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The Manxman [1929)

The Isle of Man has two movie theaters as of 2014.  Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent film was set on this little island between Great Britain and Ireland (though it was actually filmed in Cornwall).  It’s amazing how much a director can improve in one year.  The previous year had seen the release of Hitchcock’s dull “rom-com” The Farmer’s Wife.  Truth be told:  The Manxman is just a much better story.

In simplest terms, it is the drama of two men (best friends) in love with the same girl.  She’s in love with one of them, but unfortunately not the one she ends up marrying.  The whole thing bears a striking resemblance in tone to Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika (1953).  In fact, the more general mood of the film might be successfully compared to Bergman and Dreyer (a Swede and Dane respectively).  This is not going against the history of The Isle of Man.  The Norse began settling on the isle in the 9th century.  The island’s history is tied not only to Norway, but also the Hebrides civilization.

More importantly, the dramatic material is simply much more suited to what would become Hitchcock’s signature style.  The girl (played by Anny Ondra) throws herself off the quayside in a suicide attempt.  She is not successful.  The viewer familiar with Vertigo might rightly snap to Kim Novak plunging into San Francisco Bay (and warming herself in Jimmy Stewart’s apartment after failing to drown herself).

The dénouement comes when Ondra stands before a deemster (name for judge on Isle of Man) for the crime of attempted suicide.  The judge just so happens to be the man she loves (and it’s his first day on the job!).  The courtroom drama nicely anticipates an underappreciated Hitchcock gem starring Alida Valli called The Paradine Case (1947).  Our film ends up in a bizarre admission by the deemster that he is not fit for the bench owing to his surreptitious dealings with Ondra.

The Manxman in question (played by Carl Brisson) is left to deal with the heartbreak of having been tricked from marriage to fatherhood and beyond.  We end up feeling pity for him, but for most of the film we sympathize with the star-crossed lovers (Ondra and Malcolm Keen).  Keen’s surname in the film is Christian (Philip Christian) and we see him struggle with his situation in a way that today might be termed quaint.  Max Weber might call it the Protestant love ethic.

In closing, this film is definitely worth watching.  There is particular anguish and tension (artfully conveyed) in the child custody scene.  Hitchcock’s ingenuity starts coming to the fore in his final experiment with silence.

-PD

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