Hitchcock’s final silent movie sees him return to the type of romantic melodrama with which he opened his directorial career. While The Manxman shares thematic and some narrative similarities with The Pleasure Garden, it is an altogether more confident film. As we saw with Champagne last time out, we can see Hitchcock taking some risks. The key difference is that he is doing it to play with the audience’s emotions.
The most audacious moment in The Manxman happens when Hitchcock devotes a scene to announcing the death of lead character Pete and the emotional impact upon his fellow characters. The following scene opens with an extreme close-up of Pete alive and well and happy. Pete’s resurrection is explained away with a cursory mention in a letter home which says little more than “You were told I was dead but that was a mistake. I am not”. This points to something that will recur throughout the films that follow- the momentum of a story is more important than its completeness or its realism.
Retrospectively The Manxman may be viewed as overly significant being Hitchcock’s last silent film, just as Jamaica Inn tends to be as his last British film. In truth it is an entertaining drama with some smart touches, but little more. Carl Brisson is great in the lead role- there isn’t much to do besides be naïve, likeable and vulnerable but he does it well. More interesting, though, is the supporting performance of Malcolm Keen as the other man in the tragic love triangle. His role requires him to give the impression of loyalty and integrity in the face of temptation, but in truth he always looks like he is plotting something underhanded. With his fixed expression of unscrupulousness, he’s simply not an ideal candidate for a love interest nor a steadfast friend. A recurring niggle in Hitchcock’s films are some ropey casting decisions or, I suppose, misuse of some pretty one-note actors.
One of the other echoes of The Pleasure Garden is the use of location filming to enhance the drama- here a craggy Isle of Man port which features in some lovely shots. Just as Hitchcock loves to bookend his films with complementary shots (here he opens with fishing vessels coming in to port and ends with them going out to sea), he bookended his silent movie era with similar films that offer glimpses of the treats to follow.