Another silent Hitchcock, another love triangle. Once again starring Carl Brisson. Hitchcock later dismissed it as “a very banal picture.” I’m not going to call him wrong about his own movie but…he’s wrong. In my opinion, it’s actually one of his strongest films from the silent era.
Set in a small village on the Isle of Man, Kate (Anny Ondra) promises her love to a chipper fisherman called Pete (Brisson) shortly before he leaves for Africa to make his fortune. While he’s gone he asks his best friend Philip (Malcolm Keen) to take care of her. But a forbidden love starts to blossom and when Pete returns to ask Kate for her hand in marriage, it’s only a matter of time before it all blows up in their faces.
Until then, she has something else in her face
In many ways, The Manxman feels like a cross between two Hitchcock films: the love triangle story from The Ring mixed with the theme of regretting promises from The Pleasure Garden. But The Manxman is better than both of them.
While, in terms of cinematography, The Ring is still Hitchcock’s greatest ’20s achievement – the characters and story are stronger here. In The Ring the audience were clearly intended to sympathise with ‘One-Round’ Jack; Bob Corby was his obstacle to overcome and Mabel was his prize to be won.
But the lead characters in The Manxman are more nuanced than that. All three of them are likeable and we don’t want anyone to come away hurt, even though it’s almost unavoidable. Ondra is enthralling as Kate, making it impossible not to side with her on any decision she makes. Keen gives an entirely convincing portrayal of a man falling in love despite himself and poor old Pete is so naïve and trusting that he can’t see what’s happening right under his nose.
Like…RIGHT under his damn nose
The film ends on a beautifully melancholic note and it’s hard to know exactly how we’re meant to feel. As well as these gripping character dynamics we’re also treated to some gorgeous craggy scenery and some niffy love-triangle imagery. My personal favourite is the opening shot of the three-legged Isle of Man flag, setting the location but also introducing the thematic symbolism.
The Manxman is an emotionally engaging film. Compelling, suspenseful and a fitting swansong for Hitchcock’s silent classics.
Hitchcock brings the “love triangle” motif found in The Pleasure Garden and The Lodger to the foreground of his next film The Ring, unique for being the only original screenplay he ever wrote.
We follow the rivalry between two boxers – ‘One-Round’ Jack (Carl Brisson) and Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). Things become personal when Jack’s love interest Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis) begins to fall for his more successful rival. Jack pops the question with a wedding ring, but Bob presents her with an arm bracelet. “Mine is bigger than yours”, if you will.
The boxing setting plays perfectly into the themes of emasculation and competitive sexual jealousy, although the character of Mabel suffers as a consequence. Her attraction to one man over the other wavers haphazardly, without clear motivation, to give the men a “prize” to compete over. A bit of a step back from the more psychologically realised women of Hitchcock’s previous two films.
As for the rest of the cast, Brisson is a charming actor but he’s too slender for us to really buy into the idea that he’s a boxer. Once again, we get some enjoyable wacky side characters for comic relief such as a bumbling trainer who inadvertently flips off the priest at the wedding while picking his nose and an eccentric old fortune-teller puffing away on her pipe.
No pain no gain
Where the film truly succeeds is in its technical achievements. Hitchcock displays some of his best editing yet: well-paced montages, effective use of double exposure and a thrilling rapid tempo during the fights.
It’s also got some nice juicy slabs of symbolism. The title refers most directly to the boxing ring where the bulk of action takes places, but also acts as a metaphor for the spiralling love triangle between the lead characters – further represented by the arm bracelet versus wedding ring. Rings within rings.
Upon its release The Bioscope heralded The Ring as “the most magnificent British film ever made.” While it remains a tribute to Hitchcock’s technical mastery, it is perhaps less accessible than The Lodger for modern moviegoers.
There’s also an unpleasant use of the N-Word. Yikes. Maybe it’s a good thing this was Hitch’s only screenplay.