The Manxman
The Manxman

UK 1929 100 mins at 20fps

The Manxman was to be Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent film, and, in the event, one of the best and most mature works of his early career. 

Adapted from a novel by Sir Hall Caine, a once-celebrated author who specialised in stories set on the Isle of Man, the film was partially, and beautifully, shot on location, albeit in Cornwall. Set in a small fishing community, two boyhood friends take markedly differing paths in adulthood, but still manage to fall in love with the same woman. Tragedy inevitably ensues. 

Thematic anticipations of the director’s later work abound, from Gregory Peck’s tormented-in-love barrister in The Paradine Case (1947) to Kim Novak’s would be suicide in Vertigo (1958), although such observations should not detract from appreciating the film’s own merits, not least the superlative lead performances.

About the film

Set in a remote Isle of Man fishing community (but shot in Cornwall), The Manxman is Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate silent film and one of the best and most mature works of his early career. The film was adapted from the bestselling novel by Sir Hall Caine, published in 1894, which had sold half a million copies. Hall Caine was a well connected author, part of the late 19th century literary scene, and a onetime secretary to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He came to specialise in stories set on the Isle of Man, where he later lived. 

The story follows two boyhood friends who take markedly different paths in adulthood: Pete becomes a fisherman, Philip a lawyer. Both fall in love with the same woman, the daughter of a puritanical Methodist, bringing them into conflict not only with their own moral code but also that of the strict Manx society. This tragic love triangle might not seem like obvious territory for the director, although The Ring (1927) had proved his ability with this kind of drama. Like the earlier film The Manxman is bursting with bold, Hitchcockian bravado. The portrayal of the wild ‘Manx’ coastline is among the most evocative in any of his work and trapped within it is the wonderful Anny Ondra. It’s a complex, sensual performance - part vulnerable waif, part flirtatious femme fatale - and clearly the reason why Hitch cast her in his suspense masterpiece, Blackmail, later that year. 

The Manxman was well received by the trade press and described in The Bioscope as a film of ‘remarkable power and gripping interest’ but in common with most films that year it suffered from a lack of exposure due to the conversion to sound film that was underway. In interviews with Peter Bogdanovich and François Truffaut, Hitchcock later claimed The Manxman was just an ‘assignment’ and ‘an old fashioned story …full of coincidences’. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. It is evident that Hitchcock took pains over the film to invest it with considerable emotional power.

Hitchcock established strong visual motifs, beginning with the ‘triskele’ (the three-legged emblem of the Isle of Man) and continued with turning millstones, whose unstoppable momentum symbolised ‘the mills of god’ as they grind slowly, a powerful metaphor for the unforgiving puritanical society confronted by the characters. 

Chabrol and Rohmer were enthusiastic about the story, observing that it doesn’t rely on coincidence, improbably evil figures or the vagaries of fate but instead stresses the moral dilemmas of each of the three principal characters faced with conflicting loyalties. The adaptation by Eliot Stannard skilfully extracts the key strands from the very long novel, omitting the back story which explains the bond between the childhood friends Phil and Pete, as well as Phil’s reasons for giving up the woman he loves to his friend and pursuing his career. 

The strictures of Manx society so evident in the book are necessarily underplayed in the film which updates the story from the 1890s to the 1920s. The consequences for each of the characters in defying those strictures may well have been better understood by that contemporary audience, closer to that world and familiar with the novel, than to audiences today. Attempted suicide was punishable by a prison sentence and a woman who left her husband was treated as an outcast.

The restoration

The restoration team were fortunate in being able to work largely from an original negative of The Manxman held by the BFI National Archive. However parts of the negative had deteriorated so these sections were compared, shot by shot, with a print made in the 1960s and, where necessary, replaced. 

One longer shot, in the scene where Kate and Phil meet in a sunlit glade, was found in another vintage 1920s print in the Archive’s collection, proving the value of keeping all available original materials. This shot also required extra grading work as the copy had been made on a rotary printer which had introduced light fluctuations every few frames. Careful grading ensured that the film’s original ‘look’ was maintained throughout. 

The titles were completely remade from reconstructed fonts exactly matching the originals and the material went through the usual painstaking digital clean-up process. Long-term preservation material has been made on 35mm film as well as access prints in both film and digital formats.

Credits

Credits 

  • Director Alfred Hitchcock
  • Production Company
  • British International Pictures
  • Photography Jack Cox
  • Scenario Eliot Stannard
  • Producer John Maxwell
  • Adapted from the novel by Hall Caine
  • Studio Elstree Studios
  • Assistant Director Frank Mills
  • Art Director Wilfred Arnold
  • Editor Emile De Ruelle

Cast

  • Pete Quilliam Carl Brisson
  • Philip Christian Malcolm Keen
  • Kate Cregeen Anny Ondra
  • Caesar Cregeen Randle Ayrton
  • Mrs Cregeen Clare Greet

A restoration by the BFI National Archive in association with STUDIOCANAL

Restoration funding provided by Daniel & Joanna Friel and Ronald T Shedlo.

Additional funding provided by Deluxe 142.

BFI National Archive

The Hitchcock restoration project has taken three years and has involved many staff

in the Conservation Centre:

  • Giles Batchelor
  • Martin Coffill
  • Andrew Comben
  • Hannah Curry
  • John Daniel
  • Bryony Dixon
  • Helen Edmunds
  • Robert Ewart
  • Charles Fairall
  • Tony Fraser
  • Linda Gow
  • Nigel Gray
  • Fiona Grimes
  • David Gurney
  • Paul Hexter
  • Phil Hills
  • Anita Horn
  • Ian Lawman
  • Angelo Lucatello
  • Alastair Macdonald
  • Peter Marshall
  • Ron Martin
  • Chris McKee
  • Lynn Mcveigh
  • Malcolm Miles
  • Chris Naylor
  • Felicity Nesbitt
  • Rick Pearce
  • Catherine Pyle
  • Darren Randell
  • Phil Sheward
  • Jack Slatter
  • Darren Slattery
  • Scott Starck
  • Chris Stenner
  • Ben Thompson
  • Kieron Webb
  • Claire West

Deluxe 142

  • Anthony Cleasby
  • Clayton Baker
  • Dana O’Reilly
  • David Burt
  • Debra Bataller
  • Fiorenza Bagnariol
  • Graham Jones
  • Lisa Copson
  • Marie Fernandes
  • Mark Bonnici
  • Paul Collard
  • Paul Doogan
  • Richard Fish
  • Stephen Bearman
  • Tom Barrett
  • Tom Wiltshire
  • Trevor Brown