Alfred Hitchcock, “The Manxman” (1929)
Last of Alfred Hitchcock’s true silent films, “The Manxman” is already straining at the limitations of the silent-film mode with its dark and complicated story of two men, friends since boyhood, who compete for the love of a woman in their small fishing community. Set in a village on the Isle of Man, this unhappy plot takes in quite a few themes that Hitchcock would return to many times over his career as a film director: the rocky path to true love, the individual’s struggle to be true to himself or herself versus social and community obligations, traditions and responsibilities which deny the individual his/her authenticity, the obsession with money and wealth, and the ruin that material aspiration may bring. There is also a message about the impact that class barriers have on people’s lives and desire for happiness and the ruin that comes when people strive for personal freedom and truth and find themselves up against the weight of tradition.
Pete, a poor fisherman, and Philip, a lawyer whose family has supplied the Isle of Man with judges for a long time, have been working together to get a fair deal for their fishing community. They (Carl Brisson and Malcolm Keen respectively) have been pals since childhood and trust each other deeply. Pete falls in love with the publican’s daughter Kate (Anny Ondra) but her father rejects him because of his poverty. Pete asks Phil to look after Kate and sails away to Africa to find his fortune. During his time away, Phil and Kate fall deeply in love. The community receives news that Pete has died and the two lovers believe they are free. Pete returns from Africa as a rich man and claims Kate; they marry and move into their new home. Yet Kate still loves Phil and her anguish eats away at her. Phil meanwhile buries himself in work and prepares to become Deemster (judge). Matters reach an extreme point when Kate attempts suicide and Phil must choose between his new career as Deemster and his love for Kate.
Characterisation is strong if rather stereotyped: Pete is played as a simple man lacking in insight who unthinkingly forces Phil and Kate to be together; Phil is more intelligent if less brave; and Kate, the most complex of the three, is the most true to herself and the strongest, determined not to live a lie and to be with the man she loves in spite of his cowardice. Character development is rather uneven, most of it occurring at the climax when Phil and Kate admit their affair and Pete realises the emotional torture he put his best friend and his love through. Although the film ends uncertainly for the three main characters, the outcome is also satisfactory for the audience as the deceit has ended and Pete is almost literally a new man, having learned that money, wealth and increased social status cannot buy or keep love.
The film was made in a fishing village on the Isle of Man and has much of the flavour of the community there though the plot and characters strongly dominate in nearly all scenes. There are beautiful shots of the landscape and something of the lives of the fisherfolk and their customs is clear. Tradition is quite strong and the people have a simple and robust Christian faith and belief in their Manxian traditions which, unfortunately, prove ineffective against young romantic love and a woman’s desire to live a true life. Hitchcock is sympathetic to Kate’s needs and desires but balances his sympathy with respect and sympathy for the fishing community. Kate’s love rivals are lesser men compared to the woman but eventually derive their strength and maturity from her example.
Although made at quite an early time in Hitchcock’s career, “The Manxman” bears comparison with later Hitchcock films like “Vertigo”, “Psycho” and “The Birds”, all of which share in the film’s concerns about love, duty and responsibility, betrayal and how society oppresses women and denies them their worth as individuals.