Week 48: The Manxman (1929), Love, and Mix Tapes

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Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

The Manxman might be the least-discussed Alfred Hitchcock film. I know I’ve said this before, but there is really NOTHING about this movie. In my exhaustive Alfred Hitchcock bio, the making of this film lasts one page. Hitchcock himself has almost nothing to say about it in his interviews. It’s his last silent film, made just before his breakthrough sound success with Blackmail, and it gets lost in that shuffle.

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Yet as has been the case with so many of Hitchcock’s early films, it’s actually quite a nice little movie. I was dreading watching it because I was battling strep throat and holiday exhaustion; putting on a silent film was the last thing I wanted to do. But The Manxman more than held my interest (It helped that I was watching the 2007 remastered version put out by Lionsgate/Studio Canal with an excellent picture and piano accompaniment).

The film is set on the Isle of Man (hence the name, which refers to an inhabitant of the island) and while Hitch filmed a bit of footage on the Isle itself, mostly the coast of Cornwall doubled for the island. No matter; the opening scenes in a tiny fishing village, intercut with studio exteriors, are some of Hitchcock’s best as he effortlessly establishes this world of fisherman and taverns. Instead of speeding through the introduction, he takes time and creates the world of a small fishing town with real humor and thought for the characters.

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Based on Sir Hall Caine’s novel of the same name, the film opens with two men, Pete, a fisherman (played with great brio by Carl Brisson from The Ring) and a lawyer, Philip, (played by Malcolm Keen from The Lodger). Friends since childhood despite their social differences, it’s revealed that the two are both in love with the tavern owner’s daughter Kate (Anny Ondra, excellent in her first role for Hitchcock). Boisterous Pete asks for her hand and is rejected by her father, much to his chagrin. He vows to travel to Africa and become rich and asks Philip to keep an eye on Kate. It’s a lot of melodrama after that; Philip and Kate fall in love, but must stay true to their promise…until they get word that Pete has died. Kate proclaims “we’re free” and she and Philip make plans to marry until they hear that Pete’s NOT actually dead (the film never explains this, it’s clearly just a clumsy plot device). Philip then insists that Kate must honor her promise and marry Pete, despite not loving him. It’s preposterous even for 1929 (considering that they heard he was DEAD), and leads to a lot of shenanigans involving the true father of a baby, suicide, court cases, etc.

Two things make this creaky plot work: the first is Hitchcock’s surprisingly subtle direction. When looking back at his career Hitchcock liked to paint himself as a director of thrillers who took this film as “just an assignment,” yet there’s real loveliness at work here. Not just in the opening with the fishing village either; Hitchcock stages some scenes like tableaus from the theater, with characters facing the fourth wall (the audience) in grief, while another rejoices behind them. By foregrounding the artifice of the story, he’s painting in bold strokes of emotion, and it works surprisingly well. There’s also a gorgeous transition where Kate jumps into the inky black harbor to kill herself, only to have the shot dissolve to a literal inkwell as Philip dips his quill on his first day as a judge. It’s a great trick but it also shows how far apart the two are in their lives and status.

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Ondra, Brisson, & Keen in a hyperstylized tableau

The second thing that The Manxman has going for it is a terrific cast. Brisson is excellent at playing a dumb, lovable brute and he excels as the clueless lover and husband who can’t see that his wife shivers with disgust whenever he touches her. Yet he’s never a figure of menace, not even when Ondra tries to leave with the baby. He’s a man in love, then a man in pain, but it never turns to vengeance or brutality. Ondra is also excellent, a Czech actress whose grooming for stardom by Hitchcock was cut short by sound (as you may remember, her role in Blackmail was literally voiced by another actress). But she’s excellent here, managing to appear flirty and fun in the beginning, and honestly defeated and in anguish by the end. Often silent film actresses excel at one extreme or the other, but Ondra comfortably plays all that this demanding role requires. Still for me the real star is Malcolm Keen as Philip. From the opening scenes when he watches Brisson and Ondra flirt, to the moment when he confesses his love, to his torment at watching the woman he loves in the arms of his best friend, Keen perfectly conveys the pain of unrequited love in a great, subtle performance. Keen wordlessly sells his entire backstory, making clear his jealousy over Brisson’s athleticism and easy-going charm, and his own settling for the quiet dignity of law, all while yearning for a girl beneath his station. It’s a great, relatable performance.

That’s when art works best, when we recognize elements of it in ourselves. Hitchcock’s thriller career wouldn’t allow for as much of this self-reflection, but it’s lovely here. Perhaps there’s a bit of Hitchcock in Philip, the man who couldn’t get the girls he wanted.

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Keen as Philip, unable to be with the woman he loves

I know that’s why I related to him. Maybe you’d watch the film and come away with something different. There’s also a great commentary on how women become pawns of men, with Kate literally forced to marry a man she doesn’t love because two men made an agreement. Still, Philip’s sadness resonates with me, perhaps because I see a lot of myself in him.

The character of someone who is well-liked but unable to find love is certainly someone I relate to, especially in my 20s when I was socially skilled enough to make friends and come out of my shell, but not enough to actually ask a girl out. I didn’t have any idea how to meet women (it was the advent of online dating that really helped me out), so I did the best I could: I developed painful crushes on women I worked with.

I was young and insecure, and worked 50-60 hours per week at a non-profit. Where else would I meet women? It’s embarrassing to admit, but I kind of became known for meeting all the new female hires and finding out what their deal was. Then I’d develop some unrequited crush on them that went on for days or weeks or months before I either moved on or clumsily unburdened myself in the worst way possible. Here’s a list of some of my favorite embarrassing attempts:

  • Asked a woman out by making her a mix tape where the last song was The Donnas’ “Do You Wanna Go Out With Me?”
  • Stalked a woman on the then-new Friendster site before she emailed and let me know that Friendster had a feature where you could see who had looked at your profile.
  • Spent a few days making an elaborate gift for one of our interns who was going back to Germany for the summer, only to give it to her at her going-away party while she was holding hands with one of the guys in our finance department.
  • And in general, did a lot of THIS.
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“What are big sisters for?!”

Now I recognize that not only is this unprofessional, there’s an element of harassment to it as well. I was never anyone’s boss but it still doesn’t create a safe environment for women when there’s some goon hanging around your desk trying to talk about Buffy the Vampire Slayer or leaving mix tapes for you. I’m proud of this kind of leering behavior, and it’s influenced a lot of how I try to act now. The good part is that I’m still close friends with a few of those women, who were able to see past my clumsiness.

So yes, I relate to unrequited love. For years it was all I knew. How do you talk to girls? How do you ask them out or get them to like you? The whole thing felt like a gigantic secret that I wasn’t in on. Maybe I’d missed that day in school. And movies & TV like The Manxman and the thousand teenage coming-of-age comedies didn’t help either, as they constantly invented scenarios with relation to real life. We’re best friends in love with the same person! She’ll realize she’s really in love with you after all! Stalking can be cute! And on and on. I never saw anything realistic or helpful; instead I tried to fit my life into these roles created by 40 year old Hollywood screenwriters.

Because the truth is that you just talk to people. You try to be nice and ask someone out for a movie or coffee or whatever you think you’d have something in common. And you brace for the knowledge that if they say ‘no’ it will suck. And it can be painful. But no one is pointing and laughing at you. You’re just left with your own sadness and you deal with it and move on. That’s the only way we can grow and share ourselves with a partner or the world. We have to be open.

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Aside from a few films like Vertigo, it can seem hard to find personal elements of Hitchcock in his films. On the surface you’ve got a world of impossibly handsome people gadding about in international locals or committing horrible deeds. Yet that humanity and emotion is there in many of the films; in the middle-aged woman who tries to kill herself in Rear Window, the romance of the aging couple in The Trouble With Harry, the moment Claude Rains realizes he’s been had in Notorious, the bittersweet end of Blackmail, and Philip’s unrequited love in The Manxman. Little moments of odd romance, empathy, and pathos poke through. Perhaps in spite of himself, Hitchcock always loved an underdog

The Manxman is not streaming on any services, but can be rented on Amazon or iTunes, or rented from your library.

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