Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Manxman

THE MANXMAN                   B                     
Great Britain  (90 mi)  1929  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

There’s a certain physicality about this film that is reminiscent of Robert Flaherty or Michael Powell’s THE EDGE OF THE WORLD (1937), where the rugged landscape is the essential character of the film, all but dwarfing the fragility and vulnerability of the human population.  While this is an old-fashioned Adam and Eve story about original sin, one that recalls Nathaniel Hawthorne’s infamous 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, which is updated here to the Isle of Man (residents are called Manxmen), the home of Sir Hall Caine, the writer of the 1894 novel upon which the film is based, though Hitchcock shot the film in the small fishing village of Polperro in Cornwall.  Like Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950), these remote locations on the edge of the world make it difficult to survive the natural elements, where it’s a hard life, often bare-bones and beset with poverty, with little education and a rigorous adherence to a tough, hard-nosed religion that is often strictly regimented.  Nothing comes easy in this part of the woods, as you often pay heavily for your mistakes, where you learn early on that you have to scrape for every dollar and every scrap of food you put on the table.  In this hard-scrabble life two boys become best friends, one a poor fisherman without a penny to his name, Pete Quilliam (Carl Brisson), the other an ambitious lawyer, Phil Christian (Malcolm Keen).  What they both have in common is the same girl, Kate Cregeen (Anny Ondra), who couldn’t be more rambunctious and carefree as a young girl, nearly skipping wherever she goes instead of walking, but she’s also the most beautiful woman on the island, known as the “Manx Fairy,” working as a barmaid under the stern and watchful eye of her father, Caesar Cregeen (Randle Ayrton), who has no interest in Pete getting anywhere near his daughter, as anyone penniless is without virtue in his eyes.  Nonetheless, these two keep their flirtations out of sight, where Pete promises to search the world for his fortune, returning as a rich and successful man, persuading Kate to promise she’ll wait for him.     

In Pete’s absence, Kate’s life is seen through little penciled scribbles in her tiny diary, where soon enough she meets up with Phil, quickly transferring her love interest to him, though he’s a much more pensive guy, studying to become a Deemster, which is the title of a local judge, one of the most respectful and prestigious positions on the island.  His mother warns Phil about carrying on with Kate, as it could have a disastrous effect upon his career, but he plunges ahead anyway, shown through some of the most beautifully photogenic scenic vistas found in any Hitchcock film, shot by Jack E. Cox, beautifully capturing the stunning magnificence and grandeur of the rocky coastlines overlooking the ocean.  If truth be told, however, despite her obvious sensual presence, with Kate at the center of a love triangle, stronger feelings are expressed between the two men, whose “friendship” has a homoerotic quality about it, as they’re always slapping each other around, smiling at one another, and both have a tendency to think of the other’s welfare often above their own, which is something neither one feels for Kate.  In this regard, the three-way relationship is way ahead of its time.  While the two men continually plod through their overly melodramatic performances, where Pete is much too animated and Phil is too subdued, the camera loves Anny Ondra, the real center of the story, who will go on to star in Hitchcock’s next picture, Blackmail (1929) and become the first of many notable Hitchcock blondes.  Here her mixed emotions comprise the dramatic heart of the film, as Pete and Phil’s loyal friendship is established early on and is never in question, becoming one of the fixtures of the picture.  But Kate has a fickle nature, perhaps most beautifully expressed on the night she agrees to wait for Pete, framed by a window, where the oscillating light from the nearby lighthouse continually flickers upon her, where we see her move in and out of the darkness, a reflection of her indecision, and a rather poetic visualization of her vacillating mind. 

One other aspect of the film is the slow and deliberate pace, where some may tire of the languorous nature, where it takes forever for the story to unravel, and other than the photographic elegance of the outdoor shots, there’s not much action anywhere in this picture, which is mostly an interior chamber drama reflecting the changing moods of the characters.  When they receive word that Pete has been killed, for instance, Phil and Kate grow even closer, feeling there is nothing separating them now, where they start to plan a future together, only to have Pete return with a bundle of money, where his returning ship is shown looming off in the distance as Kate is told the news, seen as an impending disaster, but even old man Caesar welcomes him with open arms and gives the lad permission to marry his daughter.  It happens with such a rush of anxiety that Kate hasn’t a chance to react, though the wedding is a picture of differing states of mind.  The groom couldn’t be more ecstatic, never even noticing the glum look on the bride, while no one is more shamefaced than the best man Phil.  Making it even more dour are the reflections of the grizzled old father, Caesar, who speaks with the severity of a fundamentalist preacher, warning them about the reverence of marriage, where if one strays from the path they’ll have to answer to God Almighty, actually turning on their grist mill for effect as he warns the entire congregation “The mills of God grind slowly,” where you can literally feel the guilty couple cringe as they continue to keep their affair a secret.  Pete has to remind people that this is a wedding and not a wake, as he remains the happiest guy in town but completely unaware of what happened in his absence, as Kate remains in love with Phil, but is continually forced to placate her new husband.  In scene after scene we see that she can’t share in his joy, even when announcing her pregnancy she withholds that she’s carrying Phil’s child.  Pete, however, couldn’t be a prouder father, where the baby’s arrival comes near the same time that Phil is about to become a Deemster.  Compounding that event, Kate can’t live with a lie any longer and finally leaves Pete, leaving him a note while she runs to Phil, who is consumed by the significance of the upcoming event, which should be the happiest day in his life.  The bleak and foreboding future, however, is expressed by having to choose between family and career, where events spiral out of control, as Kate has nowhere to turn, culminating with Phil’s ominous first day on the bench, where he’s in for a rude awakening as all the interweaving personal destinies finally coincide with an extraordinary late act confessional.  By the end, one feels this could easily have been the blueprint for David Lean’s overlong but lusciously photographed RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970).  

Note – there is no Hitchcock cameo

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