In the interview, Chandler asks Stephen about how he started out playing for silent films, and Stephen reveals that The Passion of Joan of Arc was the intimidating first film he ever accompanied. They also discuss the differences between composition and improvisation, and in more detail, the music that Stephen has played and written for Stella Dallas, The Manxman, Prix de Beauté and The First Born. Thanks to Chandler and Stephen for allowing me to post this fascinating conversation here on Silent London.
A folk romance that stumbles into melodrama, an adaptation of a blockbusting novel that is now all-but forgotten, The Manxman may seem to be far more of its time than ours. But the London film festival’s archive gala screening of this neglected Hitchcock film was having none of that. The red carpet was rolled out in Leicester Square and the crowds in the Empire cinema foyer were stocking up on nachos and popcorn before taking their seat. OK, so some of assembled throng were clutching tickets for Dredd or Madagascar 3, but Screen One was devoted to a lush, heartbreaking night of silent cinema.
And the venue was oddly appropriate. Back in its music-hall days, the Empire was the first London venue to run a paid-for programme of films. It’s a long journey from the Lumiéres’ actualities to the gorgeousness of The Manxman – arguably they have more in common with the 3D thrills on offer in the neighbouring screens – but it’s a happy connection to make.
The Manxman was Hitchcock’s final “pure” silent – he was to shoot his next film Blackmail in both silent and sound versions – and the romance of the film’s story is augmented by the thought that the director was leaving his beloved silent cinema days behind him. Perhaps that is why the film is so unashamedly picturesque. The Cornish coast that doubles for the story’s Manx setting is imposing, but gorgeous. Hungarian star Anny Ondra is filmed as a tiny silhouette in front of sun-punctured cloud, skipping down vertiginous cliffs or strolling with her lover in dappled woods – and the film begins and ends with a view of fishing boats in the harbour. These images, like the film itself, combine prettiness with an air of intangible, elemental danger, and it’s this that makes The Manxman such a gripping watch.
Because this movie can be tough too: when a crisis arrives, a disconcerting cut from a body falling into water to a pen plunging into an inkwell is as violent as Hitchcock at his familiarly cold-hearted best. On this screen, and with the benefit of the BFI’s new gleaming restoration, it looked spectacular.
Ondra plays Kate, the daughter of the local pub landlord (a brilliantly grim-faced turn by Randle Ayrton). Best pals daft-but-dishy Pete, a fisherman (Carl Brisson), and Philip, an ambitious lawyer (Malcolm Keen), are each in love with Kate, but the latter is playing his cards close to his chest. In an excruciatingly twisted balcony scene, Pete coaxes Kate into an engagement, a promise to wait for him while he goes overseas to make his fortune. At first Kate doesn’t take him seriously, and it’s not clear which of the men – the one proposing or the faithful chum who is (literally) supporting him – is causing her to simper and pout. However it was extracted, it’s a rash promise to make, and as we’ll see, it will have terrible implications. Needless to say, while the cat is away, Kate strays, but what happens next is horrific, and not so easy to predict.
We have heard a few silent film scores recently (in this Hitchcock season no less) that have seemed to smooth out, or trample over the nuances of each scene. Not so here. Stephen Horne‘s rich score for The Manxman is alert to each turn of conversation, each double-meaning, furtive glance or blush. It’s a piece that is always a pleasure to listen to, but unafraid to sacrifice its melody to the drama when needed. This is crucial for The Manxman, where the plot hinges on whispered revelations, changes of heart and emotionally gruesome details – Kate’s face when her fiancé appoints his friend best man at their wedding, or she cuts her hand on their cake. The tempo slackens forebodingly when mid-speech, Phil is distracted by the sight of Pete and Kate together and the music follows the lead of Hitchcock’s stormy lighting effects, colouring each scene with shades of what is yet to happen. While the strings and piano offer folk melodies, there’s often a rumbling bass drum warning of impending disaster and even, at one crucial point, a very assertive oboe. The flute solo when Pete visits Phil towards the end of the film is particularly poignant; the ensemble together replicating the texture of nagging voices in the final scene especially cruel.
No one will argue that The Manxman is Hitchcock’s finest hour, the acting from the two male leads is often very weak, and the storyline offers only emotional trauma rather than his familiar bloody shocks. Despite those reservations, it is a sharply beautiful film and Anny Ondra’s sleepy-eyed romantic fool gives us a great Hitchcock Blonde before icy Grace Kelly was even born. The joy for us now is that Horne’s score gives The Manxman its best possible chance to shine, not just following but enhancing our pleasure in watching Hitchcock toy with this doomed love triangle.
Stephen Horne’s score for The Manxman was performed by Stephen Horne (piano/accordion/flute), Jennifer Bennett (fiddle/viola), Joby Burgess (percussion), Janey Miller (oboe/oboe d’Amore) and Ruth Wall (lever harp/wire harp).
Often referred to as Hitchcock’s final silent, because Blackmail was also shot as a sound film, The Manxman seems to be growing steadily in popularity, and with good reason. It’s a romance, yes, another Stannard adaptation of a hit novel by Hall Caine in fact, and I’m far fonder of it than Hitchcock professed himself to be. “It was a very banal picture,” he told Truffaut. “It was not a Hitchcock movie.”
Well, that’s his opinion. The Manxman lays out a love triangle, with Anny Ondra (Kate), Carl Brisson (Pete) and Malcolm Keen (Philip) at each corner. Poor Brisson gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop again, when his best friend takes care of his girl while he is away at sea. The setting is a fishing village on the Isle of Man. Pete is a fisherman, but Philip, who wants to become a judge like his father and his father’s father, may have more to lose by the liaison than his friend does.
Anny Ondra is fantastic here: mesmerising and sensual. One moment a flirtatious femme fatale; the next a confused young woman. It’s a wonderful rehearsal for the performance she gives in Hitchcock’s next film, Blackmail. She’s gorgeous too, but perhaps not as gorgeous as the stunning coastal scenery. The landscape towers over, and frames the lovers, as if to say they’re trapped by their destiny, and by the place they come from, both. It’s not really the Isle of Man, by the way, but Cornwall.
While this isn’t Hitchcock’s final silent film, it’s worth taking a moment to enjoy, and appreciate his virtuoso work here. The Manxman remains a testament to Hitchcock’s achievements in silent film-making, and it’s no wonder that decades later he would still refer disdainfully to “photographs of people talking”.
In a small Isle of Man fishing community, two men, friends since childhood, find themselves in love with the same woman. Rejected by the girl’s father, Pete leaves to find his fortune in Africa, and Philip sees his chance with Kate. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: Sometimes good news feels like bad news, especially when there’s a dark blot on the horizon.
Watch out for: Windows. And how much they can hide.