Alfred Hitchcock: ‘The Manxman’

“The Manxman” is an early (1929) black and white silent movie by Alfred Hitchcock set on the Isle of Man. It’s not a cheery story, beginning with the intertitle: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

The Isle of Man is a self-governing island between the island of Great Britain and Ireland in the Irish Sea. The British queen hold the title of Lord of Mann there.  The island isn’t a part of the United Kingdom, but the island is dependent upon the U.K. for foreign relations and defense.  The Manx flag is a red field with so-clled “three legs of Mann.” You’ll see this in the beginning of this film, “The Manxman,” Hitchcock’s last silent movie. File:Flag of the Isle of Man.svg

It was actually filmed in Polperro, Cornwall, a small fishing village in South West England. The main industry now is tourism and visitors are not permitted to drive into the village.

“The Manxman” is based on a popular 1896 novel by Sir Hall Caine.  Two friends Philip Christian Malcolm Keen), a rising attorney, and Pete Quilliam (Carl Brisson), a fisherman, met as boys and grew up as close as brothers. They fight together for the cause of the “fisherfolk” which includes signing a petition and some protesting.

Pete is sweet on the blonde Kate Cregeen (Anny Ondra), the daughter of the innkeeper old Caesar (Randie Ayrton). Caesar disapproves of this penniless suitor and Pete leaves for South Africa to seek his fortune. Before he leaves, he asks Philip to watch over Kate whom he intends to marry.

Philip and Kate hear that Pete has died and they have already grown close and now begin to plan their lives together. Yet Philip seems destined to become the Deemster, the chief magistrate of the island and his grandmother disapproves of Kate as too common.

Philip and Kate learn that Pete is alive and when he returns, Kate feels she must marry him. When they have a child, Kate is sure the father is really Philip and is driven to attempt suicide. This tragic love triangle doesn’t end well for the three characters.

Suicide is against the law and Kate is dragged into the trial on what is coincidentally the first day Philip serves as Deemster. Pete pleads for his wife while Caesar angrily confronts Philip for his complicity.

Philip decides that “I am not fit to sit in judgment on my fellows, I who have sinned against God and man.”  Philip and Kate leave together with the child as Philip breaks down in tears and the villagers show their contempt for the couple.

The story itself is predictable but observing the movie frame by frame shows various techniques for framing, composing and drawing the viewers eyes to the story’s focal point. Here Hitchcock uses window panes and doorways to help frame the action. Often there’s a slight vignetting with the outer corners the darkest part of the composition.

Because this is black and white, the hairline lights are an important feature. Sometimes, it is the movement of light or white smoke from cigarettes that draw our interest. When Kate and Philip are walking along the beach, natural archways, the texture and change in the rocks, the shadows and their clothes are all used to frame the action.

There are other notable devices: Kate’s “Manx Fairy Peel,” shows Kate looking over a small diary reading simple notes to help us understand the passage of time and the progression of their relationships, and the transition from the surface of dark waters with bubbles surfacing to the ink used by Philip, now the Deemster, as he writes in judgment of others.

“The Manxman” is available for instant-streaming on Netflix.

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