Friday, May 10, 2013

The Manxman (British International, 1928)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Manxman, a 1928 production (though dates it a year later) from John Maxwell’s British International Pictures of a famous 1894 novel by Sir Hall Caine, and I chose to screen this now because Charles had been doing Web searches for early novels with intimations of homosexuality and Hall Caine’s name had come up. He asked me if I’d ever heard of Hall Caine and I said, “Yes, Alfred Hitchcock filmed one of his novels, The Manxman, as his last silent film in 1928.” I got this movie as part of a boxed set of 20 Hitchcock items, mostly feature films from his British years, both silent (The Lodger, Easy Virtue, The Ring, The Farmer’s Wife, Champagne and The Manxman) and sound (Blackmail, Juno and the Paycock, The Skin Game, Rich and Strange, Number Seventeen, The Man Who Knew Too Much — first version — The Thirty-Nine Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage, Young and Innocent, The Lady Vanishes and Jamaica Inn), along with two episodes from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, “The Cheney Vase” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Needless to say, I was most interested in the more unusual items, including all four of the silent films Hitchcock made for British International after Maxwell hired him away from Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough Pictures in 1927 (though I’d still like to see some of the more obscure films from Hitchcock’s British years, including Elstree Calling — an all-star musical for which Hitchcock shot only some framing scenes, not enough for him to put it on his official résumé — and the one full-dress musical Hitchcock ever made, Waltzes from Vienna, with Jessie Matthews featured in a biopic of Johann Strauss, Jr.). I’d seen one of them before — The Farmer’s Wife, a dreadfully unfunny romantic comedy in which a widower scours his small village looking for a woman to marry, only to realize in the final reel (about four reels after we realized it) that the person he’s really in love with, and would make him a good mate, is his maid. When I watched that one I commented, “There are a few touches in this film that prefigure the later Hitchcock but you really have to be watching with an eagle eye to spot them: Sam’s courtship of one of his would-be brides on horseback as they ride down a path with their backs to the camera (a shot Hitch duplicated 18 years later with Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains in Notorious), another sequence in which the maid is slicing bread with a prominently photographed bread knife when the doorbell rings (a year later Hitch would do this famously in a far more sinister, suspenseful and ‘Hitchcockian’ context in Blackmail — and given that the two films were made at the same studio just a year apart it’s probably the same bread knife and the same stock shot of a doorbell ringing) and a nice bit of what Hitch later called ‘negative acting’ on the part of the long-suffering Lillian Hall Davis.”

The Manxman is a romantic melodrama rather than a romantic comedy, and while not the sort of suspense thriller Hitchcock would become identified with (as Maurice Yacowar pointed out in his book on Hitchcock’s British years, of his first 17 feature films only four were thrillers), it’s quite a remarkable movie, showing that Hitchcock’s directorial chops were already fully formed. The problem is the film’s plot: it’s set on the Isle of Man (as you might guess from the title — at least if you were British or had otherwise learned that a “Manxman” is what the Brits call someone from the Isle of Man) and it starts out as what would now be called a “bromance.” Two young men, aspiring attorney Philip Christian (Malcolm Keen) and fisherman Pete Quilliam (Carl Brisson, the Danish entertainer who had already acted for Hitchcock in The Ring and in 1934 would come to the U.S. to play the male lead in the musical Murder at the Vanities; he wouldn’t establish a permanent career in the U.S. but his son, Frederick Brisson, would: Brisson fils became a stage producer and married actress Rosalind Russell), have become fast friends — only, this being a movie (and a silent movie at that), a woman has come between them. The woman is barmaid Kate Cregeen (Polish-born German actress Anny Ondra, seen here without the handicap of a voice double that dogged her in her next Hitchcock film, Blackmail, where she had to play her sound scenes lip-synching to a British actress, Joan Barry, delivering her lines into an off-camera mike: the reason was Ondra was supposed to be playing the daughter of a London grocer and her German accent would have been unbelievable in the role), daughter of Caesar Cregeen (Randle Ayrton), the man who owns the bar where she works. Both men are in love with Kate, but Philip doesn’t want to marry her because tying himself to a mere barmaid would interfere with his ability to follow in his grandfather’s and father’s footsteps and become a deemster (a footnote to one of the titles helpfully explains that a “deemster” is what they call a judge on the Isle of Man, whose legal system is sufficiently different from that of the mainland U.K. that Caine’s novel explains that Christian had to get two legal licenses, one to practice in the rest of Britain and one specifically for the Isle of Man), while Caesar vetoes Pete’s proposal to his daughter because Pete’s nothing but a penniless fisherman and Caesar wants Kate to “marry up.”

So Pete decides to leave for South Africa (a plot twist that’s a bit dated — in 1894, when Caine wrote the novel, there was a gold rush under way in South Africa and a lot of poor Brits were heading out there, but by 1928 that bit of history was long since over) and he returns having made his fortune. In the meantime, though, he had asked Christian to “look after” Kate, and “looking after” had involved taking her on long walks and … With the typical reticence of a 1928 movie, especially one which had to get past the British Board of Film Censors, the “and” is merely hinted at, but in a typically preposterous plot complication Christian and Kate receive word that Pete has died in South Africa and therefore they feel free to pursue their affair. They evidently pursue it at least as far as the bedroom because, when Pete comes back — having made his fortune and not died at all (a “surprise” that won’t be at all surprising to anybody who’s seen more than two movies in their life) — he and Kate are married, and then Kate has to tell first Christian and then Pete that she’s going to have Christian’s baby. (Charles noticed that Anny Ondra’s lips could clearly be seen forming the word “baby” even though the titles didn’t say that — but then in the silent era a lot of moviegoers got good at reading lips and noting that what the actors really were saying wasn’t always what the title cards said they were saying, and in 1926 Fox got nasty letters from filmgoers who had seen What Price Glory? and lip-read the actors speaking the dirty words from Laurence Stallings’ play even though the titles had bowdlerized Stallings’ lines.) The baby is born, a girl, and Pete and Kate raise her as their own — but they’re miserable about it and Kate is now in love with Christian instead of her husband. But without Kate to tie him down Christian now is appointed deemster — only the first case he’s assigned to hear is Kate’s attempted suicide, which leads him to Confess All in open court. In the end Christian and Kate leave the Isle of Man with the baby, which Pete reluctantly gives up to the two people who are, after all, her biological parents, and Pete sets forth on another fishing trip — though the titles said he made money in South Africa, he doesn’t seem to be living any better when he returns than he did before he left. The Manxman is an unusually class-conscious story, especially for a director like Hitchcock who usually didn’t give a damn about class, and much of it turns on the conflict between the aristocracy (even the small-time Isle of Man aristocracy represented by the Christian family) and the rest of us.

Hitchcock lavishes all his future trademarks on a story that really doesn’t accommodate them very well — dark, shadowy lighting, oblique camera angles, symbolic shots, quick cuts and an overall atmosphere of picturesque doom — and shows what a great director he would become when he started making films whose plots lent themselves to his style. He also gets a marvelous performance from Anny Ondra, who burns up the screen and dominates each scene in which she appears (her work here makes me want to see the silent version of Blackmail sometime) even though her performance seems strikingly reminiscent of Greta Garbo’s work in Flesh and the Devil (another “bromance” in which a woman comes between the two male leads — though it ends considerably more homoerotically than The Manxman; in Flesh and the Devil Garbo’s character dies and the two men, John Gilbert and Lars Hanson, are arm-in-arm at the fadeout!) — indeed it occurred to me that John Maxwell picked this story not only because Hall Caine was a well-remembered author whose name would draw audiences but also because he picked up on the Flesh and the Devil connection and figured he could have as big a hit with a similar story. Ondra is great both in the early scenes, in which her emotions are so explosive it looks like the screen can barely contain her, and in the final courtroom confrontation, where she looks genuinely penitent and her acting is restrained in the manner of later Hitchcock heroines. The two men are simply not as well cast as Ondra: Carl Brisson essentially lets his good looks do his acting for him, and Malcolm Keen as Christian manages exactly one expression — a mild queasiness — through the whole film. I’m not sure whether the problem was with Keen himself, Hitchcock’s direction of him, or the character. When I looked up Caine’s novel on line and read Christian described thusly — “Peter was little and almost misshapen, with a pair of shoulders that seemed to be trying to meet over a hollow chest and limbs that splayed away into vacancy” — I could only think that Hitchcock and his casting director probably thought, “Lots of luck finding an actor who looks like that — and even more luck finding an actor who looks like that whom audiences will actually pay to see!” And given how much religious and moral angst is involved in this story (Caine’s chapter titles are, in order, “Boys Together,” “Boy and Girl,” “Man and Woman,” “Man and Wife,” “Man and Man,” and “Man and God”), one gets the impression that the right director for a sound remake would have been Ingmar Bergman.

Throughout The Manxman one’s struck by the contrast between the trite, obvious story and the cinematic dexterity with which Hitchcock was directing it, the stunning rightness of virtually all his framing, angling and cutting decisions. He actually shot the exteriors on location on the Isle of Man (not that he had to go that far — it wasn’t like the film was actually set in Spain, like Flesh and the Devil!) and there’s one incredible scene (which I’d seen before in stills — incidentally the still photographer on this movie was a future director, Michael Powell) of Anny Ondra walking along the beach among these incredible rock formations that seem to loom over her and seal her fate. There are plenty of visual motifs that anticipate Hitchcock’s later (and better known) movies, and if you watch The Manxman in the right frame of mind you can get a feel for Hitchcock’s sense of morbidity and doom even while lamenting the ordinariness and “movieness” of the story — even though it pre-dates all but the first and crudest films, Hall Caine’s novel all too perfectly anticipates the combination of titillation and surface “morality” of many subsequent movie plots, including the “redemption through suffering” the U.S. Production Code decreed as the fate that should befall an adulterous couple in a film. The version we were seeing was badly framed — it looked like a film soundtrack had been crudely put on it and the left-hand one-ninth of the screen had been cut off, though what we were actually listening to on the soundtrack was a collection of classical LP’s from the 1950’s, muddily re-recorded and with a bad scratching noise clearly audible at one point. It was O.K. as a background for the film — at least it reinforced the dire atmosphere — though apparently there’s a new score as part of a 2005 restoration. Still, The Manxman is an interesting movie even though its appeal is much more as a forerunner of the later Hitchcock masterpieces (the first film of his I’d call a masterpiece is his marvelous 1931 movie Rich and Strange, even though it isn’t a thriller: it was a personal project Hitchcock developed and actually wanted to do, which was far from true of most of his British International assignments!) than any intrinsic qualities of its own other than Anny Ondra’s amazing acting.