzz through the silents and land with a perceptible thud upon Blackmail in 1930, where they have the choice of calling it a silent or a sound film. One reason for this bum's rush to the talkies is surely the sheer difficulty in obtaining prints, either on video or in any format of film, to view them. Secondly, the prints which are available suffer from the usual lack of attention to silent films: wrong projection speed, mis-placed titles, scenes out of order, amateurish scores—if any at all—asking the viewer to further compensate in viewing.

The actual presentation method from 1929 is almost impossible today. It really is too much to ask to project a 35mm print, at the proper speed, in correct aspect ratio, with a live or carefully planned recorded score in synch with the picture, in front of a large audience. When it has been done, the effect is electrifying: witness the glorious presentation of Abel Gance's Napoléon at Radio City Music Hall , with symphony orchestra. There simply was nothing like it, and when sound--then later, television, came in, that presentation method was all but lost. Anyone who has had the privilege of seeing a reconstructed silent film performance knows how indescribably different an experience it is.

Of course, even in the most careful reconstruction of print and presentation, the only impossible element impeding full enjoyment is to be seated among an audience of 1929. They will know when to laugh and when to cry, and do not roll their eyes as easily as we. After all, film directors were directing for them, and any criticism of their films now has to take that long gone audience into account.


Granted that today we can see say 25% of the ideal, Hitchcock's The Manxman unreels with a title sequence of the sea crashing on the shore, then a haunting shot of fishing boats heading in from the sea, back to the Isle of Man, from whence the title takes its name.

manx legs

A three-legged symbol, a triskelion or triskele (both from the Greek, τρισκέλιον or τρισκελής, for "three-legged") also Manx, is on a sail in a soft-focus closeup, and it sails off to the left as the other boats emerge. (The symbol’s motto, “Quocunque Jeceris Stabit” means ‘toss it any way, it will land on its feet.’) These two initial symbols practically telegraph the rest of the film: a battering by overpowering natural forces, and a binding of three limbs into one. These are developed like musical themes, again and again.

We soon meet a fisherman, Pete, who is an enthusiastic young man, and who has a most enthusiastic face. Pete's face is rather like a barometer in this film, and the audience can read it immediately. He enters port, and is met by his boyhood friend, Phil, who is a lawyer.

Phil almost immediately spirits Pete away to the local pub, where the two men are engaged in persuading the townspeople to sign a petition about fishing rights, which Phil declares he'll "take to the Governor, if necessary." The relationship between the two is written on their faces: open, enthusiastic, cheerful, and in Pete's case, wide-eyed and innocent. They sign the paper; Phil fluently, Pete laboriously. Handwriting is a minor element to be paid attention to in this film, as so much is conveyed by it. Indeed, there are times when the intertitle does its job of announcing dialogue, and others when speech is implied or conveyed in other manners. In Hitch's long interview, Truffaut observes that he "dispenses with a title" at a critical moment in the film, and Hitchcock agreed. But communication to the audience by implied lip-reading is one of several methods used in the film, and needs to be observed very carefully.

Not long into the scene we meet Kate, played by Anny Ondra, who was to pose such a problem for Hitch with her German dialect the next year in Blackmail. Hers is an exquisite face, one of those long-suffering low-lidded looks which made Greta Garbo so famous. Phil and Pete turn to her, and their four eyes in a close two-shot say it all, riveting their attention on her as though they would bore holes in her with their gaze. The reversal shot, of Kate looking back at them is neutral: ambiguous. Which is she looking at?  It is evident she sees them as the same person, and greets them with both hands, their faces always staring at her, burning with the desire for her attention.  

 The triangle here, so foreshadowed by the three-legged Manx symbol, is not an ordinary one. The viewer is asked —coerced perhaps, to participate in Kate's divided attention. Hoqwever, the title is The Manxman, not The Manxmen. There is no reason to think that the story favors Phil over Pete for the eponymous title. And yet the symbol says to us that no matter which way it's thrown, the tri-footed will always land on its feet.

And more importantly, Kate has a father. We have seen him lurking in the background, behind his partition, of which we'll learn later. He is a dour old gentleman, with a small sailor-like hoop earring in each ear, and a mind bent on money, money, money. Surely Pete is not going to succeed in wooing him. Once the pub crowd is gone, a Cyrano-like scene is played out, where Pete announces to Phil that he wants to ask Kate's father for her hand. Again, on the character's faces, we read how suddenly frightened this irrepressible lad is, and how crushed is Phil, who obviously loves Kate as well, and must decide whether to fulfill his friend's request and speak to Kate's father about Pete, or try for her himself.

Although less than 10 minutes into the picture, we are presented with a dilemma of tremendous import. If Phil decides to play Cyrano and intercede for Pete, he's betraying himself and his happiness, but preserving the love of his friend. If he further alienates Kate's father purposefully against Pete, he will obviously be betraying him.

altercation in The Manxman
At this point, a lighthouse beacon intermittently, rhythmically, shines through the window onto Phil's back. Like a foghorn in an O'Neill play, insistent; perhaps symbolic, but not begging the symbol to be labeled. Phil seems oblivious to it. What to do? Somehow, the simple solution of telling Pete about his affection for Kate is as out of place as the question posed by the people Hitch called "the Plausibles" —those who always wanted to know "why they didn't just go to the police?"

Phil moves to the back room, where we see him through a large paned partition. It is a scene which recalls the little silent vignette in The 39 Steps in which Peggy Ashcroft and Robert Donat are seen talking, the import of which is thoroughly misunderstood by the Crofter watching them outside through the window. Yet in The Manxman, it is not simply a foreshadowing. Throughout this film, a natural frame is used to further pare down the screen-shape to focus attention on the action. Earlier, Kate in her light colored dress is glimpsed through a sea of people wearing dark sailor outfits, through which she looks luminous. This natural framing technique, whether deliberate or instinctive by directors is a device used significantly by such directors as Griffith and Eisenstein, who was never happy with the shape of the cinema screen. It was a technique admirably used by Buster Keaton, especially in Battling Butler, where these "natural irises" occur at important junctures in the story. The technique occurs in other silents as well, probably going back to Griffith 's use of lens-masking to re-shape the screen to a circle, a lozenge, a square, in Intolerance.

Such is the scene behind the glass-paned partition. We do not see intertitles as Phil speaks to Kate's father. Amusingly enough, this is an example of silence in a silent picture, as Pete can't hear what he's saying, but reads his body language. Were I scoring this scene, I'd have a minimum of music; perhaps played out really in silence. Clearly Phil is not comfortable talking to the father (and we see the mother listening, sewing in the furthest background), and clearly Kate has begun to prefer Pete, as she coyly goes upstairs, making sheep's-eyes at him, and he waits in agony at the bar for her father's response.

But Kate's papa is not one to suffer fools. He bursts out of the back room and directly tells Pete to get out. If he was to consider marrying his daughter, he'd have to have more money than that.

It's a melodramatic ploy, and can't be considered much more than that, but the fugal interplay between the images, with Pete's face, the lighthouse light rhythmically flashing, and the father's angry looks all seem to earn the suspension of disbelief. Another Cyrano-like scene occurs, wherein Pete practically attacks his lifelong friend Phil outside the pub, determined that he'll go away and make a life for himself.

Hitchcock used the theme of the 'double' often; either a doppelgänger or a split-personality or a companion who expresses another part of what would otherwise be a single character. In this film, Pete and Phil are sadly one and the same character often enough, but their singular duality gets in the way of real life. Could they both have married Kate, they probably would have had a perfect relationship, but of course society would have none of that, and they would have to live on an island somewhere with no outside influence. But as soon as Pete decides to go off and see the world, he says to Phil "Let's go tell Kate," as the beacon shines round and round them. Perhaps that beacon is the guiding light: an exterior force that shows them the way, although I find it an ambiguous symbol.
Framed in yet another natural iris, the boys see Kate at her casement in her second story room
, covering her bosom (even the window has a modest gauze on the first level of panes to shield her from God knows what prying eyes and the incessant lighthouse which seems to shine no matter where in town they are).

And again, Cyrano-like, the two men are below and she above, coyly turning aside, putting on a shawl and pulling down her decollete at the same time (she is merciless!) Pete appears in her window -- but how? A cut reveals that he is standing on the shoulders of the rather sheepish-looking lawyer, below. As she continues to tie her nightgown's bows and draw her shawl around her, she looks over Pete's shoulder at Phil, and jumps into the casement to make it a cozy trio. "I'm going to foreign lands to make my fortune," a title from Pete announces. And then we see a closeup of Kate, clearly saying with no intertitle, "Oh are you now? Well!" It is extraordinary that this film relies so heavily on lip reading, with very few intertitles at all.


They kiss--for the barest second, before Kate pulls down the curtain on him. In a remarkable sequence of shots and reversals, this window becomes a kind of commedia dell'arte proscenium through which we see Kate in silhouette and framed by the panes, manically.

Hitchcock and Anny Ondra in the Sound Test for "Blackmail" (1929)



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